Cirque du Soleil's high flyer brings romance to the big top

Performing for Cirque du Soleil is more than a job. It's a lifestyle. Brazilian dancer Juliana Neves rises each day after noon and reports to the big top around 4 p.m. to prepare for two shows a night.

For Cirque du Soleil's new show, Dralion, Neves takes her turn in the spotlight for the aerial pas de deux, performing acrobatics 30 feet in the air while hanging from a strip of fabric. The act draws upon her experience in gymnastics and classical dance.

While studying social anthropology at college, Neves entered a four-year circus school in Sao Paolo, juggling term papers and the flying trapeze. She performed with a circus in Brazil before being cast by Cirque du Soleil in 1997.

Working with an international cast takes a lot of language skills. Before the tour Neves could speak four languages -- English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. Now she's learning to speak Chinese from more than 30 Chinese cast members and speaks at least four languages a day.

Circus life isn't easy, but the international cast stays in touch with friends and family abroad by using e-mail, videoconferencing and instant messaging on a backstage computer.

What did your family say when you told them you were going to run off with the circus?

They have always been very supportive. My dad was the kind that would watch every competition and go see every little concert I would do. Cirque du Soleil was known in Brazil, so when that happened it was like a big thing. I'm famous there already. We've been to the biggest TV shows. We had a lot of publicity.

How do you balance work and family?

My husband is here. He's one of the clowns of the show. He started six months ago. It was a great coincidence that one of the clowns was leaving. We've been married for six years. He traveled with me last year. He was one of my teachers at the circus school.

Are you afraid of clowns?

No, I'm not. He's more of an actor in the show than a clown. I think they're very fun. They're not all sad.

Your act has been described as the sexiest in the show. Do you agree?

It's the most romantic I would say. It's the place where the audience kicks back and relaxes a little bit. We perform it as a dance, so we hide the technique ... so people are not tense thinking that we're going to fall or anything. We really try to make it very smooth and it's performed with romantic music by a couple. I think that's why people think it's sexy.

What technique is involved in your performance?

It's a technique that was an evolution from a rope. You would let yourself go and you would hang on the rope by the waist or by your arm. We started doing that on fabric. In this case we developed a fabric that was strong enough to hold the weight of two people that's not so elastic so it won't squeeze us so much. It's basically wrapping the fabric around our bodies in ways that it's fixed and we can let it go. The big top is 43 feet high, I think, so we're about 30 feet high.

Have you ever been afraid of heights?

No. I like heights actually. I've liked them since I was a kid.

What kind of training do you do?

It's like an athlete's life. I can't drink all the time. I can't smoke. I have to really take care of my body. I do Pilates every day. It's like part of my day. It's a great amount of work. When you do two shows ... it's five hours of active work.

What's a typical day on the job like?

I'm normally here at 4 p.m. If I come early I'm teaching Pilates to people here. My act requires training three times a week. We work Friday nights and have no weekend. That's something that I miss, having a normal Saturday and Sunday. On the other hand, I never have to wake up at 8 in the morning. I wake up at 1 p.m. every day.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I never sing in my dressing room. I always find some wood and knock on it. I pray before every show.

What's the average salary for this job?

It's good. The housing and food is included and we get a per diem. If you're an economic person you don't touch your salary. I think it ranges from $50,000 to $80,000 a year. It's very specialized, so it has to pay well.

What's the hardest part of your job?

I have never done something 600 times. I have to work with whatever moods I'm in. I'm not going to be happy every day. I may have a headache or a stomachache or I may be tired. You have to perform in a way that the audience never knows there's anything wrong with you. That's a challenge.

What other acts have you done in your career?

I did the flying trapeze for a circus. I was wearing fishnet stockings and high heels. I also worked for a theater circus company in Sao Paolo and did a lot of plays for children using the circus techniques.

What's the best part of performing with Cirque du Soleil?

A normal circus will stay [in a city] one or two nights and they keep moving. We are lucky. We have a chance to know each place we go. In the United States, it surprises me how many beautiful places there are. We have a car so we travel by car and we see beautiful places. I think staying in one place would be so boring.

Do you see romances bloom among cast members?

There are a lot. There's always romance in the air at the circus.


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