Remembering Her Life With Cirque du Soleil: Genevieve Denis
By Liam Klenk
French-Canadian Genevieve Denis joined her first Cirque du Soleil touring show in 2002. Touring with Cirque brought Genevieve many new experiences. It changed her life and her perspectives forever. Remembering her life with Cirque du Soleil, Genevieve shared some of these memories with me in this personal and heartwarming interview.
Hello Genevieve, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me.
Please tell us a bit about your background?
Hello Liam, I was born in Ottawa in 1971. Most of my life, I lived in the province of Quebec.
I spent my childhood and teenage years in Quebec City. This is also where I studied at a photography school. Then, I moved to Montreal to work as a photographer.
However, after two years, digital photography took over the entire market. I had been trained in analog photography and lost most of my customers as a direct result.
In search of a new source of income, I began working for a company called Ticketmaster. I stayed with them for 6 years, from 1996 until 2002.
Ticketmaster sold tickets for Cirque du Soleil. Back then you couldn’t buy tickets online. You had to go through Ticketmaster and reserve tickets via calling directly. You’d actually need to call Montreal to buy tickets.
Was this your first contact with Cirque du Soleil?
Yes, I was tasked with selling Cirque du Soleil tickets because I was bilingual.
Over the years, Cirque du Soleil staff would often be in touch with me too, when they needed reports, etc.
This is how I met people who worked for Cirque. Over time, I became friends with some of them.
In April 2002, one of my friends from Cirque du Soleil called. He said, “Hey, I am going on tour and we need someone for our box office. Do you want to come with me?”
I quit my job at Ticketmaster, left, and went on tour.
How did that feel? The constant changes of environment? The touring life?
At first, I was incredibly intimidated and impressed. Cirque was so big and so popular.
But I realized quickly that it was a family. There were people from all over the planet. And they were going to become my family.
I learned so much.
I started working at the box office with Varekai in Montreal, then toured through North America with them.
After that, I joined the tour of Saltimbanco in Europe.
When I arrived on the European continent, the guy I was supposed to replace at the box office had changed his mind and didn’t want to leave.
I stood there with my suitcases, not knowing what to do next. The tour director looked at me and said, “Well, I have only one position left to fill and it’s security.” I just thought, “What??!” Then ended up working in security for two years.
In different countries they have different safety measures and rules to follow. Wherever we went I would have classes with the local fire departments and emergency services. One time I did a course on a training ground with abandoned buildings. They set the buildings on fire and we had to escape. It was such a great experience.
Alegria came after Saltimbanco. My husband and I first joined the show in Montreal and then went on tour in Europe. After 1 year, I got pregnant and gave birth on tour.
This was just before Alegria went to Japan. I went with them, but was on maternity leave. I loved Japan. It was a difficult environment. Hard but eye opening. And so different. When I arrived, I thought, “This is another planet.” The Japanese mentality. The way they interact with each other. For example you get into a subway and it’s packed. But it is also super quiet.
The same happens in the Big Top during shows. The audience is so quiet. They just applaud in the end, and then leave. And they give flowers.
When our 2-year tour through Japan ended, so did my maternity leave.
I went back to Europe with Alegria and finished the European leg of our tour with them. Then Alegria was bound for South America. It was 2009. I would have loved to go, but my son needed to go to school in Canada, so we left the show and went home.
During the 7 years after, I worked for other companies.
Then, in 2016, I saw a job opening at Cirque du Soleil: Talent Acquisition for touring shows. I was hired and so happy to be back!
A colleague of mine and I had our first day of work at Halloween. There were events and contests all day at headquarters. Even a parade. Everyone wore costumes. So, the second day of work, we had no idea who was who and who we had already met on the first day.
I stayed with Cirque for 4 more years… until the Covid19 crisis happened…
I will never forget my life with Cirque. Especially being on tour with my show family.
I toured with Cirque du Soleil for 7 years. It was wonderful. But of course, like with everything, there were ups and downs.
Can you give us a few examples of experiences on tour that stand out most in your memory?
The family vibe, the connections, the great friends.
You build friendships that last forever. I quit touring life in 2009. Yet, I still have friends all over the planet. We talk, we exchange pictures. We are still very much in contact.
Then, some markets were tough. And some places we visited were tough, too. In some places, while I worked security, the local agents were not happy to be working with a woman.
Thinking of specific experiences, I remember one place in particular that really changed me as a person.
We were in Paris. Our site was outside the city, in the suburbs, in Saint Denis. The land that had been chosen for us was occupied by five clans of gypsies. Each clan lived separated from the others. But they had all lived in this location for many years. They had no city services. No one picked up their garbage. And they had no water, electricity, or toilets.
In order for Cirque du Soleil to install the Big Top, we had to move some of the clans to further outside the city for the duration of our presence. Three clans had to be moved. Two clans stayed.
The gypsies earned money by finding and selling copper. They burned parts of bicycles to extract the copper. Usually, they would burn these parts at night. It would smell very strong and awful.
Cirque made an arrangement with them. We will provide you with garbage disposal, water, and toilets while we are there, as long as you don’t burn things at night during our performances. That worked well for both sides.
Then, Cirque du Monde got involved, too. It is a branch of Cirque that goes to places where people are struggling, poor. The group engages with these communities, plays with the kids and teaches them circus acts, etc.
Cirque du Monde came to work with the gypsy kids on their site.
At the end of our run, I was one of the lucky ones to be invited to go to the gypsy camp and see their kids perform circus acts. I saw their culture, heard their music. We were welcomed like kings. It was so moving. Incredible.
Gypsy communities are very closed. They don’t open up easily. It’s a culture you are usually never allowed to experience. We were welcomed into their camps like we were family. The kids were incredibly cute and amazing.
When we left, we decided to leave things for them. Things to cook, stuff for the kids, clothing… All the things we didn’t absolutely need.
I remember one very bad experience as well. In fact it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
I was in Japan and my son was just 11 months old. We were in Fukuoka in a room on the 26th floor. In a high rise building just next to the beach.
I did my morning exercises, ate a big bowl of fruits, watched Friends on DVD, when all of a sudden there was a horrible earthquake. My son was in bed. In order to grab him, I had to crawl on the floor because the building shook so much at this height, it was impossible to stand up.
My son didn’t cry. He didn’t say a word. He was just stunned.
We managed to hunker down in what seemed like a secure place in our apartment. I remember the shower door exploding. Cracks opened up all over the ceiling. It was terrifying.
As soon as the earthquake stopped (it must have been only a couple of minutes but felt as if it had been going on for hours), I grabbed everything I could. I tried to call my husband. He was on site. But there were no lines. You couldn’t reach anyone.
I ran down the stairs. 26 floors down. I ran so fast, the next day I couldn’t even walk. But I still couldn’t get a hold of anybody from Cirque. Everyone was on site.
Loudspeaker announcements were everywhere. But they were all in Japanese. I couldn’t understand anything other than the urgency behind the words.
On a normal day, a shuttle would bring us on site. I waited and waited at the shuttle stop. Finally, a shuttle showed up and a small handful of my Cirque colleagues and I hopped on.
We heard sirens, the specific ones that will be sounded to alert the populace about potentially approaching tsunamis. This was even more terrifying.
As soon as the bus entered the Cirque site, the entire crew was there. Everyone waited for us. Everyone applauded at the sight of us. Some people cried.
Again, I thought, “Oh my god, this is my family. They worried about us. They waited for us and cared for us.”
When we went back to the hotel that night, hotel management wanted to put us on the 6th floor. I was like, “No. I am not going to any floors higher than street level.”
There were aftershocks all night. Everything higher up had been destroyed.
Seeing my touring life from the outside, people always say, “You’re so lucky. You’re traveling everywhere.” They don’t think of the work that we do, and of the family vibe. They only think about traveling.
But it is about so much more than just the traveling. The human connections are the most important aspect of it all. The collaboration, creating something magical together, being there for each other.
Everybody helps out when you are on tour. Everybody is watching for everyone’s kids when the kids are onsite. It is a big community.