It’s the biggest theatrical performance company in the world.
90 million people have experienced the show.
For a spectacle of acrobatic bodyweight mastery, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Cirque du Soleil.
This week’s interview is with two artists who have performed with the Cirque du Soleil for the last fourteen years.
Here we go!
Why don’t you introduce yourselves? Who are you and what do you do?
Hello, we’re identical twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton. We’re former British gymnasts, who for the past fourteen years have been working as performers with the Cirque du Soleil.
Tell us about where it all started. How did you first get involved with gymnastics?
As young children, we drove our parents crazy. We were two very active (hyperactive if you ask our mother) boys. There were no parts of the house that were safe from our escapades.
We’d jump all over the furniture and ride bikes down the stairs. We were even caught holding onto the back of the local ice-cream truck whilst testing the capabilities of the new roller skates our parents had just bought us. We have no idea just how our parents managed.
They decided to try to channel our energy into something that would 1) get us out of the house and from under their feet, and 2) hopefully release all of that excess energy that we both had.
We tried many sports. Football (soccer) and rugby were the two obvious choices, but we didn’t take to either. We liked swimming, tennis and athletics, but the passion was simply not there. It was only when we were dropped off at our first gymnastics class that our eyes lit up. We were both seven years old at the time and we haven’t stopped since.
I can only imagine the workload that must go into preparing for your performances. What does a typical training day look like for the Atherton Twins?
We’re early risers. We have a small breakfast, which is usually something like an espresso, egg whites, multigrain toast and natural peanut butter. We eat light portions, often throughout the day.
We have our first training session at the gym at around 8am. We find it’s the best way to get our bodies and minds ready for the day ahead. We’ll train for about an hour and a half, six days a week, and the workouts vary depending on which specific muscle group we’re working on that day.
Our workouts are very technique-specific. The exercises that we do are very controlled and deliberate. We concentrate and focus throughout the duration of each and every exercise. We learned a long time ago that working with the correct technique, and most importantly the correct posture is key to sustaining and maintaining good health, fitness and wellbeing.
You’d be surprised the tension that can be placed on your neck, for example, when you’re working on your legs. We try to be aware of the body as a whole when we focus on a particular body part.
Rest and recovery are just as important to us as our workouts. We’ll make sure we stretch well after each and every workout. In fact this is something that we do throughout the whole day, particularly on our shoulders, upper back and neck, as this is where we find our particular circus act imposes the most pressure. Again, much of this is simply done by focusing on always maintaining the correct posture.
In the afternoon before we head to work, we’ll normally do about an hour or so of swimming. This is a great way to warm our shoulders up before the shows. They get a good stretch and a workout without placing too much force on them.
Work begins at 5pm. After the application of our make-up, which typically takes around an hour to do, we’ll begin our warm up. We’ll do 30-45 minutes of specific stretching and targeted muscle exercises prior to each show.
We perform two shows a night. The key is to place our shoulders under a controlled physical force backstage, again focusing on the correct techniques. If the targeted muscles are taught how to be placed under pressure in a controlled, deliberate fashion prior to the performance, it reduces the risk of injury from overstraining on the stage, when the muscles become more fatigued.
Your routines look like they’d give quite an adrenaline rush! Do you still get a buzz when you perform?
We certainly do!
We’ve performed our act with Cirque du Soleil over 4,500 times now, and with each and every performance we’ve been given that adrenaline rush. The thrill that we get each time we fly fifty feet in the air over the heads of audience members below cannot be matched. It’s exhilarating.
We feel extremely lucky and privileged to be able to do what we do every night.
Your performances are so dynamic. Are injuries common? How do you prevent them, or deal with them when they occur?
Whilst it’s true that injuries are commonplace for most acrobats or circus performers, and dealing with them every day is part and parcel of their daily lives, the two of us have managed to find the ideal balance between training, recovery, diet and nutrition that best serves what we do.
We’ve taken advice from so many individuals and teams who are experts in their particular fields. Our specific shoulder-training program, for example, was devised jointly between ourselves, an orthopedic surgeon, and a pilates trainer. It’s working for us, because in our fourteen years (to date) with Cirque du Soleil, we’ve never missed a single performance.
Sometimes injuries are unavoidable. When they occur, we listen to our bodies closely and listen to the amazing physiotherapists that we work with every day. We couldn’t do what we do without them.
What was the process like for joining the Cirque du Soleil?
It was intense.
After submitting our demo video in order to go through the pre-selection, we were invited to London to take part in their audition process. There were so many amazing, talented acrobats, performers and artists all under one roof. Individuals from all over Europe attended.
The audition itself began at 9am. One by one we were instructed to introduce ourselves to the team of acrobatic talent scouts, along with the rest of the audition group. They wanted to know what our dreams and goals were, why we wanted to be a part of Cirque du Soleil, and what we could offer them.
We were the first two up. Fear, nerves and adrenaline gave us the “Let’s just get this over with!” attitude. We weren’t prepared when they asked us to climb a rope and sing a song. It’s funny how the mind can just go blank. Neither of us now can remember what song we sang. We just remember the relief when they said, “Ok, you can go and sit down.”
With each stage of the audition, candidates were let go. We were around sixty people initially.
The choreography section was fine. We’d both had many years of dance training (modern, Latin and ballet) behind us, so we could hold our own. Still, presenting an improvised piece, in a character of choice, with no preparation beforehand was a little challenging. At that point the feeling of complete embarrassment was just part of the process.
As gymnasts we were so used to having total control over what we were doing. Discipline and routine is the daily norm, but here we were, with a complete loss of control. There were no rules and we were being given the total freedom to express ourselves. Talk about taking us out of our comfort zones.
The worst was yet to come.
The Artistic section was pretty overwhelming. We were pushed to our limits of creativity and artistic expression. Some individuals couldn’t take it, and they were let go. For us it was like a huge playground for clowns and characters. As long as we were willing to play, they kept us going.
By about 3pm we were all mentally and physically exhausted, but we still had the acrobatics section to come.
More people were cut.
At the end there were only five people left. We were congratulated on our selection to be considered as potential artists for Cirque du Soleil. We were told that there were no guarantees, and that this selection would simply put us that one step further towards our ultimate goal of being part of one of their shows.
From the five that were selected, only three of us eventually made it, and only two of us still remain.
How much input do you have in choreographing your routines? Is the creative side of performing something you enjoy?
We were given a lot of creative freedom during the research and development stages of all the acts that we’ve performed with Cirque du Soleil.
We love the creative side. It’s what separates a circus routine that the spectator simply observes, from one that they also feel. If we can instill a positive and touching emotion into the bodies and minds of those who watch us, then we’ve done what we set out to do.
Creation is such a rewarding process. Any artist will tell you that. We get so many rewards from seeing the final results of our work, but the steps to getting us there are just as much fun too.
Tell us about making the transition from athletes to performance artists. Was it a difficult move? Do you miss competing?
We’ve had this discussion with so many of our fellow artists and colleagues, and we do have quite strong opinions on the subject.
For some, making the transition from athlete to performance artist is a very difficult process indeed. Some succeed, and some do not. They may achieve a high level of acrobatic performance, but they will lack that something special that transcends and goes beyond just their physical performance.
We believe that an artist is not created, an artist is born.
For us, the transition from competitive gymnastics to artistic performance was a path that we were meant to take. As youngsters we were always pushing ourselves creatively, and our parents encouraged that. It’s why we started to dance. It’s why we both loved the creative, academic subjects at school. Even in gymnastics we’d seek the more imaginative skills to perfect. It was always in our blood.
We always loved to compete. It was the combination of the anticipation, the nerves and the adrenaline that we thrived on. With performance, however, we get all those components, and more, only here we aren’t receiving a score at the end. The applause we get is so much more rewarding.
What have been the highlights of your competitive and performance careers, and how do they compare?
The highlight of our careers by far was being invited to perform at the 84th Academy Awards Ceremony at the former Kodak Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Walking out on that stage, in front of so many of our peers and icons, whilst being broadcast to over two billion people around the world was an experience that we’ll never forget. That was the time I think that we’ve been at our most nervous. There was no dress rehearsal, we both just had to walk out and perform. It was an amazing feeling.
As gymnasts there were so many highlights it would be hard to single out just one or two. Kevin winning the British Championships in 1997 was a very proud moment. Another highlight would be the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, where Andrew took a team gold medal and two individual silver (all-round and rings) medals. We’re very proud of all the achievements that we had as gymnasts.
We also recognize that we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the work of our amazing coach Martin Reddin. He must have seen something special in the two seven-year-old boys that stood in front of him in our first gym class in Wigan. He coached us for seventeen years in total, and is now the Technical & Education Director at British Gymnastics. All our successes and achievements are certainly a result of working with him.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
We’re currently working in a show called Zarkana at the Aria Resort & Casino here in Las Vegas. It’s one of Cirque du Soleil’s most acrobatic shows. The content is unmatched by any other show.
We’re contracted with them until the end of 2015. As long as we enjoy what we’re doing, and we look after ourselves, we’ll probably continue performing for several more years yet, if not in Zarkana, then in one of Cirque du Soleil’s other productions.
We both miss traveling a lot, so that’s something we’d likely continue in the future too. There are so many places in the world that we’ve yet to visit.
Next year we’ll be turning forty years old. As our bodies change we’ll continue to seek ways to treat them with respect, in order to get the best out of them. You only get one shot at this. Health, fitness and wellbeing aren’t simply given to you.
It’s important that you wake up each and every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself “Do I Like What I See?” If not, then change it.
– Kevin and Andrew Atherton