When photographer Véronique Vial was assigned to shoot Cirque du Soleil’s show Nouvelle Experience 28 years ago, she had visions of unhappy performers and even more miserable animals. She found instead a show of imagination, artistry, and above all, really happy people—and she quickly fell in love.
Vial’s admiration for the performers was so profound, indeed, that she became determined to continue photographing the backstage antics of the company, which is more theater than circus, built around feats of illusion, strength, dance, and more than a little old-fashioned trickery. Looking back in an interview with The Daily Beast, she says she told Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, “I want to run away with you!” While she didn’t end up running off with the circus, Vial has been photographing it ever since, and her images are the subject of a new book, Backstage Cirque du Soleil, published by Assouline to commemorate the company’s 30th anniversary.
When Vial got that first assignment, she was just beginning her photography career, and Cirque du Soleil was only a few years old. Over the ensuing decades, the two have grown up together. The circus is now performing 18 shows around the world, with eight performances in Las Vegas alone each night. The organization is a little more corporate than it used to be, Vial notes—cast members used to live in caravans but now often stay in hotels—but overall, the performers’ dedication and artistry haven’t changed. Nor have the magic and vitality of the show. Vial, on the other hand, has become a well-known photographer whose clients include celebrities and major advertisers.
But no matter where her career has taken her, or how big the Cirque has become, Vial keeps coming back. Hanging out backstage, documenting the performers and the life of the show, is like therapy for her, she says.
“When I get bummed out or tired, I just call the Cirque and ask to shoot backstage…and I’m totally regenerated,” Vial says.
It helps that the circus is like a family—only one that can choose its members. And it picks well, people who are generous and giving, able to keep a smile on their faces and work well with others in order to transfix their audiences each night. As Vial says, there’s no room for prima donnas.
“I’ve never seen anyone grumpy, ever. In 28 years,” she says.
The performers’ love for and dedication to their art shines through each of Vial’s images. She explains her process as “I shoot what I feel,” and in doing so, she also captures the emotion of the performers readying themselves to take the stage.
Photo after photo shows performers in intricate costumes striking poses, assiduously applying their makeup, stretching in preparation for the physical work ahead, or waiting for their cue. One woman makes faces while wearing a tiny top hat and oversize bowtie with dramatic, caked-on makeup and a ruffled wig that stands straight up and matches her ruffled sleeves. A large, muscled man in his costume vest stares deep in concentration at a chess board, trying to decide his next move against his opponent, a little person also in performance dress. Graceful dancers in skin-tight leotards practice their moves.
The photos are just plain fun to look at, but they also speak to the incredibly hard work, deep concentration, and dedication it takes to put on a show that is all about magic, mystery, and a good laugh. One thing is certain: It’s not easy being a member of the circus. But it’s also clear that everyone involved has a deep love for their chosen pursuit.
Vial, who has learned to juggle up to five balls in her time with the circus, tries to be as invisible as she can and shoots mainly candid shots. But when your subjects are dedicated performers, it’s impossible for them not to ham it up for the camera every once in a while. Vial distinguishes between two types of images—the innocent and the showoff, in which the performers “play” for her.
"Showoff is their spirits shining through the costume and makeup,” Vial says. “They’re so proud to be a part of the shows. I’m proud to photograph them.”
Seeing the show from the audience, she says, is like being in a field of flowers: You’re so overwhelmed by the impact of the full group that you don’t necessarily notice each individual flower.
But once backstage, you realize that each performer plays many parts. Vial explains that the “smoke and mirrors” aspect of the show is lifted behind the curtain, making the impact of each character’s artistry even more powerful. You can “really feel them.”
Plus, she says the camaraderie backstage is truly special. The performers’ skill is so great that, if one person is suddenly unable to take the stage, someone else quickly steps in, gets into character, and does the show.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t backstage antics. Vial notes that most of the time, there are a lot of nationalities and many languages being spoken. But for shows that are predominantly acrobatics, often the majority of the performers are Russian. And when that happens, one “alpha dog” will run the show, usually the oldest, most experienced performer, who “knows more tricks.” Even if the cast is 60 percent Russian, those performers will gravitate toward the oldest, responding to him and following his orders.
The pride and admiration Vial has for the artists who put on Cirque du Soleil is evident. She is quick to describe how difficult every night is for them. Unlike most of us, who can struggle through work tired or sick or hungover, they have to be at the top of their game. This love and respect is evident in her photographs, which possess a grace that still allows the intricacy of costume, character, and pose to shine through. They betray the emotion Vial feels for the Cirque.
“There’s no room for individualist in Le Cirque—we’re all a big family and we all perform for everybody,” she says.
So it’s no surprise that Vial has no intention of leaving her circus family. She may have shot more than 6,000 images of the company and its shows, but her work is far from complete.
“Just let me shoot until I die,” she says. “That’s all I’m asking.”