Cirque’s Mexican Dream

Cirque’s Mexican Dream

Image: Running Woman. Photographer: Anne Colliard.

Luzia, Cirque du Soleil’s 38th extravaganza under the Big Top, is touring Australia this year. Jonathan Cox spoke to Helena Merten and Nelson Smyles, two Aussies living their dreams performing with the troupe.

From the Spanish ‘luz’ (light) and ‘lluvia’ (rain), Luzia takes audiences on a surreal escape to an imaginary Mexico, a world suspended between dreams and reality. The show epitomizes Mexico’s music, culture, ever changing landscape, and even integrates the element of water, a first for the Canadian company.

With its stunning visuals, a cast of 47 on-stage performers (representing 18 different nationalities), death-defying acts, over 1,000 costumes, and Mexican inspired music (including a live band and singer), this show caters to a broad audience.

Helena Merton is originally from the Gold Coast, where she started gymnastics at the age of 5.  As a teenager she became national champion in tumbling, leading to a job with the House of Dancing Water in Macau.

In Luzia, Helena’s opening performance in the act called ‘Running Woman’ is inspired by the indigenous Tarahumara people, renowned for their exceptional long-distance running skills.

Wearing four-metre-long butterfly wings (in a tribute to the annual migratory journey of the monarch butterfly), her performance is a representation of strength, grace, and determination, embodying the spirit of Mexico and its culture.

Helena also performs in the Masts and Poles sequence, where she climbs acrobatically up and down vertical poles and crisscrosses in the air while leaping from one pole to the other.

The strength and agility of these performers is hard to fathom. Finally, Helena performs in the breathtaking Swing to Swing act, where for the first time at Cirque, the two swings are mounted on a rotating turntable so that the audience can enjoy the performance from all angles.

The pushers demonstrate impeccable timing by flinging their partners, who then perform complex aerial maneuvers, up to 10 metres in the air.

I asked Helena what it takes for performers to keep up their stamina, and to avoid injuries performing 10 shows a week.

“What you see on the stage is the result of between one and three hours of training in harnesses and practice each day. We’ve got it down to a precise art.”

Nelson Smyles also performs Hoop Diving and plays a clown once a week.

How did a young man growing up in Port Macquarie end up traveling the world with Luzia?

Nelson says, “I spent most of my life training in gymnastics, working out in the gym, and obsessed with parkour (athletic running, jumping and flipping). Then I studied at the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne for three years, specializing in hoop diving and clowning for 40 hours a week”.

Just as he was about to graduate, Nelson had the opportunity to audition for and ultimately join Luzia, his “bulls-eye moment!”  Nelson says he loves hoop diving and clowning equally. “The camaraderie between the hoop diving team is fun. However, as a clown I get to engage with the audience. I can play with the show, and really feel the themes that it is trying to give off as well.”

Nelson explains that “hoop diving is a team of acrobats dressed as hummingbirds (complete with beaks), jumping through a stack of hoops (each measuring a mere 75 cm in diameter) on two giant treadmills. We stack them either two, three or four high and we do solo and combo tricks.”

Image: Hoop Diving. Photographer: Matt Beard,

I asked Nelson whether using the high-speed treadmills is more taxing on his body, but he assured me that “once you get used to the timing and the way that it moves, it’s much easier on the body, because you don’t have to put quite as much force into each bit of acrobatics, as the treadmill will help you continue moving or to stop.”

What appeals to Helena as a Cirque performer?

“I feel like I’m welcoming and embracing the audience,” she says. “It’s special that people are taken away and are totally immersed in what’s going on. You don’t do it for the competition but to show your skills in a more artistic way.”

They both tell me that Cirque performers are well looked after.

“We have two physios, a masseur and an amazing team of chefs,” says Nelson.

“Were athletes too and need certain dietary requirements. Some people don’t want to gain weight, others want to maintain it. Some people want to eat vegan food. We’re all looked after very well!” says Helena. Whilst in Australia, the cast and crew live in company-provided corporate apartments and hotels.

I asked Helena and Nelson if they were excited to be performing Luzia in Australia, on home ground?

Helena says, “I’m looking forward to seeing my family, teachers, and coaches (from the Gold Coast) that have supported me to get where I am today. I’ve finally reached my dream that I had while watching Cirque as a seven-year-old.”

Helena says she hopes there might be a little girl in the audience who is inspired by her act, to also fulfil her dreams. “For me that is mind blowing,” she says.

Why should audiences come and see Luzia?

Nelson says, “it captures Mexico so perfectly. We toured Mexico for five months, and everything that is in the show is there. When it comes to the music, the costumes, and the artists, it’s just beautiful. It’s got something in it for everybody.”

Helena enjoys that the show is “so full of little details about Mexico. Also, it’s very immersive. It’s so encapsulating! You won’t have to think about anything else for two hours.”

She also makes a very significant point. “We see lots of YouTube videos of people doing crazy and phenomenal things, but to actually see them in person is totally different!”  

As well as the acts featuring Helena and Nelson, audiences can expect to see acrobats, Cyr wheel and trapeze (beneath a huge rain curtain), hand balancing, freestyle football, juggling, clowns, hair suspension, contortion and more.

Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia under the Big Top opened at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne on March 24, ahead of a national tour including Adelaide (from June 9), Perth (from July 25), Brisbane (from Sep 25) and Sydney (from Nov 24).

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