12 Hours With a Cirque du Soleil Aerial Artist
Julie Dionne and her team swing from chandeliers, hanging over 30 feet high
Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo is taking residency at Little Caesars Arena this week between Jan. 10-13, offering showgoers an unforgettable spectacle of coordinated trampoline acts, juggling performances, and ascending aerial routines. Before tonight’s presentation, we sat down with 43-year-old Julie Dionne, who has been with the Canadian entertainment company, and the largest theatrical producer in the world, for over 20 years. Dionne began ballet lessons at age 5 and danced throughout her entire adolescence, earning a degree in choreography at Cégep du Vieux Montréal. “After I graduated, I wondered what I was going to do with my life,” she says. She auditioned for a spot at École Nationale de Cirque, a premier circus school in her hometown of Montreal, Quebec, after high school. Accepted in 1995, Dionne enrolled in the school’s three-year silk aerial arts program, where she also learned acrobatics, juggling, and tight wire acts. At the time of her graduation from École Nationale de Cirque in 1998, Cirque du Soleil had partnered with The Walt Disney Co. to produce La Nouba, a show that required an aerial artist like Dionne. “That’s when I joined the circus, and never went back to dancing,” she says with a laugh. Just hours before her onstage appearance, Dionne shares a detailed account of her performance-day regimen.
JUlie Dionne With Her trapeze boots
Dionne is up early to call her daughter, Mathilde, 5, and son, Emile, 8, in Montreal before they go to school. She briefly chats with her husband, Jermie, a former Cirque du Soleil performer. "I usually go back to bed after that," she says with a grin, not having to be at rehearsal for a few hours.
She wakes up and noshes on a cup of fruit, one of five snacks throughout the day, before drinking a cup coffee. "I'm not a big morning eater, and I never have been," Dionne admits. After hopping in the shower, she leaves her Midtown Airbnb and heads for the QLine to get to Little Caesars Arena.
As coach of Corteo’s aerial chandelier act, Dionne spends a portion of her morning with stage management, discussing what changes have been made to the acts she and her team will be executing tonight. She checks in the with other five female aerial artists — only four of them performing onstage — to see if there are any recent injuries or health ailments that could affect the presentation. Dionne adjusts accordingly. "Having a strong and healthy team is our first priority."
Dionne and HEr aerial Artists Testing the measurements of the Chandeliers
Next for Dionne is confirming that the large, crystal-embellished chandeliers, which she and her team will be swinging from, are suspended at the correct heights. Every scene of her act demands an exact measurement, each varying by three or four inches. “We’re trying to be as specific as possible,” she says. In addition to promoting efficiency, this procedure ensures the safety of the artists, who rapidly swivel while clutching onto the heavy metal structure.
Prior to mounting the fixtures, she completes her exercise routine. Dionne stimulates her joints, shoulder, wrists, and most importantly, her hips. "We're really exercising our hip joints throughout our act," she says. Dionne then follows her warm-up with some time on a treadmill or stationary bicycle, and finishes with stretching and strengthening exercises with elastic bands.
Dionne (far left) and her team mid performance
It’s time for rehearsal. Dionne and her team practice their routine — four toned women begin gracefully prancing around two chandeliers, one hand firmly secured in a velvet strap within the crystal-beaded chains of each fixture. Soon, they are gently lifted into the air. “To make the chandelier look light and delicate, and our every move effortless, is the biggest challenge of the show,” she says.
Rehearsal is finished, but Dionne’s coaching is not. Also serving as an artistic coach, her daily responsibilities include assisting with choreography for a number of other acts in Corteo, including the silk aerial performances. "If there are any new performers that have been added to the cast, I'm tasked with teaching them the songs and dance routines that compose the show," she says. This consumes a large part of her day.
Dionne's Costume for her gravity-defying act
Dionne begins getting ready for the show. Every Cirque du Soleil member is responsible for their own hair and makeup, and goes through a tutorial on how to apply the cosmetics necessary before being tested on their abilities to mimic what they’ve learned. After applying her makeup, she gets into costume, a mesh leotard that gives the illusion that she's wearing a crop top with a matching mini skirt and thigh-high tights. "I get ready before our afternoon meeting so that I can focus my energy on the show," Dionne says.
Dionne attends a company meeting. This is standard for the first day of a performance in a new location. The entire cast goes over the artist director’s show notes. "This usually takes place an hour and a half before showtime," she says.
The SET For CIRQUE DU SOLEIL CORTEO
Patrons have taken their seats at Little Caesars Arena and Dionne and her team are ready to wow the audience with their gravity-defying act. "We're creating this fantasy onstage, that's very dignified and dreamy," she says.
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