Every day Emily McCarthy wakes up at the same time. She might be in a new room in a new city, but it’s important she keeps to her regime. Next to her bed she has two family pictures, which she takes everywhere she goes, along with the two 23 kilo suitcases she’s allowed on tour. Shortly after, she heads to work, wherever that may be. A different theatre, a different country, a different audience – the only consistency in the life of a travelling acrobat is the people in whose hands you put your life and the routine you perform every day of the week, for 10 weeks at a time. Relentless working conditions aside, it’s a dream come true for the 21-year-old from Leeds who wanted to join the circus for as long as she can remember. “For me, it was always my dream and to achieve that at such a young age was phenomenal.” Emily, an aerial flyer in the Varekai Slippery Surface act, has been travelling with the show since she joined Cirque du Soleil at the age of 16. She was one of the last minors to be taken on by the company – their policy towards hiring young performers changed shortly after. She’s spent the four and a half years since she left high school on the road. Each week, the production travels to a new city. To date she’s performed in 130 cities, in 23 countries.
The Slippery Surface act requires Emily, her partner and 10 other acrobats to slide, throw and catch each other as they move around a specially designed floor – so they look like they’re skating in between hurtling through the air. She also does a lot of contortion. To stay in shape for this, a structured and thorough workout routine is everything. “I always start with cardio, so I go on the cross trainer or the bike” says Emily of her daily training. “We have gym equipment that travels with us on tour. Then I’ll do some stretching on my own. I do a lot of contortion in the show so it's really important for me to stretch every day. If you go a few days without stretching it will make it difficult the next time you do it. Then I do a light workout in the middle of the day, just some abs and arm conditioning – stuff to strengthen my shoulders because I do a lot of handstands. Then I train with my partner.” Varekai is just one of 20 performances that Cirque du Soleil has put on around the world in the last year and, despite a stormy period of controversy, the company has come a long way from its beginnings. Founded by Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix in 1984, the world’s largest performing arts company was at first just a small group of street artists performing in Canada. Now, they have close to 4,000 employees worldwide, including 1,300 artists. More than 160 million people have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since 1984 and, in 2015 alone, audience figures were just short of 15 million. Life for Cirque performers is mentally and physically extremely challenging, and accidents have tainted the theatre group's reputation. The most notorious took place on the night of the company's comeback in Las Vegas in 2013: a sell-out premiere of their Michael Jackson show One. A short distance up the road, French acrobat Sarah Guyard-Guillot was performing in Kà at the MGM Grand when she fell and, tragically, died.
Despite Cirque du Soleil’s famously rigorous safety measures, incidents like this continue to occur – towards the end of last year, the son of one of the group's founders died in an on-set accident in San Francisco, just days after an Australian performer fell and broke her vertebrae during a performance in Brisbane. But these accidents are the exception not the rule, and Emily is candid about the dangers her occupation poses. "The job that we do is extremely difficult" she says. "Sometimes we forget just how dangerous what we do is. And sometimes that’s dangerous. You can never forget about that." In a 2009 study by The American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers examined five years of data for Cirque du Soleil and found that the company's injury rates were lower than those of college gymnasts. Considering the monumental scale of their productions, that’s quite remarkable. The more likely danger when you’re an acrobat is the chance of sustaining an injury due to such routine mishaps as not stretching enough. Hence the unforgiving exercise regime. "I actually do a lot of injury prevention" explains Emily. "For example, I use my shoulders so I work out a lot before and after. And we have a physio team that travel with us. I haven’t had any injuries and that’s because of the injury prevention program that Cirque have in place." "Everyone makes mistakes" she continues. "If you’re tired one day, or you trained a lot in the show it’s very easy to make mistakes. But you just have to be alert. It's quite easy to mess up the choreography, there’s a lot of synchronised choreography in the show." The level of organisation required in a production like Varekai is phenomenal. The entire cast must pull their weight, to the extent that everyone has lessons in how to do their own makeup. For some of the performers of Varekai, this can take up to an hour and a half every day.
Cirque is likely one of the most diverse workplaces in the world; Emily has been working with her partner, a Russian man named Sasha, for three years. Like most relationships, working that closely with someone day in, day out can be hard. "We don’t always get along," concedes Emily, "We’re from two completely different cultures. And working with someone so closely all the time. But I mean everyone here, Varekai is a family. You work so closely with these people all the time that it's normal to bicker." A constant professional, Emily doesn’t let emotions like this affect her performance. "If you have an argument in training, you don’t take that on stage. No matter if you’re sad or angry, no matter what my mood is, if I’m negative I’ll never take that on stage with me."
Emily has that acute breed of determination and resilience rarely found in anyone other than athletes and people who use their bodies for a living. And the fact that she’s only ever wanted to join the circus has allowed her to channel her focus into her one passion. But what do you do for fun when your hobby is your job? "It’s a weird question for me," she reflects, "Because gymnastics has always been my hobby. But in my spare time when I’m not working, I’ll go explore the city. But apart from that I’m interested in drawing, I like singing – I’m not very good at them but I try. And binge-watching TV shows is up there. I love Game of Thrones." Her laser focus meant that, at school, it was hard for her friends to relate to what she was doing. "It was weird when I was in high school" she offers. "A sport like acrobatics requires so much training. My mum would pick me up and I’d train for four hours. And it was really hard for my friends to understand why I couldn’t hang out after school, why I couldn’t attend parties." It was on her last day of high school that Emily found out she’d been offered a place with Cirque. "I told them [her family] all along that I was going to join Cirque but I never knew when it was going to be. So when I got the letter when I was 16 they were like, ‘No you’re too young.’ And I was like, ‘Look, an opportunity like this doesn’t just come along. I may never get this chance ever again.' So of course they were upset – I’m the only girl – but they were very supportive." Emily’s controlled regime and the challenges of life on the road may not match up to the romantic notion of running away with the circus but, for a young acrobat who never wanted to do anything else, it’s a dream come true.
Cirque du Soleil, Varekai comes to the U.K. on tour, starting 2nd February 2017. Tickets are available at www.cirquedusoleil.com/varekai