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BEHIND THE SCENES: The Mystery Behind Mystere

Hard work, talent and pride are key factors to show’s huge success

by Gwen Abbott


What sprouted from humble beginnings in 1984 as a street performance in a tiny Quebec town made a robust evolution into the world-class phenomenon called Cirque Du Soleil. The original cast was comprised of a band of colorful characters, dressed in wild, outrageous costumes, roaming the streets—striding on stilts, juggling, dancing, breathing fire and playing music—all much to the delight of the small community.

But in the space of only nine years, Mystere (French for mystery), as the act was called, was credited with changing the face of Las Vegas entertainment—becoming the first Cirque Du Soleil production to make this city its permanent home at Treasure Island. As rich and dramatic as the production itself, we find tremendous artistry and detail taking place behind the scenes.

Examination of the happenings backstage at one of Las Vegas’ most popular shows reveals some surprising and essential elements. Among them, you’ll discover that each performer has three heads—and find out why a popular soft drink is intentionally spilled onto the stage every night before the show.

All seats are vacant on the afternoon I enter the dimly lit Mystere Theater. The only activity comes from hushed voices and the pitter patter of little feet landing gracefully from their leaps and bounds onto the stage. At the moment, a rehearsal is taking place with the new “Pink Guy” (Marek Haczkiewicz) and artistic coordinator James Hadley as they perfect a new routine. I am led backstage by Mystere’s Karin Tomcik through a maze of props and dressing areas and can only imagine the hustle and bustle this area sees on a busy show night—a cast of 75 performers all rushing about, on and offstage, each having three to four costume changes in one 90-minute show.

The largest crew behind the production is the wardrobe team with 23 employees. As head of wardrobe, Tamara Summers oversees the entire department—a tall order with an inventory of over 5,000 active costumes. Each day, her team inspects every garment, shoe and headpiece—seams, buttons, snaps and fabric are all carefully scrutinized for flaws, even slight changes in color.

Summers pulls the Red Bird costume from a rack. “In order to get the color exactly right for 13 or 14 years, all of the costumes have to be hand painted and dyed. You can’t just buy this yardage. What was popular in 1992 is not in 2007 and fabric from 15 years ago would be rotten by now. Colors change year by year and with the seasons. You can’t just say, ‘I want this certain color red.’ The only way to maintain the look is to hand paint and dye.”

Costumes last an average of three to four months, even when two or three of them are worn in rotation. With such active performers, wear and tear takes its toll. The tricks—whether Chinese poles, teeter board or trampoline—are wear-determining factors. “What we have to do to get these clean is really hard on the fabric—there are also cases where the costume may hold up, but the vibrancy of the color is gone.”

Change is constant—though some resist it. “Damaged or worn articles are continually being swapped out and replaced with new ones, says Summers. “Each artist has at least two show-ready costumes.” But we all have our favorites, don’t we? “Even though it’s time,” Summers continues, “it can be hard for a performer to relinquish their favorite head or costume. It can be tough sometimes, because they become attached —like those old and comfy pair of pajamas. Sometimes we have to beg them to turn in an old or worn garment because it’s a form of security for them.”

Some welcome a costume change and some don’t. “It has happened that a performer has felt such a strong sense of assurance with a particular costume that they resisted even having it laundered.” When our own knuckles turn white, gripping our seats, watching them drop from trapezes high above our heads with nothing but an elastic to prevent a cruel landing, who wants to argue about security?

Sure, we snarl about the volume of our own household laundry but consider doing 40 loads a day, with five washing machines running from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Here, conventional driers are rarely used (tumbling actions are reserved for the stage). To preserve the fabric, washed garments are hung and dried in front of fans.

For Mystere though, another kind of fan abounds, spanning the globe. The jaw-dropping acts, and the sheer magnificence of the aerial maneuvers have attracted some 50 million people to Cirque shows. Mystere’s cast of unique and original characters are made even more intriguing by their creative wardrobes. The process is actually a coordinated effort between Las Vegas and Montreal. Cast members go to Canada for their training and formation. Determination of which show they’ll work in is based upon the special skills of the individual. Once decided, the artist is measured from head to toe for their costumes.

Now we get into the really heady stuff—as part of the measuring process, each performer will have two head casts made to their precise facial and cranial contours. (Personally, I think having a back-up head would prove useful on occasion, even if it is made of plaster).

The plaster heads are given an item number and one remains in Montreal and the other goes with the performer so it can be used for future fittings. The purpose of the plaster heads is to save time for cast members so they don’t have to sit for hours while each headpiece is perfected. The headpiece fitting is the job of Jennifer Mathias, who explains her role within the wardrobe department.

“I take measurements and trim the headpiece {made of latex or lycra} so that it fits. I also assure that the skin pigment matches that of the performer. I then cut away for the ears and chin, taking into account the movements of the artists. It must be comfortable for them. Once initial cuts are made, I’ll use their plaster head to tweak it.” It is also up to Mathias to organize the final fittings. “I’ll call the performer in just to recheck everything, which takes about five minutes.”

I had to ask. “Do the performers get to keep them or do they lose their heads when they leave?” Summers tells me, “The company has allowed talent to keep their plaster heads but it’s not automatic—it has to be granted—it’s a very special thing when you get to keep your head. They are not just given out.”

The same holds true with costumes, if a person leaves the show or outgrows a garment, although it’s been fitted just for them, the costume is retired. They are not just offered to the performers.

Every costume, made of mostly spandex and lycra, has a status and a number. All costumes are logged into a computer system with their status—either they’re active, fitted or received. “Active” means a costume has come in from Montreal. “Fitted” means it’s ready to go into the show and “received” means it is on property and waiting to be fitted. Summers talks more about this system of organization: “If I get a costume that doesn’t fit, I inform Montreal, giving them the item number, such as MY52086 and tell them these are my problems with it. We have a system where we can offer notes to Montreal regarding changes.”

Summers buys the costumes from Montreal. “Once they arrive here,” she says, “I have to be sure everything fits because there are times when artist’s bodies will change. One example is a person who may go through formation where he was trained on teeter boards. Yet, once he came here, he changed to doing the high bar. In this case, a body’s measurements can change because the teeter board works mainly leg muscles and the high bar works the upper body.”

Other cases of body changes come with age. “Depending on how long an individual has been here, if they started with us at age 17 and now they’re 25, most likely, their bodies will be different in some way.”

Things in wardrobe are constantly changing and being altered to assure that all of the costumes fit well. “It’s all about the artists being able to move freely and comfortably,” Summers says.

Speaking of being on the move, two Mystere performers recently flew to Chicago to tape an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. The Lorador Brothers captured the attention of the talk show host who invited Marco and Paulo Lorador to perform their hand-to-hand balancing act for her special upcoming show, “How Do They Do that?” Originally from Portugal, the Loradors come from a long line of circus performers. (The cast and employees associated with the Cirque shows represent 40 nationalities and speak 25 different languages).

After my visit with the wardrobe staff, I walk back toward the stage with Tomcik and remark on the stage flooring. It’s bright, colorful and very springy. I am curious, “What is this made of?” I was about to learn some very useful household tips on floor care. “It’s three-quarters of an inch of foam, (called Teraflex) and an eighth inch of vinyl,” she says. “Over the years, there is probably an accumulation of about a half inch of paint.” Just then, one of the maintenance crew was passing by so I asked him how they take care of the stage floor. He said that each morning, they clean the floors with alcohol and water to remove the goo from the poles (performer’s stilts) which is all over the entire stage from the night before. The floor has got to be fully washed this way every day or people will stick to it. But if you want people to stay put, use this tip to help you keep kids or puppies stuck to one spot so you can keep an eye on them.

Or if you just need to get a grip, this tip is for you. Each night, right before the show, the stage floor is mopped with a can of Coca Cola mixed in with a bucket of water so that the stage floor will be tacky, which prevents slipping. Simple, but effective.

Before I slipped out the door, I wanted to make one final stop. Although Mystere is not a heavily prop-oriented show, I found the drums particularly remarkable and there is much history to these instruments. I visited with John Rohling, the man responsible for all the items the artists carry in their hands–the stage balls, drums, bottles etc.—just about anything that goes on stage that isn’t human. Rohling checks over each prop daily to assure they are all clean and in good order.

He explains, “We don’t have as many props as other shows but the ones we have are very important.” The drums come from a family in Japan, called the Asanos. The family-owned business was started in 1611. “We’ve had 20th generation Asano family members come here to re-skin our drums,” Rohling says. “The instruments are made from layers within the same tree.” Each layer (much like an onion) is hollowed out and then they take the next layer to make another drum. They are basically made of cow hide and trees but are extremely expensive, with a price tag of about $250,000 for the 19 in the show.

Reinventing circus as a high art, Mystere pioneered the way for all of the resident Cirque shows in Las Vegas, giving top-quality acts and the world’s best athletes and artists a showcase in one of the greatest cities on earth for entertainment. The company’s widespread and colossal success can be attributed to a combination of extreme talent, dedication and excellence. Mystere is a grand performance by those onstage and—of course—those behind the scenes.


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