A performer from Varekai
(© Rick Diamond)
A performer from Varekai
(© Rick Diamond)
It seems that no matter where you are in the world, one of Cirque du Soleil's spectacular extravaganzas is playing right now. For example, there's Varekai touring in Australia; Kooza, which opens in Toronto this week; Corteo, which returns to Los Angeles on August 23; La Nouba, which is permanently ensconced at Disney World in Orlando; and the five Cirque shows -- O, Ka, LOVE, Zumanity, and Mystere -- entertaining thousands upon thousands of visitors nightly in Las Vegas. New York City is currently Cirqueless -- but only for a little while longer; the company's newest show, Wintuk, debuts at New York City's Madison Square Garden in November.

What the company's 15 shows all have in common, besides their breathtaking acts of daring-do, is Cirque's International Headquarters (IHQ) building in the decidedly unglamorous Saint Michel section of Montreal, Canada, an area once home to a former quarry and waste disposal center. The company, which was originally based in Quebec City, selected the location in order to help the depressed area's revitalization and to give something back to the Montreal community. Every show is created at the IHQ, which was first constructed in 1997 and later expanded in 2001 and then again earlier this year. Neither the complex's grandiosity nor the company's popularity could ever have been envisioned when it first put up a modest street circus in Quebec way back in 1984. (The headquarters' street address, 8400 Second Avenue, was specifically chosen to honor the year of creation.)

This multi-floor complex, where approximately 1,700 employees come to work each day, features a ton of amenities and special features, including multiple cafeterias with a variety of international foods on tap, a trophy case to display the dozens of awards bestowed upon the company, a beautifully-landscaped outdoor area where vegetables are grown and films are sometimes screened, and even a gift shop open to employees and visitors. There are also dormitories right across the street to house the artists who are training to be part of the company's acrobatics extravaganzas; and the complex also houses the company's own water filtration system. It's truly a small world unto itself.

Wandering the complex, one constantly passes extremely athletic-looking men and women, which is no surprise since every artist who is hired by Cirque -- including potential hires -- must come to the complex for training, sometimes for as long as two months. General training, which consists of gymnastic and acrobatic classes, is held in an enormous room with the dimensions of a big top, including ceilings that are nearly 75-feet high, perfect for trapeze work.

At the same time, performers who are going into both new and existing shows can be found throughout the headquarters learning their specific acts, going over the smallest move over and over again. These talented men and women can often be found in the complex's other practice studios, including one that contains a pit filled with 25,000 Styrofoam cubes instead of a net.

Performer training isn't limited to back-flips and high jumps. Since all Cirque performers put on their own makeup on the road, they must learn how to create the elaborately painted-on faces that are a signature aspect of the company. Books with each look, complete with step-by-step instructions, are kept at the complex (and copies of those instructions go on the road as well). By the end of training, a two-hour process has often been reduced to a mere 30 or 45 minutes.

Wigs being made inside the IHQ's atelier
(© William Entwistle)
Wigs being made inside the IHQ's atelier
(© William Entwistle)
As exciting as it may be to watch the limber and nimble performers training in the studios, it's equally thrilling to see all of the show' sets and costumes being designed in the "ateliers" located in the 2001-section of the building. Clothes, shoes, hats, boas - more than 20,000 costume pieces -- will be created this year alone by a team of over 300 employees, each of whom has their own area of expertise. Hand-beading is a particularly valuable skill, since the Bungee costumes in Mystere each have over 2,000 sequins; so is knowing how to work with recycled paper or rust-proof metal bands. Fabrics, for both costumes and sets, are hand-dyed and treated on the premises by an expert group of textile designers.

An even more peculiar rite of passage for the company's performers is having a mold made of one's head to facilitate the making of wigs, hats, and hairpieces. While it takes 40 minutes to make a mold, it can take up to three weeks to make just one wig. A display of molds from performers throughout the years is exhibited on one of the upstairs floors of the complex, and it's simultaneously fascinating and creepy.

Anyone who wants to learn about how to organize their home closet would be wise to stop into the ateliers, where every costume, set, and prop for the company's shows are properly stored and labeled -- a task that's vital since they will need to be refurbished or recreated periodically.

In short, you can find everything under the sun in one building -- and Cirque du Soleil practically anywhere you visit.