LIFE

Acrobatic Olympians spring into new career, with Cirque du Soleil

Lee Brearley, who competed at the 2000 Olympic Games for Britain as a gymnast, performs on a trampoline during the Cirque du Soleil musical ‘Paramour,’ at the Lyric Theatre in New York May 18, 2016. At the moment, 21 Olympians — two of them medallists — perform in eight US-based Cirque du Soleil shows. — Picture by Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesLee Brearley, who competed at the 2000 Olympic Games for Britain as a gymnast, performs on a trampoline during the Cirque du Soleil musical ‘Paramour,’ at the Lyric Theatre in New York May 18, 2016. At the moment, 21 Olympians — two of them medallists — perform in eight US-based Cirque du Soleil shows. — Picture by Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesNEW YORK, Aug 22 — After competing in trampoline at the 2000 Olympics, Lee Brearley of Britain went on to performing double flips on stage in a zoot suit, and tumbles in full zombie attire. He staggered around like a drunk in one scene and sported a sarong in the next.

“First time on Broadway, and I wear a skirt,” he said of his costume for the Cleopatra scene in Paramour, the Cirque du Soleil musical.

By the time the Rio Olympics were concluding yesterday, many athletes had gone home to begin or resume other careers. Maya DiRado, a US swimmer who won four medals, has said a business analyst job awaits her. Michelle Carter of the United States, who won the shot put, owns an online cosmetics business. The Canadian distance runner Lanni Marchant is a criminal defence lawyer.

A number of Olympic gymnasts fall into a different, hair-raising pipeline, filling roles in the ever-expanding universe of Cirque du Soleil.

In all, about 40 per cent of Cirque’s performers come from artistic, rhythmic and acrobatic gymnastics, as well as trampoline, tumbling, diving and synchronised swimming.

At the moment, 21 Olympians — two of them medalists — perform in eight US-based Cirque du Soleil shows. Jeffrey Wammes, a gymnast from the Netherlands who ended his career in Rio, is about to make it 22.

His next routine will be in Las Vegas as a cast member of Mystère.

“For me, it’s a way of life, keeping your body in shape,” Wammes said. “You still have to show people your best, but not in a competitive way anymore. It’s like living your dream job while entertaining others.”

For Cirque, recruiting high-calibre athletes is “almost a no-brainer,” said the company’s creative director, Fabrice Becker, who won an Olympic gold medal in freestyle skiing for France at the 1992 Winter Olympics. Cirque, for instance, conducted a workshop with the Canadian national half-pipe team this year. Snowboarders trained on the Russian swing, that circus staple, which can send performers 30 feet in the air.

Still, the transition from serious competitor to performer can be challenging. As if it were not hard enough to nail a somersault on a trampoline, try doing it while in character — perhaps as a cricket, with six legs.

To prepare for a role in such a costume in Ovo, in which most of the characters are bugs, Brearley did what any self-respecting actor would do: He consulted YouTube.

“I saw this video, ‘crickets fighting,’ ” he said. “I thought it would be the most amazing video, but it was the most boring video I’ve ever seen. They kind of crawled over each other, and it took all of five minutes. But it taught me something.

“Insects sit there until it’s time to frighten the hell out of you,” he continued. Actors, on the other hand, think “doing nothing is wrong, so they tend to do too much.”

Brearley is the only Olympian in Paramour, from a cast that includes 10 former members of national gymnastics or acrobatics teams. The set, which weighs more than 18 tons, is a cityscape of roofs, fire escapes and scaffolding. Hidden from view are two trampolines.

In the show’s climatic moment, paparazzi and Dick Tracy-esque characters stage an elaborate chase-and-fight scene on rooftops. Bodies crisscross in midair like human juggling pins, nearly colliding. Fourteen acrobats and actors share the mayhem before the focus narrows on Brearley for his solo.

It is a routine full of doubles, pikes, twists and planks. He does five, maybe six low somersaults in one spot in rapid fire. All that is visible is the blur of a circle, a cartoonlike cloud of Road Runner dust.

Brearley’s solo is short, but he is motivated by the same dread that drove him as an Olympian — the fear of failure.

“I don’t want to fail,” he said. “I want people to see a good trampoline performance.”

At the end of that madcap somersault bit, he dizzily stumbles through a door and exits the stage.

Applause follows, and that, too, feels exactly the same. — The New York Times

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