The Real Moms of Cirque Du Soleil
Many women star in the famous Las Vegas circus, and typically at night. We met up with the circus moms and their kids to find out how they handle the balancing act.
All photos by Amy Lombard
For over a decade, Canadian clown Shannan Calcutt has performed topless in Cirque Du Soleil's Zumanity. The sex-themed circus (tag line: "18 +: Rated Cirque") plays nearly every night at the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas. Calcutt regularly rehearses to remember cues and freshen up her scenes, but after she gave birth to one of her children, her body interrupted her performance. One night, Calcutt remembers, another performer chased her down the hall: "Shannan, you forgot your milk!" she screamed.
Calcutt had been breast pumping backstage for her baby and left the bottle behind. This wasn't surprising to the clown or her fellow Cirque star. Many women star in the circus, typically at night, and their work lives often overlap with their raising kids.
"We got a baby boom here—every girl in my group and the characters group started getting pregnant one after another," says Kristina, a Cirque Du Soleil actress who received six months of maternity leave. "They redid my corset for me and turned it into a baby doll dress so it could hide the bump. A few girls have [continued performing at] seven or eight months, but my character—since I'm the rag doll—requires a lot of back bending and splitting."
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While most corporations allow mothers to take up to three months of maternity leave, Cirque du Soleil also allows some women varying amounts of unpaid leave before her baby is born depending on her doctor's recommendation. An aerialist left work for an entire year, while a clown missed shows for only five months. The approach to leave protects everyone involved, and many mothers find it to be family friendly.
"Cirque du Soleil and its Maternity Policy works with each expectant mother to ensure their well-being and safety and the safety of their coming child is the priority," the company's human resources department said in a statement to Broadly. "We rely on the guidance of the artist's doctor to dictate when she needs to modify or end her unique duties at the show in order to keep healthy."
Kristina finds the policy normal. Although she looks like your average young mom— she wears a black and white and grey cardigan—she grew up in Cirque Du Soleil in the late 1990s. She joined her acrobat father on Cirque's international tour of the Quidam show in 1996. For over a decade, she studied in the tour's school and lived out of six suitcases. She joined the cast as a character actress at age 16.
"I don't remember any other lifestyle," she says.
When she was 17 years old, Kristina started dating an acrobat in his early 20s who performed with her father. Eventually they married, and three years ago, they moved, with her parents, to Las Vegas to perform in Zarkana at the Aria hotel. During the show, Kristina's father carries her husband around the stage.
"The guys do pyramids on top and toss each other in the air, and my dad is the base and my husband is the flyer," Kristina explains backstage. "All of his friends laugh: 'You carry your son-in-law in your hands!'"
Kristina's 21-month-old daughter, Nika, will likely follow the family tradition. On stage at the Aria's theatre, Nika wears a furry pink vest and sits on a wooden barrel, smiling under the spotlight. As Nika kicks her feet through the air, her 21st century light-up Sketchers sparkle. Our photographer takes out her camera, and Nika immediately smiles and waves at her.
Later, backstage, Kristina places a yoga ball in front of Nika. "Do you want to go on [the] ball?" Kristina asks. Nika jumps up, and Kristina lays on the ground, rolling the ball over her. Nika kicks her legs and laughs. "Boing!" Kristina yells. "Boing! Boing!" In the background, we hear people screaming. Kristina giggles. "It's a clown workshop," she says.
Zarkana tells a loose story about an old theatre coming back to life, and the set includes a rusted proscenium, trap doors, and an old piano. Both behind the scenes and on stage, Cirque Du Soleil's performers embrace century-old European practices. In the green room, Kristina says, the men ignore the PlayStation to play dominos and Russian pool on a Russian pool table a cast member bought.
Kristina's mother also works for Cirque as Zarkana's production coordinator (she previously worked as Quidam's accountant), so Nika stays on the family's schedule. The baby wakes up at noon and goes to sleep after midnight. "For children this young, I think our schedule is pretty awesome," Kristina says. She understands this will change when Nika goes to school. Kristina is currently waking up around six or seven in the morning to attend college herself. She's studying accounting, recognizing that, in the circus, women's careers are shorter than men's.
"Women are required to be more flexible," Christina explains. "Men need strength, and we need a balance between strength and flexibility, which gets harder with age."
Other circus moms plan to keep performing. Aerialist Noara, for instance, has performed in a hanging hoop in "O" for 13 years. Every night, she wears a blue braided wig and soars across the show's onstage pool. She only knows circus life. As a child in Brazil, she watched her parents work as touring clowns while raising a family. Performing and childrearing is in her DNA, and, since she first moved to Las Vegas in 2002, she has come to see the city as a place where it's easier to balance circus life and family. It helps that her husband works a nine to five, meaning he can keep the baby at night, and that her mother-in-law regularly assists.
"In Vegas I feel like, when people want to settle down and have their home to go to every day, [the circus is] a job," Noara says. "You go to work. It's not a nine to five. It's a job you go to every day—it's this routine that helps with your everyday, especially if you have a family."
Noara doesn't look like a new mom, let alone a mom who gave birth six months ago. When we meet, she looks more like action hero Sarah Connor from Terminator than an acrobat, in black jeans, boots and dark blue and white eye shadow. She says she took a full year off the show: her entire pregnancy and then four months after giving birth. The day she found out she was pregnant she called Sandi Croft, the resident director who maintains the show's quality.
"We have your backup in place," Noara says Croft told her. "Do you want to stay home?"
After hearing from Noara's doctor, the two agreed that she'd take the time off.
According to Croft, the women's time off depends on their role in the show. Where an aerialist's doctor may recommend they immediately cease working, Calcutt, the clown I meet, says many clowns can work more months while pregnant. Cirque leaves the decision up to performers' doctors. After they give birth, mothers receive three months to get back to work. During this period, the performers say, Cirque provides them with conditioning programs, doctors, and physiologists to get back into shape for the stage.
"It's really [performers'] responsibility," Croft says. "They are highly driven athletes, artists, so when they come back to work they know that they are going to be in a costume that is not very forgiving. So they need to come back in very good shape."
Croft has seen this process numerous times. Before Cirque, she worked as a dancer in Celine Dion's Las Vegas residency and was the artistic director of Cirque's Mystère. She has helped many women work out their maternity leaves, support that isn't so common in most industries. Even she recognizes the insanity of getting a six-pack three months after giving birth. "Stamina wise I am very impressed," she says.
"I didn't know it was possible until I did it," Noara tells me. "We look at ourselves and go, 'How am I going to go from this big to show?' It's hard, but it's also what our body knows, you know? I eat very healthy. I am very conscious of what I eat. I like to cook. I like to bring my food to work."
Although strength isn't as pivotal to clowns' performance, Calcutt says childbirth affected her in other ways. "After I had Ella, I was getting three to four hours of sleep at night and I would go on stage. I was so tired, and I remember my clown partner Nick would say, 'That's a form of torture, sleep deprivation,'" Calcutt says. "It's a juggling act—excuse the circus pun, but it really is. The scheduling is the hardest part."
Once they return to performing, some of the women rely on MGM properties' daycares, like Jenyne Butterfly, who plays Dirty Diana in Michael Jackson ONE. All of the MGM resorts provide childcare for employees who work at night, whether they perform or work on the casino floor as cocktail waitresses. The company may promote American vices, but in some ways, it also promotes better maternity policies than many other employers. Cirque life isn't perfect, but it provides mothers with some support, in a country where the only woman running for the Republican presidential nomination opposes government-mandated paid maternity leave. When Calcutt can't find a babysitter, she says she knows she can rely on the other women to watch her kids in a pinch.
"You're really tight with the other artists, I think, because we're on the same schedules," Calcutt says. "We can't all have a dinner on Saturday evening because we're working, or a barbeque that starts at five o'clock."
"[Cirque] is a lifestyle," Noara adds. "This is our life. It's not hard. It's just a lifestyle, and we're proud of it."