Since Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984, it has grown from a troupe of street performers in Montreal to a billion-dollar entertainment business with more than 5,000 employees from more than 40 different countries.
Today, the company has more than 20 different shows in its repertoire. One of those shows, Quidam, tells the story of a young girl, Zoe, who goes in search of the meaning of life in the midst of high-flying acrobatics, colorful costumes and makeup, mind-boggling jump-rope acts, and live music.
Performer Mark Ward, who has been with Cirque du Soleil since 1993, and Fabrice Lemire, the artistic director for Quidam, join NPR's Brian Naylor to talk about how Cirque du Soleil reinvented the circus
On joining Cirque du Soleil
Ward: "I was still dancing classical ballet ... in 1993, and I received a call from the choreographer at the time, looking for an acrobatic person with dance capabilities as well ... And I had no idea what Cirque du Soleil was. And of course when I was hired, I went there and saw all the people from around the world, and I was just blown away.
"... I did my flying through the air. I still fly through the air. I was an acrobat, contortionist, ball walker, Japanese Taiko drums player for five years, a competitive gymnast and dancer before that. So I'm pretty much enjoying it all ... The great thing about Cirque du Soleil [is] if you're willing to learn something, they will teach you that. That's what happened with me. I came as a dancer and acrobat, but I learned the other skills because they taught me."
On ensuring the safety of the performers, who work mostly without nets
Lemire: "The performers are highly trained. They're highly qualified for what they do ... So what we do is that during the training session ... there [are experts on all levels] to supervise the process, and everything is really, really taken under the microscope. So when you see a final product on stage it's because everything has been ... processed. So we will not take risks.
"And these performers also don't have a chance for a mistake ... It's very important for me as an artistic director to be present and to talk with them. If I feel there is a doubt, if I feel there is maybe just a bad day with performers, I will not put a performer at risk and put him on stage.
"There [are] many shows. There [are] many nights with Quidam, and we do not see accidents. There will be injuries, like any other sport in the high level, but what we do is we make sure that the supervision is there at all [times], and we will not take a risk when there is one."
On how they find the acts for Cirque du Soleil shows
Lemire: "Some people create something and they present it to the company. We have a casting division back in Montreal, and you can offer your expertise. You come in with an ... idea, and you present it, and sometimes it's really well polished and all together. Or some of the time it's actually somebody within the company will come up with an idea and is looking for people willing to try. And you do a workshop. You do some kind of exploration together. And you come up with a product."
On the live music at Cirque shows
Ward: "All the shows are live, and the music is done specifically for that act. But, of course, things can happen, so ... we have a band leader for every single show. And ... these are professional musicians, and they're able to improvise and be ready to change on a dime ... And that's what makes it work, because everyone is so in tune and ready for anything to happen to make the show work."