It's not just skittles they have to juggle

'We are dealing with life and death, so they have to stay focused; if you keep doing the same thing over and over it becomes robotic'

Dubai - March 11, 2009 - Denys Tolstov practices his hand balancing act during rehearsal before a performance of Alegria in Dubai March 11, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/ The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JT006-0311-CIRQUE 7F8Q0395.jpg
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DUBAI // The stage lights are off, the costumes are hanging in the wardrobe and the greasepaint is still in its boxes, but backstage at the Cirque du Soleil in the late afternoon the working day is just about to get going.

Three hours before the start of the show, the atmosphere in the performer's practice area is one of quiet, relaxed preparation. A man quietly juggles in the corner; another casually walks on his hands along the side of the room. A team of acrobats start to practice, two men balancing each end of a three-metre, 15cm-wide fibreglass beam on their shoulders while a third leaps high in to the air, backflips and lands precisely in the centre of it. Other gymnasts sit watching a video of the previous night's performance, noting things that they did well or need to improve.

"Each act has a training session two or three times a week, and before each show or training session we do a half-hour warm-up, so it can be hard work - you have to build up your energy levels each time," said Stephanie Vanbuynder, a 24-year-old from Belgium. She performs in the "powertrack" act, a fast-moving display of tumbling on trampolines that are set into the floor of the stage. "The working hours are different to most jobs; the show doesn't finish until 11.30pm or so and, by the time you have got home, had a shower and relaxed a bit it can be quite late.

"In the mornings, though, we are free to do what we want - somewhere like Dubai where it is warm and sunny, people tend to sit by the pool, go to the beach or go shopping. "We start to arrive sometime after 5pm to start getting ready, but it is up to each performer; some people start their warm-up later than others, depending when their act is in the show." The Cirque du Soleil show, Alegria, opened at the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai last week, and will stay in the city until April 5.

Performers, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties, put on their own make-up and costumes, and have a lot of autonomy in their preparation for a show. "These people are highly trained athletes, and to reach that level you need a great deal of self-discipline," said Brooke Webb, the artistic director of Alegria, who runs the show from day to day. "I come from a background in theatre and on Broadway, and the circus is a very different monster.

"We are taking gymnasts and athletes and adding an artistic element to what they do; in sports they are trained to zone out the audience and focus entirely on what they are doing, and in the circus we are asking them to do the opposite, to take account of the audience reaction in their performances." She said elements of the show were often changed to keep it fresh and to help keep the performers engaged.

"We are dealing with life and death, so they have to stay focused. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, it becomes robotic, and that's when mistakes could happen. "We also change things depending on the culture of the city we are in. If there is a part the audience are supposed to find funny and they are not laughing, or if there is something they particularly like, we'll make alterations accordingly."

The circus is kept functioning by a small army of support staff, including technicians, physiotherapists, and wardrobe specialists. "We travel with everything we need to make repairs, and get resupplied every time the show moves city from the Cirque du Soleil home in Montreal," said Mariko de Montalte, who has worked in the Alegria wardrobe department for five years. "In Brazil there was a customs strike for several months, so we couldn't get anything in or out and had to get our local contacts to try to source us material, but that was a very rare thing to happen."

Ms de Montalte said that, with a young cast travelling the world together, the circus had inevitably seen its share of romance and heartbreak. "It is like any village of 150 people, there are families and couples and single people," she said. "Two of the gymnastic coaches met and fell in love while working on Alegria, and their son now plays a character in the show, so we have generations growing up on the road. A lot of people have been with Alegria for years, and it is their home and their life."

She said there was always a clear separation between the personal and professional sides of circus life, however. "The kitchen and outside areas are social places where we laugh and cry together, fall in and out of love, but the tent is the professional area, where people are preparing themselves physically and mentally for work."