Life in the circus, a behind-the-scenes look at Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai

    Milles Schnorbus, a rigger with Cirque du Soleil, looks down from the platform hanging by a few thin steel cables from the ceiling of the Wells Fargo Center. Behind him, hidden from sight and not in use today, the scoreboard.

    More than 30 feet below, actors rehearse for the Philadelphia performances of Cirque’s Varekai arena show.

    This show was launched more than a decade ago in one of those familiar iconic circus tents. Recently, the whole show was transformed to fit arenas in cities all around the country, this week in Philly.

    A crew of 150 (100 hired locally) unloads the 18 trailers. Amazingly, it takes only 14 hours for this well-oiled machine to put up the show. Everything is adjusted to work as efficiently as possible, so that it takes only three-and-a-half hours to take it all down and hit the road to the next spot.

    The traveling production is made possible because of the hard work of a crew of highly skilled people. In addition to 50 or so artists, the crew is made up of small teams of riggers, sewers, technicians and so on.

    They build, maintain and often fix the static and dynamic elements of the show. Each week they set up in another venue with its own set of challenges.

    All members of the crew have one thing in common: all they have must be packed and stowed away in hundreds of custom-built, man-sized road cases. For example, the stage and all that belongs to it uses up four of the Cirque’s 53-foot-long trailers, says rigger Milles Schnorbus.

    In one of the locker rooms in the catacombs of the venue, a sewing atelier is set up. Large road cases are opened up to become temporary work stations for the wardrobe crew.

    Wardrobe assistant Rikki Seffell is busy stitching a new sole on a red leather boot when Lasha, a Georgian Dancer, walks in to pick it up.

    “If you don’t feel confident about your material you can’t perform the trick well” says Lasha. The old sole lies on the table with a hole worn right under the big toe.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.