If you’ve ever fantasised about running away to join the circus: meet energetic, passionate and creative Canadian Francis Jalbert, who’s literally living the dream.
Francis, 25, who is currently touring around the world with the big top production TOTEM from Cirque du Soleil, spoke to me on his day off, while in Melbourne.
Originally from Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil is based, Francis grew up in awe of the breathtaking spectacle that is the artistic entertainment company. He first joined Cirque du Soleil in January 2010 as an intern of the Corporate PR Department before becoming Senior PR Advisor/Asst. PR Manager of the company’s Arena Show Division.
In February 2012, Francis (pictured) made the momentous decision to pack his life in two suitcases and leave his homeland to become the full-time tour publicist and official spokesman of TOTEM.
He is now one of 112 Cirque du Soleil employees – including a 46-strong cast made up of acrobats, actors, musicians and singers – plus 64 technicians, who are currently on the road in Australia.
Since its world premiere in 2010, more than three million people worldwide have experienced TOTEM, winner of the 2013 NYC Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.
Francis says like all Cirque du Soleil shows, TOTEM is an uplifting display of athleticism, comedy, heartfelt emotions and surprising visual effects. “I take care of all the media relations in each city we go to so I am basically living and breathing with the show,” he says, in a very pleasing, strong French accent.
“I’ve been with the show for three years and for me it’s been about 19 cities now and on the road non-stop.
“Brisbane will be the 30th show from the beginning. It’s amazing – your work with a group of 112 people from 21 countries and actually you not only work with them, but you live with them, you grow with them and you eat with them and you travel with them, so it’s a very multicultural show and interesting experience.
“On top of that, we are travelling the world so we’re constantly moving from one culture to the other and we are dealing with the total absence of familiarity. The one certainty we have is the show itself and the people you are travelling with.
“It’s such a cliché to say it, but it really is like a second family. We didn’t pick each other, but we are all on the road together. Every day, we’ve got each other’s backs, so we are always there for each other.”
And while Francis says he has plenty of “pinch-me moments” on tour when he’ll look back and think: “Oh my goodness, what am I doing here?! What is this lifestyle!” he says it soon becomes a happy routine, with the touring company settling in each city for months at a time.
“On a day-to-day basis, what we try to do is make 2600 people dream every night, but this is a lot of work at this level,” he says, “For the artists, they perform about 8-10 shows a week and the technical team also is always maintaining everything and making sure everything is always perfect for each performance, so a lot goes into getting ready and performing the show on a daily basis.”
As to whether there’s any downside to living out of a suitcase, Francis jokes that he’s become an expert packer. “It can be challenging; you really get used to it. You have to really learn how to pack too; some people travel around with their Magic Bullets to make juices because we can have about four suitcases on tour with us. It’s a lifestyle, it takes a few months to get used to it, but once you embrace it, and you live it, it becomes normality.”
So, what makes TOTEM special? Written and directed by Robert Lepage, it reveals “a fascinating journey into the evolution of mankind”, according to the publicist. “TOTEM is about evolution: evolution of the human body and of the human civilisation and the evolution each human being goes through in his/her life,” Francis says.
“We’re not presenting the story of evolution in chronological order, we are moving the audience from one part of the world to the next and back and forth into time.
“What’s special about this show first of all is that it is very intimate – there aren’t 40 artists on the stage all the time and you don’t know where to look.
“This one is very focussed because the acrobatic artists we are featuring are mostly unique – acts you’ve probably never seen before and if you have, the way in which we have integrated them into the style of the show and the world of TOTEM is really very surprising and clever.
“It’s a show that doesn’t try to be something other than it is; it’s very human-based so people can really relate to the different scenes on stage.”
Francis says Australian audiences are a delight and each city has varied reactions to the show. “It’s really interesting to see the differences,” he enthuses, “but Australian audiences have been amazing since we started last October in Sydney.
“We got lots of standing ovations which I know are not a regular thing for theatre in that part of the world.”
Francis says while choosing his favourite part of the show is impossible, he says the TOTEM opening scene –Bars (Carapace) – (pictured above) is very strong. It features a giant turtle at centre stage, which represents the origins of life on earth. “It is very difficult to pick a favourite part, it is like you are asking me which child I would prefer!” he says.
“In the turtle structure you have about 20 artists dressed as fish and frogs and it’s a high-energy acrobatic number.
“I really believe this is the strongest opening act of any Cirque du Soleil and really sets the bar high for what audiences can expect after that.”
And while the youngest TOTEM performer on tour is 18 and the oldest is 57 – both are acrobats – Francis says most of the 46-member cast are in their 30s.
The 112-strong touring party live in large corporate housing and almost become adopted residents in each city they perform. Mondays are their day off, with weekly performances from Tuesday-Sunday.
“This cast is a very ‘mature cast’ for a Cirque du Soleil show. A lot of them already have partners, but some love stories can arise!” he enthuses.
“We always have time to explore each city and become kind of a local for two to three months,” he says. “When we start fitting in and when it starts to feel more like a routine then we know it’s time to pack our luggage and go!
“We are never staying too long in the same place so there is never time to get bored.
“We are very much looking forward to our shows in other cities,” Francis says. “We hope people will love it and feel the fresh air we are bringing.”
Cirque du Soleil, which celebrates its 30thanniversary this year, has entertained up to 150 million people in more than 300 cities in over 40 countries on six continents.
It has close to 4000 employees, including 1300 performing artists from up to 50 different countries. It is currently presenting 19 different shows around the world.
TOTEM, which is currently on show in Melbourne until March 29, is also touring Brisbane from April 10 until May 17; Adelaide from June 11 to July 5; and Perth from July 31 to August 16.