When the circus (or Cirque du Soleil) comes to town: An inside look

Talk about an acrobatic exercise, we spoke with the person who oversees the set up at Prudential Center – not to mention the housing (and feeding) of the traveling crew

Michael Veilleux, the tour director of Corteo, the arena production from Cirque du Soleil, offers a laugh when asked the question: Yes, each of the 107 members of the never-ending traveling show gets their own hotel room.

The rooms, after all, really serve as temporary homes for the crew of this world-class production, which is on the road up to 46 weeks a year.

Of course, finding enough hotel rooms on each of the weeklong stops of Cirque du Soleil Corteo rarely is easy — and always is Veilleux’s first challenge of a new week.

“Finding hotels that are up to our standard is always a challenge,” he said.

Want to go?

Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com or at Prudential Center’s box office.

The schedule:

  • Thursday, 7:30 p.m.;
  • Friday, 7:30 p.m.;
  • Saturday, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.;
  • Sunday, 1 p.m.

Feeding the crew? That’s another challenge — and one that Veilleux gladly delegates to the traveling team of chefs, who prepare meals daily.

“We have a catering manager who goes out and shops every morning,” he said. “We have 53 acrobats — and their body is their temple — so, it’s important that everything is fresh.”

So, don’t go scouring the local restaurants around the Prudential Center in Newark, if you’re hoping to get a glimpse of some of the world’s top acrobats — appearing in one of the world’s most dynamic shows.

They’ll be on display, starting Thursday night — the first of a four-day, five-show performance (two on Saturday) at the Prudential Center.

The show — which has been seen by more than 10 million spectators in 20 countries on four continents since it debuted in 2005 — is a choreographed marvel. So is the logistics of going from city-to-city with 22 trucks of equipment.

Being that New Jersey is a hotspot for logistical maneuvering, we thought it would be fun to find out just what happens when the circus comes to town. And who better to speak with than Veilleux, who has been with the arena program since its inception — and with Cirque du Soleil since 1998.

Here’s a look at our talk with Veilleux, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: How do you do this setup and tear down, week after week?

About the show

Corteo, which means cortege in Italian, is a joyous procession, a festive parade imagined by a clown. The show brings together the passion of the actor with the grace and power of the acrobat to plunge the audience into a theatrical world of fun, comedy and spontaneity situated in a mysterious space between heaven and earth.

The clown pictures his own funeral taking place in a carnival atmosphere, watched over by quietly caring angels. Juxtaposing the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic and the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection, the show highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, to illustrate the portion of humanity that is within each of us. The music turns lyrical and playful, carrying Corteo through a timeless celebration in which illusion teases reality.

In a Cirque du Soleil first, the stage is central in the arena and divides the venue, with each half of the audience facing the other half, giving a unique perspective not only of the show, but also a performer’s-eye view of the audience. An atmosphere like never seen before in Cirque du Soleil arena shows. The set curtains, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, and the central curtains, which were hand painted, give a grandiose feel to the stage. This sets the tone for the poetry of Corteo.

Michael Veilleux: We make the impossible possible, through partnerships and collaboration.

It seems complicated, but, really, it’s all about partnerships. It starts with having the proper dates with the buildings, so we can plan our city-to-city transfers with our 22 trucks. Then, it’s working with the local unions and stagehands to get it done.

ROI: Take us through a week. You came to Newark from Boston, where you did two shows on Sunday. Work the timeline.

MV: The second show finished up about 7:10. And then, we began what we call a load out, which can take 3-4 hours. We always travel that night, either by bus or charter, depending on where we are going. This week, we jumped on buses and arrived here about 3 o’clock in the morning.

Monday mornings are spent sleeping and relaxing. On Tuesday, we begin scouting out the arenas. So, the production manager and his assistant are exploring to see the loading docks and making sure we have everything we need to get ready for Wednesday. That’s the load in.

ROI: How long does that take?

MV: About 12 hours.

ROI: How many people does it take — and is it just the technicians who do the load in and load outs, or do the performers help, too?

MV: We do have some performers who are looking beyond their current career who are exploring technical jobs. We have a program where we offer them the chance to load in and load out with us after they complete their OSHA training.

So, we have about 33 technicians — but, then, we also have about five, six artists in addition to that. And then there are local people. In total, it takes about 80 people.

ROI: When do you test the setup?

MV: That can be Wednesday night or Thursday around noon. We call them validations. So, everybody’s looking to make sure that all the heights have been input into the computer properly — and everyone gets to test their area and do training.

ROI: How many shows a week?

MV: It depends on the market — usually 5-7. There could be up to three on Saturday and two on Sunday.

ROI: Talk about the group. We’re guessing it’s mix of newbies and veterans.

MV: Exactly. I would say the technicians may have more seniority than the artists, because there’s that physical component to be an acrobat — they can only perform for so many years.

We do have people who’ve been doing it 15 years on either side. And then, we have some people who used to be artists that are now technicians or work as part of the artistic team.

The expertise of our performers is outstanding. We have many people who have competed around the world and who were Olympians.

ROI: Talk about the schedule: Up to 46 weeks a year is incredible.

MV: We usually do legs of 10 or 12 weeks and then have two weeks off. But, sometimes, when we are traveling the world, going to Asia, we need to take more time off because we need to move our equipment by boat. So, it could be 44 weeks or 40 weeks — but, it’s a lot.

ROI: And you’ve been doing this for 25 years? Sounds like a labor of love.

MV: I love the pace of moving every week. That is something that I really enjoy. I really love it.

ROI: But how do you keep the shows from getting old?

MV: That’s easy — because I never see the same show twice.

I’m lucky because I know the performers. I can see when the level of seriousness is a little bit higher because they’re trying something new — or when everybody’s giggling because they are trying something on the comedic side.

To be able see all these little, subtle things is great. And I always look out into the audience. To see the kids laughing and having a great time — you just can’t beat that.

ROI: Final question. If I’ve never seen Cirque du Soleil, why should I go this week?

MV: You will have the best value for your money. You will see an amazing high-level acrobatic show that I guarantee that you and your kids will remember for the rest of your life.