Lurque du Soleil ;

There I was, lounging in my woodland lair, juxtaposing rancid mind ulcers and bitter corrosive mindsets while providing male-role-modelship to a 6 and 15 year old as well as support and hardship in relatively equal measure to my partner, who is much like a pillar of chocolate stuck into a lump of ice-cream, in that she’s used to being surrounded by mental dysfunction and survives and compliments it without being directly affected by its flavor.

Professionally briefly resting at home as I’m being far flung fairly regularly this season, to various states of America, Canada, Germany and Japan to allow people respite from the contemplation of their own futile existences by the production of an instinctive and involuntary braying commonly known as laughter.

When I got this e-mail;

Bonjour Martin Ewen; We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to take part in our next acting audition in New York. When: September 16th & 17th, 2003 PLEASE TAKE NOTE THAT, ONLY THE CANDIDATES SELECTED ON SEPTEMBER 16th WILL BE INVITED THE DAY AFTER, SEPTEMBER 17th, TO CONTINUE MORE THOROUGHLY THE AUDITION.

At Cirque du Soleil, we are in direct contact with the public; like traveling performers, actors invent characters and magically transform themselves in order to hold the audience spellbound. Non-verbal performance underscores the fact that the body is always telling a story. Presentation of your three-minute act. Please prepare a three-minute act, including make-up and costumes if necessary. You may use small props; however, masks, fire, water or any other messy substances are prohibited. This three-minute segment should not require much preparation time. If you wish to use a soundtrack on CD or cassette, you can but, please, in the case of a cassette, make sure it is already cued to the right place. During these three minutes, dazzle us! Surprise us! Show us who you are!! The presentation of the 3-minute prepared acts will be followed by group and individual exercises. The selection process will go on both days. Regards etc etc.

I succumbed to a mental flurry, trains entered tunnels, watermelons exploded, a small potbellied child looked up from the parched earth holding an empty chipped wooden bowl.

“I’ll be fucked.” I thought.

I immediately began my research


Founded: June 1984 Number of employees: 2,500 Number of artists: More than 500 Average age of employees: 34 Number of nationalities: More than 40 Languages spoken: More than 25 Number of shows currently running: 9 Number of cities visited since 1984: Over 240 engagements in 90 cities International Headquarters in Montreal with over 1,000 employees Number of spectators since 1984: More than 37 million Number of spectators expected in 2003: More than 7 million Number of spectators per weekend in 2003: Close to 60,000 Cirque du Soleil's productions since 1984:

A little research also revealed a robust tendency to expand productions and a profit last year of a little over 50 million.

I know Lee Ross was a principle in one of their first tours and have chatted with him about his experiences and know the Stretch people both worked all last year for them in Belgium and were happy with what they had negotiated.

Mutual respect, work you hard, pay you well was the impression I was left with.

I also found out that the whole Cirque mega-mega had grown from a group of Montreal stiltwalkers with time on their hands.

Now as you know I’m a stiltwalker and in all honesty I’m probably better at it than most of them.

But that’s all I’m good at as unlike them I’m not a stiltwalker with a grand vision that has cemented a distillation of circus, street and visual cabaret into a hybrid form of circus that has successfully branded itself into the modern worlds consciousness. (By modern world in this particular case I mean the world that has $50 disposable or more a day to spend or that could imagine that possibility and not the modern world where 3 billion people live on under $2 a day)

I am merely a clown who has used stilts as a means to distance himself from people and as a distraction when presented to people and their hideous expectations regarding entertainment.

That I have been successful for over 25 years peddling my brand of comic dissatisfaction is simply a cunningly designed consequence of my audiences innate insecurity and their recognition of a furious discontent and subterranean disappointment that only a clown like myself can safely display in public.

That’s the theory anyway.


So I replied and said ‘Sure I’ll be there’ I had so many questions....

How many people will be there?

Is this a select thing or a cattle call?

Are you looking to fill specific vacancies or are you working towards the ultimate database that in itself is a substantial commodity?

How much heart remains inside your enormous lumbering and artful enterprise and is it true that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

Probably most importantly, can I trust you?

No really, if I had to get all vulnerable and out on a limb and committed and self-sacrificing, can I trust you?

I’m little and your big, do you retain any memories of being little?

Can you identify with my fear?

Will ‘The greater good’ philosophy that all self-sustaining groups fuel their existence on grind me into a malleable disposable paste?

I kept my questions to myself; I tucked them into my frayed mind satchel and filed them under ‘Brood at your leisure.’ (A very large file and my only superannuation plan to date.)

So 3 minutes...mmmm

I burnt a cd with an intro piece from Oka (aussie street musos) for a bit of new age authenticity then cut into hardcore R+R then cut to a vocal Jazz piece. 2mins 56 sec.Then out to the driveway to stitch up some structure.

After a couple of hours I was tired and sugar deficient and unimpressed. (Did I mention that its now the day before the audition)

I changed plans. I figured that as always, I’d wing it and that I had enough material to cut and paste to whatever the situation offered and I’d just use the music as a loose structure.

‘Yeah that sounds right’ I thought as I took off my stilts knowing that the next time I put them on I’d be there .

So I caught a train to go across to NY. The train broke down, I waited an hour and then a bus picked me up and dropped me down the track where I waited for another hour. The next train picked me up and then was halted by some station down the line that had been closed by the police for a further 45 mins.

At this stage it’s nearly midnight and I should have completed a 2-hour commute at 8-30 and I’m thinking. I’m going to head straight home, this is pointless, I miss my comfort zone, I’m speeding down life’s highway in a hopeful vehicle that doesn’t belong to me and I’m sure to be pulled over and fined by the disappointment police.

“I’m sorry sir but is that a larger than life aspiration you have tucked under your seat there? And by the look of your plates you’re a long way from loserville, you’re nicked son.”

But then this sort of despondency's where I get my best material, my mood lifted.

After all. In days of yore, I’d walked 16 subway stops at dawn in the drizzle with all my luggage to save my last $5 so I could buy a sandwidge with it as I huddled in a doorway at the Pompidou center in Paris to wait out the rain to earn enough to eventually book into a 4 star, dine on fine food and all I could drink by days end.

Where was I? Went cross-town to Brooklyn and stayed with friends overnight.

Next morning made my way to the Mark Morris Dance Center on Lafayette and got myself buzzed in and up to the 5th floor (an hour early at 9).

It’s a contemporary 5-story building that simply states, “We are a successful multi-storied, multi-studioed New York modern dance creative phenomenon and if that makes you feel foreign you probably are.”

Feeling suitably small town antipodean I got into the lift. (A remarkable metal box that transports people between floors of a building so that they do not have to tire themselves using stairs) and waited with the handful of prospective auditionees who had already gathered.

I got out my book ‘Porn’ by Irvine Welsh and sat down on my chain-saw-case with its protruding fly swat and killed an hour as the rest of us trickled in.

Peripherally I couldn’t help taking stock of the atmosphere, which was casual but tense, wary yet, curious, introvertedly competitive but over-layered with just a touch of Stockholm syndrome. The unifying aspect was the simple fact that everyone there was out of his or her depth.

This was a Cirque de Soleil audition, full of hidden subtexts, mysterious esoteric benchmarks, and cloaked criteria.

Strange French Canadian slash pan-cultural slash neo circus slash bleeding edge visual and cultural value systems were at work here and no sane individual goes to an audition without equal measures of ambition and vulnerability.

We were all there to be judged, we had all submitted ourselves to this process willingly only because surviving it looked to be in our best interests.

Much like a 3rd world virgin bride would prostrate herself willingly under a hairy sweating foreigner in the financial interests of her family and in the hope that one day she could grow to love him it was with us.

Or more simply some of us may have had superficially iron cast ego’s and a sense of adventure.

The registration period began; you gave your name and were given a number to pin on yourself (I was 100, which is a 1 which denotes substance followed by two zeros of which one negates the 1 and the other takes the prime value giving me the equivalent value of a void.)

Your file was found and your CV was checked, if it was not there you were asked to briefly make one up on the spot.

Mine was not there,

I had previously submitted one and my website also contains one but the reality of the situation was that with 10 minutes to go I had to sum up my professional live experience merely guessing at the attributes being sought.

I listed Teachers, Groups I’d worked for, Groups I’d taught, International arts festivals and countries I’d done street theatre.

I felt it wasn’t fair and that I was made to feel incompetent but quickly reminded myself that I am but a speck of dust in the Cirque cathedral and that my sense of persecution is, in most cases, a defensive form of self-flattery.

In the studio proper 50 prospective performers stretched, warmed up, renewed acquaintances and friendships, waited, spied on each other, feigned serenity, made strange vocal noises you learn at drama school, paced, loosened limbs and otherwise surfed their stress tsunami’s.

We were called into focus, we were thanked for giving of our time, we were told that cirque had very specific needs and that we as performers should not try and guess them but to just give of ourselves through this process.

We were asked who spoke French and those who raised their hands were told to keep well away from the table where the director and three other staff members sat, watched and muttered critical asides.

It was added that Cirque had evolved from the world of street theatre and that street performers colonized public places and worked with what they found there to sustain peoples attention and for us to use the space that we had been given to audition in with that in mind.

We were instructed that during our pieces we might be stopped and directed to follow some unrelated exercise and that this should not be seen as a criticism but should be looked at as an opportunity.

We were treated with respect and an effort was made to relax a large group of nervous and in some cases barely contained human/ golden retriever puppy half-breeds.

And I say that kindly, as people react to stress in different ways.

One guy was literally bouncing off the walls with excitement and that’s a useful energy. You could instruct someone like that to remove the snow from, say an Olympic stadium, turn your back to make a cup of coffee, turn back and it would be done.

We then went through a basic warm-up where we did some spatial exercises some mimicking movement work and pace was toyed with briefly.

Then we all sat down and got to watch 49 other people perform 3 minutes or so of audition.

I was excused to get ready, as I was the only person using apparatus (special!) So missed about 5 pieces, then re-entered and watched only 2 more before being selected.

Everything we did, individual and group, was videoed.

I did my piece, which I dedicated to the interpretation, from the perspective of a deaf person, of a jaded peacock accidentally stumbling into a nightclub staffed by vultures who are force feeding geese cruelly to sell to the French who are waiting with burlap sacks in the chill-out room, for their livers.

One fortunate effect of spending 20+ years in a laughably narrow field of expertise is that, at worst, you become self evidently above average.

So I pranced and pimpwalked, hither and thithered, wiggled and waggled, shimmied and spun.

With what is left of my personality I dredged animation from the turgid morass of my tortured bitter and confused, yet defensively whimsical soul.

People clapped and I went out to change.

After returning I got to watch the range of personalities.

Some people flaunted a singular whim; they selected one premise and performed it for three minutes. Once you got their premise you simply had to watch to see whether they could survive their time.

They seemed to be selling their flippant disregard for the laws of supply and demand.

Others, who I presumed considered themselves charmed and life a fantastic adventure that one day they would sell the film rights to, simply went out and did the first thing that came into their heads.

This included (but was not limited to) Pretending to pick up unknown objects before becoming engrossed in various body parts and rolling round on their backs grasping at their limbs then bellowing aggressively in the faces of individual audience members.

Others had set movement pieces of which some were tentative and relied on either a kind interpretation that subjectively lent depth or divine intervention.

While others were simply breathtaking, engrossing evocative disciplined expressions of fully formed and capable physical artists. (The majority were in between)

Sometimes movement and other pieces were interrupted by the director and the participant would be asked to parody a modern dance piece and given a theme.

There were some funny pieces that were set piece and some really good weird character work, both silent and vocal.

There was top shelf break dancing and a specialist Trick rope and whip performer. Ages ranged from maybe late teens early twenties to late 40s. A break was called and the first cut made. Names were read out and those people met with one of the staff at one end of the room.

The rest of us just stayed where we were and watched as the group formed and were spoken to. It was done sensitively and I presume that group were thanked for their time and told that they were not specifically what was being looked for this time round but that on many occasions people in the past had come back for the next audition and been perfect for what was being sought then.

Those of us left obviously felt some relief but the reality was that cuts were made continuously, sometimes an hour apart, and would continue over the next 2 days.

We looked at each other at that stage and it was still impossible to discern what the theme was.

The most talented remained (about 30 of us) but some real talent had as well already left the room.

We then went through two exercises, firstly you had to cross the room diagonally one after the other, as if being pulled by your nose. “Now we’re all being led by our noses,” I thought, ‘These guys are taking liberties with transparent metaphoric puns.’ Then we had to cross as if led by our hips. This was followed by a cut only this time the names of those to continue was read out and the numbers not called were generally thanked and made their own way out. We were down to about 20.

More exercises followed, it was the last half hour of the first day. After which there was another cut, numbers were called and those people would be called back for day 2. The head casting woman read out the numbers then paused... AND SHE HADN’T READ OUT MY NUMBER!

I had failed, I was unimpressive, and I had risked vulnerability and would have to live with the consequences of my foolhardy tatty deceiving hopeful deluded optimism. The only redeeming circumstance was that I was in New York and it shouldn’t be too hard to go out into the wrong part of town and be shot before sundown.

And then she said “And I’d like to speak to these people as well.” and read out my number along with two others.

I was convinced still that these extra people were being singled out so that she could advise them to perhaps try harder next time and that they were the closest almost-rans she’d ever had the pleasure of discarding.

But no..We were singled out because we were specialists and while the general cast would continue the next morning we were asked to rejoin them at 2pm for the final exercises with the eventual final cut and to be given an added opportunity to showcase any skills we had not included in our first 3 minutes.

The relief was tangible, however part of my personality disorder is that relief from fear or disappointment or depression only ever brings me up to a relieved neutral.

I seem to lack the capacity for corresponding highs to offset my lows.

I seem to be at my best when articulating dissatisfaction either written mime or vocal and am indeed a strange and perplexed individual.

I do admit to a certain joy in dancing.


Arrived at the casual hour of 2pm just as the last individual was being sympathetically and with due respect led from the group.

There were now 6 remaining with the additional 3 making 9.

I guessed correctly that this was the final selection. We sat and watched for an hour as those 6 had further exercises then a choreographer arrived and we all got put through our paces.

I was terrible, the worst, I have great body memory but initially learning choreography is all in the head.

It was simple really, 8 counts and 2 counts and run this way and do this then run that way and do that and then skip this way and do this with your arms then do that with your arms then reverse your skip and same again with the arms and then spin thus and reach and grasp and slow clench and crouch.

I’ve worked with dancers before and always admired their quicksilver ingestion of instruction and their ability to just get it down so quickly.

I lumber about internally screaming,

“Just give me a set of instructions and two hours by myself, oh god I’m so shit at this. “

I was so embarrassed that passing motorists were inexplicably blushing as they passed the building.

After we had done the piece in a group we had to do it in twos, I was left till last and rejoined by one of the woman who ‘d already done it because we were odd numbered.

I got completely lost twice and would have jumped out the 5th story window had there only been one in the room.

After this I was asked to get ready to do some stilt work. Again the relief was strangely hollow after such psychic disembowelment.

Still, I showed them how I could skip rope on stilts, how I could get down onto a folding chair and up again and various stilt dance vocab.

We then went through the last stage down now to 8 as one guy whose specialty was vocal was excused.

Our next task was to stare into a camera and change expressions as we were peppered with words.

We had to speak to camera and show our ability to stretch major ligaments.

We also had to state our names, where we were from, sing if we wanted to and describe why we wished to work for Cirque.

Some things I didn’t say were. “Because I want a Mini with all the extras.” “Because I’m tired of working in the rain.” “Because with my experience and your name on my resume I could go back to New Zealand and live off government arts grants for the rest of my life.”

What I did say I’m going to keep to myself but it was just as truthful.

We were then given a sheet of paper that read. “Congratulations! You have passed the first step! We are adding your name to our bank of possible candidates. This does not constitute an immediate commitment on our part. This means that you may be selected for a position in which your particular expertise is required.” Then followed instructions regarding passports and info updates and it finished with. “Be patient...and good luck!”

So that was it.

8 people were left out of 50.

8 people with pieces of paper and hopes and dreams intact.

Many who had not continued to the end were awesomely talented and all of the 50 were brave.

I had made it to the end and the strange sense of fulfillment, relief, exhaustion and pride; could almost be called happiness.