Cirque du Soleil puts on a good show. Flowers blossom from elaborate costumes; performers plummet from fifty feet up in the air. Even the show's technical director, Mike Newnum, says he catches his breath when he watches what the team does.
The troupe's latest performance, Luzia, a Mexico-inspired dreamscape, has had a challenging run. While the performances are carefully orchestrated, with each piece of equipment tested and routines practiced daily, mistakes happen. And sometimes they're fatal.
Cirque du Soleil co-founder Gilles Ste-Croix's son, Olivier Rochette, was killed when a telescopic lift swung into him backstage while he was setting up for Luzia in San Francisco in November 2016. Days before, Lisa Skinner, an acrobat, crashed to the ground during a live performance and fractured a vertebrae. In 2013, Sarah Guyard-Guillot, a mother of two, was high in the air when she dropped to her death during the troupe's performance of Ka.
But for Cirque du Soleil, the show must go on.
"It was difficult times for the team members each coping with their grief," Newnum says, "but we decided as a group to keep going and strive to put on the best show possible every night. We were extremely well supported by our headquarters in Montreal, and welcomed extra staff members for a certain period of time to allow people who needed to take time to get back on their feet."
Westword caught up with Newnum in Seattle, where the troupe was wrapping up a production before taking a break and then heading to Denver for a run June 1 through July 9. For Newnum, it will be a return home, which he talks about in the following interview.
Westword: So you're from Denver, is that right?
Mike Newnum: Denver's been home for over twenty years.
How long is your run here?
So you'll get to spend time with friends and whoever else is here?
Yeah. And sleep in my own bed. It will be pretty sweet. I'm looking forward to it. I haven't been able to spend six weeks in my own bed in many years.
Congratulations. Obviously, what you all are doing is spectacular and looks incredibly dangerous. I'm curious how you ascended into this role, which has a lot of responsibility.
Years of practice. What brought me to Denver originally: I ended up touring with Up With People for six years. They're based in Denver now, and have been since the ’90s. It's a nonprofit touring show. We did community service. We stayed with host families, and we did the show. As soon as we started doing it, I became very involved with the show on a technical side. I just really loved it; it kind of became my university, if you will, my hands-on university. We were traveling in mainly Europe, the U.S. and Canada. That was kind of how I gained my experience. I decided I needed a little break, and so I stayed in Denver for three years working for different production companies. And then I got the job with Cirque, and I started as an entry-level technician, and eventually, over the next decade, I worked my way up to technical director.
It seems like a terrifying job. Is it?
As the technical director, no. It's a good question; I haven't had that one. I wouldn't call it terrifying, because it's all calculated. We know how the equipment works, and if we're not sure how something works, we'll make sure to test something with a dummy bag or something like that. We'll swing it around or whatnot. We're super, super careful making sure that with the things we're doing with the show, we've checked all of our balances. Plus, we have a whole team in Montreal that helps us do risk assessment and all that. We work really hard to make sure that we cross our t's and dot our i's.
So how much risk is acceptable?
I don't know that I could answer that. You're asking some questions I've never had asked before.
Matt Beard / Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi / 2016 Cirque du Soleil
It's terrifying to look at what you all do.
Because I'm the technical director, I manage all the technical operations. None of my guys are necessarily hanging stuff from straps or swinging from swing to swing or whatnot. I don't think there's one final answer for all acts that we have. I think there's definitely regulations that we've created within our own company, depending on particular acts, but a swing-to-swing scene, which is our finale, it's pretty crazy. Every day, it's practicing on stage for an hour and a half. And we'll still do one or two shows every day. And when we're practicing, we have harnesses. It's a safety line, basically. Even though we've done 400 shows now as of Sunday, every day we're practicing with the safety line during the training.
The artists push themselves and try to do crazier tricks. If you ask me, I'm not going to swing off a swing and try to do a flip and a twist. But for them, that's totally acceptable. I don't think there's one kind of blanket thing. Because it's so unique, and we come up with and create different acts, they have different skill levels or different levels of what is considered crazy. There's definitely a team of people who are evaluating and questioning and doing research to make sure we are doing our due diligence as best we can.
Talk about the show that's going to be performed in Denver, Luzia.
It's a pretty amazing and beautiful show. I've been with the company for over twelve years now. When I watch it, it still takes my breath away, at moments. And I don't mean that lightly. Based on what I've seen over the years, it's pretty amazing, and I mean that respectfully, you know. This one is not just another show. There's a contortionist, who can contort himself. Some of the swing acts are pretty crazy. We also have beautiful moments that people will see, and the music itself. It's a pretty cool, fresh Cirque du Soleil show, beautiful with imagery. We always talk about the acts, and all of these different things help support them to make that even more special and unique.
Matt Beard / Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi / 2016 Cirque du Soleil
In terms of your role in that, you're making sure everything goes off without a hitch, as much as you can? Are you involved in the design of that?
They hire a whole design team, and they do the creation. That starts eighteen months or two years before the show exists. They hire that, and then that creation team hands it over to the touring show, and then we take the high-five — the torch, if you will — and take it on from there.
Having seen a lot of theater, I know that often things go awry. How smooth are things? On any given evening, are there things that aren't working? Or is it a smooth process?
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I think the best thing I can maybe relate it to is a car. Everything is totally fine. Then one day you hear a noise. When you think about it, our car is custom-made, and there is only one of them. So whether it's our custom-made stage or our swing-to-swings or it's our treadmills or it's a water system that we have, what I want to make sure is that each head of the departments and their teams have all the tools they need so we can have every show the same, as much as we can.
Of course, things do go awry. But we try within our best to make sure that every single show has the exact same thing every time. That's pretty important to us.
Cirque du Soleil's Luzia, June 1-July 9, Pepsi Center parking lot, 1000 Chopper Circle, $39, 303-405-1100.