To begin this blog, I must say that going from inside the Montreal airport to outdoors was like walking into a literal freezer. I was dressed in clothes best suited for flying, and was not prepared for what I was about to experience. I thought I might die from the cold!

When I arrived at the Cirque du Soleil Residence, a nice woman at the front desk named Marie let me in. She showed me around the building, which has a gym, a spa and a games room with pool tables, foosball and there are TV rooms on every floor.

Once I settled in to my room, I went downstairs and found a male and female performer chatting and having some beers. I went up and introduced myself and exchanged stories of where we come from and how and why we ended up at Cirque. The pair were both trampolinists, Sam from Toronto and Ben was from Belgium.

This conversation helped me prepare myself for Monday. The Cirque headquarters is a big place, and I still had no idea what to expect other than what I had seen via Skype chat video. But to me, it looked like a digital designer’s playground!

I hardly slept on Sunday night. I think it was adrenaline for the day ahead.

On Monday, I woke up to my alarm clock set to extra loud – to make sure I didn’t sleep through it. Starting at ‘around 9’ was Cirque’s words; it sounded casual but I wanted to show my diligence at being there on the dot. Fortunately, the artist’s residence is about 20 seconds walk to the front entrance of Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters. The snow was almost up to my waist and I was walking by lifting my feet in giant steps, like a clumsy weka or something.

I went to the front entrance to swipe in, and received my own Cirque du Soleil swipe card! A welcoming party of Sylvie Trepanier (Communication Advisor), Denise Tétreault (Costumes Lifecycle and Creative Spaces Director) and Valérie Desjardins (Head of Research and Development) came down to greet me. They were all so smiley and as happy as I was. We talked about funny things and I couldn’t stop pointing and touching at everything.

Every ten metres, they would introduce me to people walking past. Everyone met me with genuine smiles of happiness. I met Martin, Eve and Karine, who were part of the R and D team that I’ll be working closely with over the next four weeks. They’re all cool, friendly and super switched on. Within seconds, we were having great conversations about technology, techniques and insights into the future. I’ll be meeting Véronique on Wednesday who works with Arduino.

Denise and Sylvie took me on a tour of the entire headquarters; multiple floors across a huge building. There was so much to see! Many dynamic groups of people creating, signing, painting, documenting, folding, cleaning, cooking, discussing – everything under the sun was happening there. I had met over 40 people by the end of the tour, all with unique names, new to me and my Anglophone ears.

Following this great introduction from Denise, a cool guy jumped up and said he’d like to show me a secret tour. Denise asked if I enjoyed going into the sky? I had no idea what that meant. He took me up an elevator to the top floor, that required a special key to unlock. The elevator doors opened to reveal the floor just under the ceiling of an entire stage! Cirque has a special wire grid (10cm grid) for the technicians to efficiently walk around above the show, without having to wear cumbersome harnesses. I asked if I could stand on it? He said ‘sure!’ and we went for a walk, literally over the entire stage. It was like walking on air as you can see straight down. An adrenaline filled experience.

He showed me how the winches work, how the lighting rigs get factored in and how the structures for aerial acrobatics get suspended in the air. It was incredible to hear that Cirque du Soleil abides by every single aspect of health and safety for their technicians as well as performers. Everything is tidy, organised and checked regularly. I enjoy talking about the mechanics and engineering aspects of behind the scenes.

Back on the ground, Valérie took me through the costume departments where again, I couldn’t help touching and pulling at everything. They seemed to find that amusing. It was interesting to see what materials they used that ticked all the boxes for lightweight, colourfast, durability and safety.

There were entire rooms full of catalogued kits containing swatches of every material ever used plus construction documents and scan data in needed for reproduction. It blew my mind that there were staff entirely dedicated to cataloguing all day, every day. They have so much fabric and accessories they even have couriers within the building to move it from different departments.

On day two, a snow storm came through – one of the worst in 15 years. With a snow storm this bad, the roads are too dangerous for staff to come to work. Luckily for me, I was living just across the road. That day, I was given an official Cirque du Soleil email address and Valérie took me through a quick brief of what I’ll be doing in the weeks ahead.

I have two projects –

The first is to produce a work with two others in the Research and Development department, an installation within the Cirque du Soleil building that encourages costumers to embrace electronics, other digital equipment and see how it can be integrated into garments.

The second project is to demonstrate the power of a laser cutter that they will be renting while I am there, to show what it is capable of doing.

When the end of the day came around, I didn’t  want to go home and the snow had risen to 40 centimetres.

The following day, Véronique talked me through how the designers meticulously document every step that they take to create each garment. This is to ensure that they’re not reinventing the wheel if they need to reproduce the costume, if a performer finds any issues with it after wearing it. A guy named Danny talked me through the iterative development he went through to create a hoop. He began with solid wood, but the performer found it heavy, so he eventually rebuilt it in carbon fibre. These people are like costume engineers or scientists.

At the end of that day, Véronique invited me to go axe throwing with her boyfriend. I had work to do for a client that night so was unable to go, but I think I’ll go next week.

On Thursday, I talked to an incredible woman named Hélène who has been at Cirque for 22 years. Staff such as herself have helped pioneer and refine the design processes over the years. We talked about grading and aligning graphics, how tasks are divided between different stages of the design stages and the importance of the patternmaker and graphics designers working together.

After this, we discussed the project I’ll be leading. Task one was to scout out a location anywhere within the building. How cool! I’ve chosen a major hallway/thoroughfare where everyone will walk by. It has adjustable lighting, so I have the choice to use LEDs or not.

As you walk through Cirque du Soleil, you notice quickly that Cirque’s founder Guy Laliberté is an avid art collector. There are humungous pieces everywhere and at a guess, many are worth a lot of money! It is an incredibly diverse collection, including many different mediums. It would be an honour to have your work purchased by him and placed on the Cirque walls. My understanding is that there is a curator somewhere onsite who regularly changes the artworks around. One day you walk down the hallway and there’s a completely new three metre by three metre work of art. Absolutely incredible.

That evening, I bolted up wide awake around 3am with a thousand creative ideas on how I could design the wall piece. It was so strong I was compelled to get up and draw the images in my head down on my Wacom. As I extracted these images they showed me a really effective idea.

There was crisp white soft snow and clear still blue skies on Friday. I was very eager to get my hands on the laser cutter, a great machine that self-levels (not sure if all of them do). Venting out into the atmosphere is either illegal or heavily frowned upon in Canada, so there is a multi-layered filtration system which absorbs all the bad smells and chemicals. It does a good job it seems.

I had only just started to have a play before it was home time. It’s the weekend, time to party!

– Article and photos by Dylan Mulder, March 2017