“I’m an athlete,” says Craig Paul Smith, 41, who has performed in O, the groundbreaking—uhh…water breaking?—Cirque du Soleil spectacle at the Bellagio in Las Vegas since it opened 16 years ago. “I tumbled competitively for Great Britain on the national team from the time I was a teenager.”
“But tumbling is not an Olympic sport, there’s not prize money or sponsorship money at stake. I was doing it to compete and represent my country.” For an athlete in a non-professional sport like tumbling, says Smith, Cirque du Soleil offers “the job of a lifetime.”
“While I was competing, I was doing any kind of odd job that would let me continue to train and travel to competitions. I answered phones, waited tables, anything that would help generate a little cash. But ultimately, when you’re a high-level amateur athlete, you’re probably going to have to retire and learn how to do something very different than what’s been the biggest focus of your life.”
When he was 23, at the suggestion of his coach, Smith went for an open Cirque audition in London. A year later, while at a competition in Russia, he got a phone call from his parents back in Birmingham, letting him know that he’d been invited to fly to Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal to participate in the creation of the show that ultimately became O.
And so, Craig Paul Smith ran off to join the circus.
“There was a real transition I had to go through,” recalls Smith, “in order to learn how to perform for the audience, not just for myself and my team. Competing as an athlete uses a very inward type of energy. I had to learn to project out and engage the audience in what I’m doing.”
Smith says this is a common challenge for gymnasts, swimmers, and other members of the Cirque corps who come from the world of athletics rather than having been trained in dance or circus arts. They also tend to discover a dramatic shift in life’s rhythms.
“As an athlete, you get very used to the idea of building up toward a competition over a length of time. You train and train and train, you peak at the competition, and then there’s a rest period. In Cirque, I have to peak ten times a week. Mentally, that’s tough.”
Another challenge for Smith was the fact that, even though his acrobatic routines in O take place on dry land and mid-air, he had to train and be certified in scuba diving along with the rest of the cast. “I’d never been much of a swimmer,” he admits. “The whole idea of putting myself underwater was a bit uncomfortable.”
The things one does for the job of a lifetime.
The third—and perhaps the least challenging—transition Smith made after joining Cirque was coming out as gay. He’d kept his sexuality secret from his parents and all but a few friends and teammates back in England. But the crucible of training seemed to boil everyone down to his or her core being.
“When I went into the creation process in Montreal, we worked extremely hard for ten to twelve hours a day. Many different languages are being spoken, but you become a very tight family very quickly. You’re all very dependent upon each other no matter how different you are, and you just don’t have the extra energy to be anyone but yourself.”
Cirque du Soleil’s O is currently playing at The Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.