Keeping Cirque du Soleil performers in top condition

When physical therapist Vanessa Gurie assesses the condition of her clients, she often looks way up into the rafters of an arena to see them fly and flip and tumble in astonishing displays of daredevil acrobatics.

Opening-night performance of Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimblanco at the Lakeland Center.

When physical therapist Vanessa Gurie assesses the condition of her clients, she often looks way up into the rafters of an arena to see them fly and flip and tumble in astonishing displays of daredevil acrobatics.

“They’re amazing. A very, very talented bunch of people,’’ Gurie said one recent afternoon, watching 16 men and women climb and leap and swing among four tall poles — taller than telephone poles — with uncanny power, speed and precision.

Gurie, 29, is health-services supervisor with Saltimbanco, the touring Cirque du Soleil arena show. She was watching a number called Chinese Poles as the company went through its training routine. A few hours later, the acrobats would don outlandish, colourful costumes for the opening performance of a five-day run in Lakeland, Fla.

“We see a lot of repetitive strain injuries,’’ Gurie was saying. “We tape a lot of wrists and ankles. But we also design exercise programs to prevent pain or we modify routines if somebody has an injury.”

If you’ve ever seen a Cirque show, you’ve probably wondered how the performers’ bodies hold up under the strain of these incredible performances — often two a day. The answer: They’re as vulnerable as any athlete, so Cirque employs people like Gurie to head off show-stopping injuries.

While obviously geared toward the highest-level athletes, the Montreal-based company’s training practices, emphasizing strength, nutrition and the body-balancing approach of Pilates, hold lessons for many who’ll get no closer to a Cirque show than the front row.

A South African who has a master’s degree in sports medicine, Gurie worked as a physical therapist for cricket and Australian-rules football teams as well as an Asian tour of Cats before joining Saltimbanco in 2007. She finds many similarities between the performers in professional sports and Cirque. Now, though, she has to be concerned not only with the health and fitness of her charges, but also with the safety of their working environment.

“My main duty is to ensure that their health and safety is taken care of at all times,’’ she said.

Unlike Cirque shows staged under its trademark blue-and-gold big top, Saltimbanco, the company’s second production to play arenas, has to adapt to different venues. “Because we travel from week to week, we try to maintain exactly the same conditions,’’ Gurie said. “For instance, we keep the temperature always at 72 degrees, so artists won’t get cold when they come off after doing a number.’’

They also pay careful attention to food, with Cirque employees preparing and serving all the performers’ meals. Menus often are inspired by local foods. “Florida seafood would be high on the list of things we would have on this part of the tour,’’ said Gurie, who figures that the company includes 10 to 15 vegetarians.

The acrobats often wear safety harnesses when they practice their high-flying tricks, but during the show they perform without them. In the act of sister trapeze artists, one dangles by her calf hooked over the other’s foot, high above the arena floor, without a net.

Not surprisingly, it’s tough to come down from that kind of excitement. That’s why many of the performers do their major workouts after the show is over for the night.

Backstage at Saltimbanco is the training mat, a communal area where the performers do their workouts, tailored for each of them by Gurie, another physical therapist and head coach Michael Ocampo, a certified Pilates and yoga instructor.

“Most of these artists come from an extremely high level of sport,’’ Ocampo said. “They were on national gymnastic teams and competed at national championships, world championships, some of them in the Olympics. So they pretty much know what they need to do to keep themselves in shape and stay healthy. If they do need assistance, that’s what the two physios and myself are there for.’’

Arranged around the large mat are exercise bikes, an elliptical trainer, free weights, weight machines, training poles and climbing ropes, a chin-up bar and Pilates equipment. Gurie and Ocampo are big proponents of Pilates.

“We’re learning how much Pilates is beneficial for someone like an acrobat who tends to overuse certain joints, overuse one side of their body more than the other,’’ Ocampo said. “With the Pilates approach we try to almost re-centre people, because otherwise acrobats can quickly become unbalanced from side to side, from front to back, because almost everything that we do is one sided or unidirectional.’’

Ocampo, in his mid-30s, a Cirque performer in Alegria and Saltimbanco for 10 years before becoming a coach, explained that acrobats nearly always twist one way ­— to their right or left — when doing things like a salto (a flip) or cartwheel.

“Pilates tries to address the imbalances that are going to start to form in your body because you’re only twisting one way,’’ he said.

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