A central attraction to the Cirque Du Soleil show Kooza is a metal structure called the Wheel of Death. A rectangular frame holds two wheels stationary on each end but rather than deadly it recalls a modern interpretation of an infinity symbol. Two performers run in place and in doing so control the speed and direction on the spinning wheels.

Free Press Houston attended a tech rehearsal for the show that opens July 26 and runs until early September at the Sam Houston Race Park. Although this run through isn’t a start to finish affair so much as time needed to rehearse specific performances and hone the lighting. Jared Fortney, head carpenter explains to me that the tent and stage take five days to assemble. “Then there’s two full days for technical details and lighting.”

Which brings us to the present moment as one wheel-man rotates the wheel (whilst running inside said wheel) and the other stands on stage on his mark to check the lighting on the edges of the rotating wheel, whirling past him like a speeding train. “Every tech element impacts the performances on stage,” notes Fortney.

Even at 1600 pounds the metal framework is so precisely balanced that the inside wheel-man effortlessly (or so it seems) holds it in place at the 12-o-clock position by using his left leg as a pinion against a guide line. “Cirque du Soleil has an engineering firm from Montreal, they provide data for every piece of equipment. Each piece of each set-up we know what the limit is,” says Fortney.

The day starts in typical Houston heat as I accompany the publicist into the main tent. All of the tents, stages and seats are carried in Cirque’s nearly 60 trucks. Fortney points out to me that the Wheel of Death has its own truck as it’s transported in one piece. Led inside one corridor to the backstage tent I’m not surprised to see bench press and other weight-training devices, trampolines, wardrobe racks and performers from literally across the world working out. The temperature drops dramatically as the air condition kicks in and I’m directed through another curtain and instantly plunged into darkness.

It takes my eyes over a minute to adjust to the performance tent. On the stage a team works out exact positions and lights for a platform that holds up to six chairs, each stacked atop the other. The performer does a headstand on top of the six balanced chairs. As they break down the set, sure enough each chair is stacked in an exactly sized anvil case that holds two chairs. Next another performer starts working out her blocking for a part of the show that features her spinning rings (like hula hoops); up to seven at one time. Irina Akimova tells me later backstage the path that brought her to Cirque. “I started when I was twelve, I studied at a school that had about 20 other children like me,” Irina states in an Eastern European accent that displays a vast command of English. “You train to be flexible for what I do,” she adds mentioning her work-out routine of activity sports, running and rock climbing. I mention that I saw her working out on stage, doing a concentrated hand-stand. Is yoga and meditation a part of her drill? No, she replies, the exercise is a means to an end and it’s all about the concentration and the flexibility.

Irina’s life on the road takes her all over the world to the extent she spends less than a couple of weeks at home. Home is the road, a theme seconded by Fortney who previously worked for Circus Smirkus. Perhaps not oddly, even though I interviewed them separately they both mention San Francisco as the best city to be camped at while on tour.

Back to the Wheel of Death. The rehearsal has now gone to the purely physical part of that part of the show. One wheel-man keeps the pace and speed of the wheel in momentum while the other swings to the outside of the wheel. As his portion of the wheel approaches the top he leaps off and jumps rope, in mid-air, four times fast, and then hops down on the wheel as it begins its descent downward, ever keeping his footing solid. It’s a display of gravity, or free falling, and physical grace mixed with acrobatic skill.

Cirque du Soleil has distinguished itself not only by the concept of animal-free circus acts but in the perfection of their acrobatic prowess. Kooza strips away the pretense of big tent acts to focus on the physical aspects of balance and the concept of form.

— Michael Bergeron

— top and bottom photos from: OSA Images