18 things we learned by going backstage at Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai”


Icarus is the son of Daedalus, a master craftsman who constructs a working pair of wings out of mere wax and feathers. Ignoring his father’s cautions, the boy flies too close to the sun and meets a ghastly fate when he plummets to earth and drowns in the sea.

Or does he?

Cirque du Soleil is the world renowned troupe that has sparked awe and wonder in approximately 180 million spectators. The company is known for routinely accomplishing the impossible. In Varekai, for instance, the production that will be at Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center from Wednesday, November 22 through Sunday, November 26, we learn that Icarus didn’t actually perish. Instead, he landed in a magical “wherever.” However, the epic fall did leave him quite broken. But through the kindness and caring of a multitude of colorful characters that would make even Dr. Seuss’ head spin, the young man embarks on a remarkable journey of healing… and love.

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At Varekai, the audience is treated to a remarkable array of performances that feature incredible displays of strength, skill, and flexibility. The artists whirl and twirl about in dazzling costumes through the exotic, otherworldly scenery, often materializing from seemingly nowhere or dropping to the stage from the sky. The night’s acrobatic feats are all executed in perfect sync to a thrilling soundtrack of rousing music that is performed live on stage during the show.

To make the extraordinary happen night after night, there are a lot of behind the scenes factors that the audience never even considers. Cirque du Soleil was kind enough to offer Entertaining Options a rare behind-the-curtain peek at what it takes to make the impossible… possible. Our tour guide was the incredibly knowledgeable and patient Maxwell (Max) Batista. Without further ado, here are 18 things we learned by going backstage at Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai

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What “Vareki” Means
The word Varekai comes from the Romany language of the gypsies. It is pronounced ver·ay·’kie and it translates to “wherever.”

What The Show Is About
Varekai takes place in an enchanted forest at the summit of a volcano. The story was partially inspired by the Greek myth of Icarus. In the Cirque version, the injured man meets a plethora of weird and mysterious creatures that all work together to teach him how to walk again. It is a story of struggle and trust.

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The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Varekai
Besides the Greek myth, Varekai is inspired by an experience that the writer/director of the show, Dominic Champagne, had. Before creating Varekai, he was working on a different production and he fell and broke both of his legs. After that, Dominic needed people to help him do everything, whether it was getting in a car or preparing a meal. That’s when he realized that we need people to help us in this life, we need friends who can help us get through the tough parts.

Each Costume Is Custom Made
Whenever a new artist joins the show, they are sent to Montreal to get a full scan of their body. The process includes taking over 300 measurements so a custom-made costume can be created specifically for that individual. It takes a team of 300 people to make all the costumes for the 20 different Cirque shows that perform around the world.

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No Animals!
Cirque du Soleil does not use any animals in any of its shows. However, if you pay close attention to Varekai, you will notice a furry critter gracing the stage during one of the segments.

Who Does The Makeup
Each artist is responsible for their own makeup. Each makeup color has a specific code to make sure every artist looks perfect at every show. The makeup is remarkably durable and can be applied several hours before a performance.

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What The Artists Do During The Day
Before the artists go on stage, there are a number of things they do every day to help ensure an optimum performance that evening. They arrive at the venue early to work out, have something to eat, warm-up, start their makeup, put on their costume, apply the finishing touches to their makeup, and add the final pieces of their costume before making their entrance.

What The Artists Wear When Rehearsing
When artists first start rehearsing, they wear normal clothing. As they progress, they do rehearsals in full costume. Once artists are comfortable performing their act in full costume, they go back to wearing normal clothes. However, they do continue wearing the shoes from their costume when they rehearse.

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The Music Has A Different Role
Varekai is different from traditional musicals. Normally on stage, the artist follows the musicians, but in a Cirque production, it’s the opposite. Because the performers are doing difficult tricks, sometimes something unexpected might happen — a juggler might let something fall — and the musicians will need to adjust. The whole time the artists are performing, the musicians are watching and communicating with each other to stay in time with the performance.

There’s A Live Foley Artist
If a clown is throwing something during the show, the audience needs to hear that throwing sound to get the full effect of the bit. Unfortunately, there is no way for the clown to make that sound himself. In Varekai, there is a person who is dedicated to intently watching the entire performance and triggering every single sound effect at precisely the right instant so the show is the best it can be. If this person is even a second off in timing, the impact of the moment will be lost… and the joke will be ruined.

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How They Keep The Timing So Precise
When you are backstage, in almost every direction you look, you will find a TV screen that displays what is happening on the stage. This is so, no matter where the artists are, they know exactly what’s going on in the show. Additionally, there is a manager at the front of the stage who is in constant communication with the backstage manager to make sure no entrance cues are missed.

How They Travel Beneath The Stage
Believe it or not, there’s not a whole lot of room beneath the stage in Varekai. There’s barely enough height to crawl. Yet, throughout the night the artists and technicians race about that tiny space making magic happen. How is it done? The artists and technicians lay down and ride dollies!

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What Happens Before The Audience Arrives
Even before people begins showing up at the venue, the sound of wind and strange environmental noises drift throughout the arena. This is done to subtly put the audience in the proper frame of mind from the moment they walk through the door.

What Happens At T Minus 10 Minutes
In every Cirque du Soleil show at exactly 10 minutes before the start, it’s time for what is called animation. Clowns and creatures from the production circulate through the crowd to break the ice and get the audience excited about the performance.


Safety First
“The most important thing is the safety of our artists,” Max told Entertaining Options. “If for any reason we believe it is not safe enough for the artist to do an act, then we do not allow them to do the act. That is why we have two physical therapists taking care of our artists. Every day, they do a full analysis of the body to make sure everything is in good condition to do the act. This way we avoid mistakes and injuries.”

What If A Performer Needs A Day Off?
Most of the artists are able to replace each other. They train for each act so there is always a back up performer available for every act.

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The Numbers
Varekai travels with 21 trucks that are filled with 100 people and 700 road cases. In each city, Cirque du Soleil employs about 100 individuals to help out with the show. The stage is comprised of 500 pieces that fit together like a massive puzzle, and the magical forest is made up of 330 trees — the trees are set up one by one by hand. It takes 12 hours to set up the stage. The stage has 5 trap doors. There are 23 technicians, 2 physical therapists, and 1 wig specialist on staff. Each week, Varekai performs 6 to 7 shows and there have been approximately 5,000 performances to date. There are 2,000 costume pieces and 1,300 decorative leaves, which need to be steamed every day. There are 4 people who take care of all the costumes. The performers shoe sizes range from 4 1/2 to 12 1/2 and each performer receive a minimum of 2 massages per week. Additionally, Varekai tours with 1 gym, 6 washing machines, and 2 dryers.


As Max put it, “If I have something ripped off my costume, maybe no one will see it… or maybe 2,400 people will see it! There will always be someone who is paying attention to the small details. For us, it is very important that every single detail is just right because that’s what makes the Cirque du Soleil experience so special.”

Varekai is a stunning spectacle that offers an unparalleled entertainment experience. It is a spellbinding show that captivates and thrills. Don’t miss this masterpiece of human athleticism when it comes to town for seven shows this week.

IMG_3560Dates and times for Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai at Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center (tickets):

Wednesday, November 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, November 24 at 4:00 p.m.
Friday, November 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, November 25 at 4:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 26 at 1:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 26 at 5:00 p.m.

Cirque du Soleil: websiteFacebookTwitter

Related: “Interview with Fabrice Lemire, Artistic Director of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Toruk: The First Flight’

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