British-Israeli performer Shelli Epstein plays the Running Woman in Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia. The show, dubbed ‘A Waking Dream of Mexico’ is the company’s latest to tour to the UK, opening at the Royal Albert Hall in January 2020. It also marks the thirty year anniversary of Cirque du Soleil in the UK.
Shelli has played this role for over three years, from when the show opened in April 2016, touring with it ever since. The character is inspired by the Tarahumaras, a native Mexican tribe known for their ultra long-distance running abilities. In the magical-realism of Cirque du Soleil shows, she is also a monarch butterfly, and stars on the production’s poster.
Her main circus discipline in the show is Russian Swing, a large, floor-mounted swing from which multiple acrobats gain altitude. They then leap from it, performing impressing somersaults before landing on another synchronized swing.
We were lucky enough to talk to Shelli, who couldn’t be more excited to perform in her native London.
Luzia is described as a “Waking Dream of Mexico”?
Shelli: Yes! We got to actually perform in Mexico and once we were there it was so funny it was like, that’s like Luzia, that’s from the show! It was just absolutely clear to me they did an amazing job of representing the country in such positive ways: the music, the colour. It’s just a really special show.
The mission of Cirque du Soleil is to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world. How do you bring in that dream-brain stuff, not thinking-brain?
Shelli: Yes, that’s right. Honestly, you just have to come and see it and you when you feel it for yourself it really is something quite special. There’s a lot of powerful, strong imagery through the show what makes the whole thing really stunning in a way that I just don’t know how to describe. Honestly you do have to come and just see it.
They say there’s a particular way to understand formal dance like ballet. Is that true of circus?
Shelli: I think with circus there’s more openness to interpretation. I mean, if you have never been to Mexico I think you can do some research on some of the symbols that we have here and there throughout the show. But they are subtle, it’s not like in your face. So people could look into that, but besides that just be present, just enjoy it and take what we give.
So will people miss things?
Shelli: There are some subtleties thought the show, like there are things in the background. You can come and watch the show again and notice something else that didn’t catch your eye the first time which is the beauty of seeing the performance more than once, but I think everything is out there, we’re not hiding anything.
Are the costumes and set are a big part of making the show?
Shelli: So my character for example, I’m a monarch butterfly and that represents migration. The company is Canadian and the theme of the show is Mexico so it connects with the migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico. My character is also an ultramarathon runner from the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, hence why she’s called the running woman, and I have body paint that matches what they have.
And you have to do a lot of running?
Shelli: Yeah, I do run a lot throughout the show. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Is there a transformation you need to go through to become that butterfly?
Shelli: Kind of, once I’ve put my make up on I’m no longer Shelli any more. I am, once I’m on stage, someone else. I am this character. We have a very good connection.
You have to put your make up on yourself?
Shelli: Yes I do! Can you imagine one person doing 46 artists’ make up every day. There wouldn’t be enough time!
Are you a pro at that?
Shelli: At my own make up? Yes. If you try to give me someone else’s, it’s back to square one.
Talking of migration – you’re a Londoner. How is coming home?
Shelli: Oh my gosh, I can’t! It’s just so surreal, the fact that I get to perform in front of the people who’ve watch me growing up doing gymnastics from my gym club, to my school, my parents, family, friends that I’ve gone away to pursue this career and come home, and for them to actually see me in my element. It’s a dream. They’ve supported me my whole life, encouraged me. It’s me being able to return the favour – to show them what came out of it.
The fact that I am coming home I get the love and support of the people who are here, but I also have the love and support of the people I work with, we are like a little family. But when I say little, we’re a lot of people. We’re like a big family.
[A Cirque du Soleil show typically tours with around 125 people in total across all the different professions]
Some describe it as a travelling city. How is that as an experience?
Shelli: It is incredible. It is like a little city. The thing is it does get a bit suffocating. We are on top of each other. We work six days a week. We hang out together because more or less in most cities we don’t really know people, that’s why the fact that when I am coming home I’m going to have that normal life and see other people who I know, because as much as I love my circus family it’s exciting to come home. But I’m also excited to bring everyone here and show them where I’m from!
Are you the tour guide while they’re in London?
Shelli: Maybe, we’ll see. I don’t know the city as well as I used to, but I’m excited to fall in love with London all over again.
When were you last here for a good period of time?
Shelli: Almost 8 years ago.
And how do you enjoy the travelling side?
Shelli: We work six days a week. Monday is our day off in the week and that’s when I try to explore the city and make the most out of the travel aspect of the job. More often than not people are tired, but I’m only in certain places for such a short amount of time I’m really trying to get the most out of each place.
Can you tell me about your past in gymnastics?
Shelli: I was a gymnast from the age of four to eighteen, now I’m classified as a professional acrobat. It kind of intertwines, but acrobatics is more into the circus world. The first job I did they really transformed me from gymnast to performer, teaching me these different apparatuses and that’s how I became a circus performer.
And with circus you don’t just rehearse for a few weeks like a play?
Shelli: No. I had three months training for my discipline of Russian Swing and then we had three months of the creation and then we premiered. That already feels a lifetime ago. Once the show has opened we continue to train! With my discipline I train three times a week, and I do a backup discipline as well that I train twice a week. We’re always training because it is such a high-demand on the body and there’s a risk factor. We have to take the precautions to implement safety so we train a lot. We don’t rehearse the show every day because we perform it every day but practice our disciplines on a regular basis.
How does that creative process work?
Shelli: We have a director. We have some influence, but more or less the director already has an idea of what they want and they’re just putting the puzzle pieces together to create their vision. We’re there to help. Sometimes we can be like, ‘Oh, maybe this will be better,’ and they might take that into consideration.
And Cirque du Soleil is celebrating 30 years in the UK. How do you keep that established vibe but make it new?
Shelli: Shelli: It’s interesting. We have some traditional disciplines like contortion and juggling. But even with those Cirque du Soleil adds their magic and has flair. There are acts you’ve seen before, that you’re familiar with, but shown in a completely new, different light. There’s also acts that the UK will never have seen in a Cirque show, for example there’s a huge rain curtain that will never have been used before and the acts that perform under it are amazing.
How does Cirque du Soleil interact with the smaller circuses, like those having a bit of a heyday in London right now?
Shelli: Circus is certainly growing. They’re not little, they’re just smaller companies, and they’re just as good. Most of them come with different styles, more contemporary-based. It’s a different experience. They’re both just as intimate. If you’re working with less people you’re on top of each other, just with less people. If you work with a bigger company, there’s more people that you spend your time with. But more or less you end up with the same experience.
And if you hadn’t run away to join the circus, what would you be doing right now?
Shelli: I always said I wanted to be a stunt double, a circus performer, or on the West End stage. So still performing. It was always towards the performing industry.
And are you happy where you’ve ended up?
Shelli: Absolutely, I couldn’t be happier.
Cirque Du Soleil – Luzia
ROYAL ALBERT HALL, LONDON
12th January to 16th February 2020