The top of the Cirque du Soleil tent, stretching across one of the parking lots next to the Tyson’s II mall, peaks over the collection of roadways as I drive into the neighborhood. The tent itself is a massive spectacle, looming among the collection of hotels and buildings.
Touring Cirque du Soleil’s Volta is a massive enterprise with hundreds of performers, staff and volunteers. I am there just days before the first performance and there is a constant coming and going as people set up for their months-long stay in Tysons, VA. The grounds are bustling with movement and energy.
Inside the rehearsal tent that energy is multiplied. People are exercising, stretching, warming up not just on the ground, but up in the air. Trapeze rings and trampolines are actively in use as acrobats warm up with running front flips, forward dives and aerial twists.
Within this bustling environment, DCTS interviewed two of the BMX performers, AJ Amaya and Joel Bondu. BMX is the art of performing acrobatics, tricks and stunts on specially-modified bicycles. Where the skill set is recognized for its “extreme sports” competitive history, Cirque du Soleil has embraced the athletes and the discipline as an art form.
Every Cirque du Soleil performer is responsible for applying their own makeup design. How challenging was that?
AJ: Coming from a background where I’ve never done any sort of makeup or drawing or any sort of skills like that. It was quite intense learning that experience.
This was at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters. All of us BMX riders, when we first started, were in a big classroom. They do this step-by-step process with each person. How to hold the brush, how much to stroke. It was a group effort. We all weren’t very good when we got started. First, when we had classes, each one was two hours long, and I couldn’t finish it. And we had them almost every day. Through time I got a little better with stuff.
We have two layers of make-up. We have the creams, and then, after that, the powders so it doesn’t sweat off. Then we do all the dry stuff. The eyebrows are so rough to get correct. I still, all the time, deal with it. Some days are good. Some days are bad.
I’ve done a lot of tv shows, and stuff like that, America’s Got Talent, and I’ve always snuck under the radar [of the makeup department]. I’ve always talked them out of it. I was quite terrified. The fact that I was able to learn it is quite a cool thing.
Aside from make-up, did they provide any other kind of training to be part of performing?
AJ: They gave us make-up classes, dance classes, acting. Dude, it was rough. Acting was the funnest. The dancing was so brutal.
Joel: Because we’re always doing a show, we don’t learn as many tricks as we do during a contest season. The tricks are a bit different. The competitive tricks are a bit different. We try to go a little bit higher than we used to.
We try to follow the choreography. Since the show started, the show is completely different. The level of the tricks are crazy different. When I saw the show the first time I was already impressed with the tricks. After I got to be in the show, the level of the tricks were above my expectations. The level of riding is very high.
How long was the pre-tour rehearsal process?
AJ: We did it during the day. They called it Creation, that was six months. I think something a lot of people don’t know about Cirque du Soleil is that every single thing that happens on the stage is detailed to where somebody setting up a lamppost is practiced fifty times for three hours to do it exactly at the right time with the music, to move correctly with the people.
Working around different acts and physical performances, has your workout regimen changed?
AJ: For sure, I’m more aware of my body. I try to be a lot more flexible than before, and definitely take care of my body a lot more than I did to compete. I try out different disciplines that I see with the other folks for fun, jumping through hoops, swinging on the rings, things like that.
When I competed, my back would get really sore, and I’d have no idea how to loosen that up, and then I learned, here, that it’s actually my legs that are overworked. If I stretch more and worked them out it helps my back. It’s been a few years since I’ve had that issue.
Joel: I feel better, I take more care of myself than I used to. Stretching. I’m eating better food. Eight to ten shows a week is different than just going to the skate park with your friend and doing a normal session.
What’s your favorite trick?
AJ: At the beginning of the performance I do what’s called a flair: a flip with a twist over someone. It’s like “Wake up, we’re in this. Here we go!”
I have to not only stay on the ramp, ‘cause it’s not that wide. I have to be pretty precise and go high enough so I don’t hit him, and stop quite quickly before I go into the audience.
Joel: When I do a big backflip. Normally it’s a straight jump in normal shows. This stage is made to ride it every way. Some tricks are more impressive in this set up. The hardest part is getting used to doing it the same way every night.
Joel: When you’re doing contests, you’re always one person. On the stage, it’s really tight, you’re riding with two or three people on the same ramp, so it’s hard to get used to it.
What kind of modifications to the bikes were necessary for Volta?
AJ: I’ve actually adjusted my bike quite a bit. The way the stage is set up, it’s really, really small compared to what we’re used to in a competition or a course, and it’s really tight. Our ramps are glass and see-through, and they flex a lot. I raised my handlebars, making sure my brakes are really smooth.
It is my custom bike fully. It is made for my size and geometry. I order everything from the tubes to the tires.
Are you responsible for your own maintenance?
AJ: Yes. They asked if we wanted a mechanic. Our whole career we’ve always worked on our bikes. We would really like for us to be able to work on our own bikes and know that everything was made safe to our adjustments.
We each have two bikes. We each have a spare bike to continue the act.
Aside from your act, what’s your favorite act in Volta?
AJ: I like quite a few of them. There’s this one, called the Acro-lamp. The guy [Joey Arrigo as Waz] is just so strong and makes it look so easy. And you can tell he’s put so many years of training. It’s hard for me to believe he can be in the air for such a long time and do all these maneuvers. It’s such a beautiful choreography as well.
What is it like working with the Cirque community?
AJ: All of us respect each other’s crafts. I personally am a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil: to see someone do something that they love and they’re good at is a really cool thing to experience that. We get to experience that every day. Everyone is super accepting and open to teach you their skill.
What does the average day look like for you and the performers?
AJ: Each act is different. Some artists have artistic calls at 6:30pm for a 8 pm show. Some artists come at noon, stretch, ice. Everyone has a different routine. You’re more than welcome to show up whenever you need to or want to. To prepare yourself for the show.
Like, our rope-skipping guys, they come many, many hours ahead. By the time we clock in they have all their make-up done. They’re already warming up. They’re quite disciplined.
I always try to show up a little earlier. Do a workout, where it’s actually weights or cardio. Take my time to have dinner and then do the make up to start the show. We warm up during the show for our act.
How does Cirque take care of you?
Joel: They have [physical and massage therapists]. They help us with how to train and how to do it every night. Everything from eating to training.
What are people’s reactions when they find out you work for Cirque?
Joel: People get surprised. “Oh! What are you doing for them?” It’s really fun.
With all the travel, do you ever miss home?
Joel: I think my family is happy for me, with what I’m doing. At some point, on tour, you feel like you’re at home. You get used to it very fast. Volta is a big family.