Hey presto, magic happens when circus hits town

NO CIRCUS worth its salt wants to reveal all its secrets, but sometimes the secret is that there isn't one: the magic moment is real. Go backstage and there's no strings, no trickery, no sleights of hand - just a supreme performer such as Li Wei, turning his body and mind to feats that seem the stuff of fantasy.

It is a steaming weekday afternoon at Docklands, where Cirque du Soleil has set up home for its latest Melbourne run, but inside the big top it is cool and dark as Wei puts himself through his paces on the slackwire. And what paces they are. As Cirque du Soleil operations manager Derrin Brown says: ''This is the only guy in the world who can do this, who can walk on a tightrope while the structure is moving up and down. He'll walk on his hands, lay on his back and all the rest of it. He's an absolute freak.''

Wei is a picture of intense concentration - we are asked to stand back, stay still and not distract him. He is not used to having visitors during training, let alone a newspaper team documenting his practise - but for one afternoon, the circus agreed to allow The Sunday Age rare access to its behind-the-scenes operations as it continues a three-month run of its latest show, Ovo.

What we discover is a world unto itself, a mind-boggling operation that serves as an illustration of the success of a global entertainment giant that was founded by two street performers in Montreal 29 years ago.

Today, permanent or touring Cirque du Soleil companies are to be found around the world, and Australia is a regular stop with each new show. The standards on every level are exacting, the size of the operation astounding.

Like the White House and Buckingham Palace, when the circus hits the road, it takes everything it needs with it. ''We travel with 85 containers,'' says publicist Olivier Fillion Boutin. ''And we basically bring everything with us. Showers, bathrooms, washers and dryers. It is a city, basically. We have the plumber, we have the electricians, we have the kitchen where we have five chefs with us all the time. We basically have everything we need. We're self-sufficient.''

To work properly, it has to be this way if the company's trademark attention to every possible detail is to be maintained. To that end, there are about 200 people travelling with the Ovo tour, 130 of them cast and crew and about 70 family members. They make the magic happen backstage - from the costume staffer on daily shoe repair duty, to the technical crew with their mastery of the complex staging set-up.

It's a triumph of design and construction that requires some employees to surf underneath the stage lying face-down a trolley - when you see performers arriving or vanishing from the stage as if my magic, it's those subterranean trolley-surfers who are operating hidden trapdoors that allow their entry or departure. Trampolines roll invisibly in and out of position to cushion the landing of leaping artists.

''We call them artists but I think of them more as athletes,'' says Brown. ''You never have an attitude issue, if anything they turn up early rather than turn up late. These guys are all world class, and sometimes they make it look too easy. But our mandate is to hire the best of the best from all over the place.''

Backstage the best of the best are in the middle of a yoga class, part of the regimen such an intense show demands, while in another corner of the compound the head of wardrobe, Deborah Linden, oversees the vast and colourful costume collection.

Linden has been with the circus for nine years. ''I get to do what I want to do and I get to travel the world,'' she says. ''Each show's different, there are different challenges with costumes. Really, we're here to make sure the artists are comfortable, to look after the costumes, to keep them maintained. We work out schedules for laundry and cleaning, we have shoe repairs to do, shoe painting - some of the shoes need to be painted every day. The detail is very important.''

But for all of this exacting routine, the atmosphere behind the scenes seems remarkably relaxed. That's professionalism on show, no doubt, but also an indication of how close-knit a travelling band of circus performers becomes. ''It's a family. A very big family,'' says Fillion Boutin.

That's a message reinforced when we visit the makeshift school that travels everywhere with the company, with two teachers on hand to keep the children travelling with their parents on track with their education.

It's every kid's dream, surely - to run away and join the circus. But these kids haven't had to slip their family bonds to do it. When the circus gets rolling, the biggest trick of the lot is turning the illusion of a normal life on the road into what feels like - hey presto - a warm reality.

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