Behind the scenes at Cirque du Soleil - FOX 10 News | myfoxphoenix.com

Behind the scenes at Cirque du Soleil

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ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) -

All eyes are focused either on the three women whose bodies are intertwined or the men riding a bicycle across a high wire. Later, the audience is glued watching the couple doing acrobatics aboard a unicycle.

Cirque's guests follow the glare of the spotlight, but the real show goes on in the shadows, backstage.

As Cirque du Soleil's traveling troupe set up to perform a show named Kooza at Tropicana Field, it granted a rare peek behind the curtain – a surprisingly candid glimpse at what really goes on when Cirque comes to town.

FRENZIED TENT RAISING

"One, two, three," shouted a foreman, sparking a sudden footrace that would bring to life the traveling circus's center stage.

Several dozen men and women collected under the limp tent. They swiftly sprang simultaneously outward. With their arms wrapped around towering poles, the workers heaved the tent's support system upward into place.

The Big Top shot 60 feet into the pristine blue sky within seconds. Then they panted.

The white canvas is an icon and Cirque du Soleil's public face. A few feet away, however, more private operation was also digging in.

SECOND CITY

Wherever it goes, Cirque du Soleil builds a sizeable compound just out of public view.

"Give us clean water and an internet connection and we can go anywhere," said Jared Fortney, a Cirque carpenter who has been handling traveling acts since middle school. "There's magic that happens."

Self-sufficient Kooza pops up behind a security fence, and folds out of an armada of 60 tractor-trailer trucks.

As you walk away from the Big Top, the fantasy of stage production quickly gives way to stark reality, such as mundane traveling offices and a pair of washer/dryers on wheels. In one tent there's a rack of coffee mugs, an ironing board, and a home vacuum cleaner.

"Once we get backstage, it's our own environment," said Stuart McKenzie, a performer from Great Britain. "You kind of have to see it to understand."

In all, there are 119 residents in Cirque City.

ROLLING KITCHEN

"They're always hungry," said Agustina Ballina, an Argentinean chef de cuisine-- one of four found backstage full time.

Ballina was serving up a menu of Mahi Mahi, spinach, and potatoes for lunch one day. Meals are part of employees' compensation, she said, as well as a necessity given the tour's demanding performance schedule.

"We're open all day," Ballina said. But there's no take-out. No delivery.

Wherever Cirque goes, this full-sized gourmet kitchen and her staff follow.

"I travel, the kitchen travels. We all travel together," Ballina said.

PORTABLE CLASSROOM

Across a makeshift Main Street, lined by tractor-trailers, sits a row of nondescript trailers. One of them is home to a bona fide school – nestled right next to a caravan of forklifts.

"It's very surprising," said teacher Melissa Mungo, who teaches humanities and language, including English and French.

A few young stars, as well as adult performers' children, receive instruction just like any other children their age, albeit on a one-on-one basis.

"It's the one of the benefits for the artists in the show," Mungo said.

Mungo said it's difficult to tell where the classroom is located from the inside, since her surroundings are recreated exactly the same no matter where the tour is stopped.

"You take this miniature environment from city to city with you," she said.

CIRQUE COMMUNITY

Mungo, a Canadian who has previously toured with a different show in Australia, said the hidden Cirque city tucked in the shadow of the Big Top has its own special vibe. She said its sense of community plus its creature comforts make the constant travel more bearable – more human.

"It's kind of like stepping into home," she said.

Home is St. Petersburg until December 16. And then?

"We're off to London next," said Forney – grinning.

= = =

Tickets to Kooza start at $43.50 for adults. Discounts are available for children, seniors, members of the U.S. military, and students.

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