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Touring With Cirque Du Soleil: Tanya Burka

By Anna Robb
Photos By: Peter Ward

What’s it like to be on tour with a circus show? How do people land a job working for Cirque du Soleil? What do they love and hate about being on tour and what are the challenges? TheatreArtLife caught up with some of the cast of  TORUK – The First Flight to find out:

Tanya Burka – Main Character on TORUK

Where are you from and what was your journey that led you to the circus?

I’m from Philadelphia in the United States, and my journey to circus was very unusual.

I was 17 and had already been accepted to university by the time I first tried circus and was told that I had the potential to be a professional performer.

This idea was a complete reversal from everything I had planned for my life, and I couldn’t imagine disappointing my parents by telling them “Forget about engineering, I’m joining the circus!”

So I said nothing and I went to university. I figured that if circus was still important to me after waiting for four years, then I would know that it was the right choice to pursue it after receiving my degree.

Because of that I was already 22 when I began doing circus full-time, and I may be the only professional circus performer in the world with a degree in nuclear engineering!

What is touring life like? What are the good parts? What are the not so good parts?

Touring life is crazy and fun and challenging all at once.

You get paid to see the world and experience different cultures and try new things, which is such a privilege! Meeting people from all over the world makes you realize how much more you have in common than not, and I love trying out new cuisines too.

At the same time, it can definitely be challenging to be far from home, to deal with jet lag as a high-calibre athlete, and to struggle to get things done in unfamiliar places.

But I have to say, we’re incredibly lucky to be touring in the digital age. Translation apps can help us communicate, and VoIP and social media let us stay connected to friends and loved ones, no matter how far apart we are.

What is your role/roles in the show and how have you trained to be in this role in TORUK – The First Flight?

I am one of two performers that plays Tsyal, the female lead in the show. We alternate shows because of the heavy workload involved in playing a principle character.

Our show is inspired by James Cameron’s epic movie AVATAR. Since it’s set thousands of years before any human set foot on Pandora, we all play Na’vi, those tall blue beings you saw in the film.

Tsyal primarily has to be an excellent aerialist because she does a three-minute solo aerial silks act in the show. But she also climbs Chinese poles, does floor acrobatics, plays a character role and speaks dialogue in the Na’vi language – and from start to finish she’ll run about 10km during the course of each performance! So the skill set we need is incredibly diverse.

I came into the show with 11 years of professional experience, and in preparation for this role also did three weeks of intensive training at Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal. My job there was to memorize all of the dialogue and stage blocking for Tsyal, get introduced to Na’vi movement, learn to do the stage makeup, and create my aerial silks act that I would bring to the show.

How do you keep yourself performance ready?

I’m still in the process of figuring this out, hahahaha! I’ve been with TORUK for three months now, and am gradually adjusting to the workload of playing a main character.

Because of all the running we do in the show, I do more leg strength and stability exercises than I typically did before, and that means also incorporating extra stretching sessions and abdominal workouts to maintain the flexibility and lightness I need as an aerialist.

Balancing out all this extra backstage work is the need for some serious sleep. 8 hours for me is the minimum and 9-10 hours is ideal.

Hydration is also critical. I drink an 18oz bottle of water as soon as I get up each day, and try to go through at least three more bottles during the rest of the day.

Where has been your favourite location on tour and why?

With TORUK – The First Flight, my favorite location so far has been Adelaide in South Australia. The National Wine Centre there has an amazing selection of wines (I got to taste the legendary Penfolds Grange there) and I also went to a wildlife centre where I got to hold a koala. I have rarely been that excited in my entire life!

If you could have any skill in the world, what would it be?

Definitely to be able to sing. It’s such a universal art form across the world and I think, like circus, that it can really bridge cultural gaps and bring people together. Unfortunately, I have just enough of an ear to know that I can’t hold a tune!

I’d settle for playing a musical instrument, though. I want to buy a concertina soon, it’s such a classic circus instrument.

Where will you be in 10 years?

I’ll still be working within the circus industry, but not as a performer. I’m already very invested in transitioning to working as a company manager for smaller touring shows and projects once I’m done onstage.

Having had an educational background as an engineer and a career as a performer is unusual, and helps me understand both the technical and artistic challenges involved in a show.

Whose role in TORUK do you respect the most and why?

The puppeteers, hands down!

On TORUK, all the creatures of Pandora are brought to life by large-scale puppets and our team of 6 world-class puppeteers. The largest puppet is 12 meters and weighs 250 pounds, just to give you an idea of what they deal with!

They are on stage as often times as the principle characters in the show, running their butts off while managing massive puppets. Because they’re so good at their jobs they seem practically invisible on stage, though, so sometimes it’s easy to forget how demanding their show track is. They’re truly extraordinary artists and athletes, just as much as each Na’vi in blue.

What is an essential item in your suitcase on tour?

My Nanopresso. It’s a small, portable espresso maker that doesn’t require any electricity or stovetop to work, so even in a hotel room with just a water kettle, I’m all set to get a great caffeine fix.

No one should ever have to interact with me before my first coffee of the day!

Who do you miss the most while on tour?

My husband. Jonathan is a social worker and not a fellow performer, which surprises a lot of people. We’re very used to the rhythm of me being away on gigs and tours – we just had our ten-year anniversary last month! – but of course I still miss him tons.

Who makes you laugh on tour and why?

Everyone! TORUK is one of the best casts and crews I’ve had the privilege of touring with. It was a huge part of my wanting to join this particular show.

The people on this tour are diverse (we’re a group of 100 people from 25 different nationalities!) in their backgrounds and interests, but really gel well as a group. It makes it so easy to hang out with different people offstage as well as to interact with them onstage, and I’ve found that everyone has the capacity to surprise me in good ways.

Describe the biggest challenge you have had on tour.

Touring with TORUK has been comparatively smooth so I’ll share a “back in the day” story!

I was part of the cast for another circus company making a touring arena show back in 2015. There were 35 artists working alongside artistic and technical teams for three months of creation.

But with two days left of rehearsal, we found out that the producers had canceled the entire tour – over a year’s worth of work vanished. Very suddenly, we had no jobs anymore!

It was incredibly challenging to figure out how to move forward with our careers at the last minute.

But all you can do is keep working hard and hope that the next opportunity comes along, and luckily we all landed back on our feet after a while.

Priscilia, the singer who plays the Shaman in TORUK – The First Flight, was actually part of that show creation as well, so it’s especially wonderful for us to be back onstage together now!

As someone whose life was meant for a totally different path, I never forget what an extraordinary privilege it is to share the joy of this experience with my fellow cast mates and crew, as well as with the public every night.

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