fellow traveller on the road to planet circus

May 13, 2008

I include some missives home from a fellow traveller on this adventure. Daniel, my son.

April 12th


Right….ok, well here goes.
It’s been roughly a week since I arrived at the residence of Cirque du Soleil in Montreal.  I awoke at seven, still unable to completely adjust to the immense jetlag that harasses one when one has gained six odd hours, and did a precursory tidy up of my dorm/room and prepared for Saturday chores.  The Residence is large and kind of inviting in that “I was never in Res or boarding school and think that sense of community is delightful” kind of misled way.  I’m slowly getting over the novelty of it.  Nevertheless, its very functional, and reasonably comfortable.  It’s a giant orange building, designed like a very formal square warehouse vibe, but with odd bulbous protrusions coming out at all angles.  Think of Bauhaus with fleshy growths.  That’s basically it.
The interior is cool, long passages, internet café, gaming room with play station (2 boo hoo) and pool and foosball and table tennis, work out room and jaccoootzi, and the most frequented room in the building…..my room.  Its of average size, maybe six meters by four and a half, with kitchenette and bathroom attached, television (completely useless as it shows three froggy channels) and a large window looking out onto a snowy park and beyond that, the rest of the industrial wasteland that is Eastern Montreal.  The Cirque complex, a massive monolith of crazy creativity, stands in a really dodgy area of town…worse even than Rosettenville, that hell hole that spawned the likes of Jaco (god forbid there be a Canadian version).  Lots of run down squashed together houses, clustered desperately together on a ‘freestate’esque flat landscape, spotted with huge industrial factory sites.  Kind of neo-gothic cyber punk landscape….very cool….for a day. 
I have, as I mentioned, a great view from my window and often when I am sad bored lonely confused enthused *insert appropriate emotion* I sit and stare out at the crazy wannabe hip hop impoverished people walking their dogs in the park.  A very funny activity, as, because it is spring time following the snowiest winter for years, people and dogs, both sick with cabin fever, sporadically dash out onto snowy surface of the park only to trip over snowed under seesaws, or slip flick flacks on icy patches, or if I’m really lucky disappear down a snowed over manhole.  If ever I needed inspiration for a clown show, I have all four of the Marx bothers, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardie and Buster Keaton regularly visiting my very own danger playground.
The whole of Montreal is like my giant Christmas present.  Having had double the amount of snow that is usual, on arrival, it was all wrapped up in white cottony snowflakes.  As Spring sets in, layer upon layer peels off for me revealing such delights as ‘last seasons dog poo, snowed over and forgotten till new spring’, or ‘various colourful delights in discarded plastic papers and cans thrown into the winter snow and forgotten’, and finally ‘huge mounds of black grey melting snow, piled up with all the salt and dirt designed for fast paced melting’.  Its crazy beautiful.
But really it is, in its own post apocalyptic wonderland kind of way.  I have yet to master the change in side of the road driving thingy.  I approach a road knowing that it is the opposite of South Africa, but then, in my momentary panic, I can’t remember which way you look in SA, is it ‘left left right’, or ‘right right right’, or ‘up back grab grab’.  So, my brain malfunctions under all the stress, and I panic and dash into the road closing my eyes and screaming apologies to all the ‘Mon Deu’s and ‘Sacrebleu’s and ‘Merde’s I hear trailing after me.  I believe the Canadians only drive on the wrong side to correct a design error made by the motor manufacturers, that of putting the drivers seat on the left side, or was that the right….shit, you see my problem.
So that’s basically the lay of the land outside of the Cirque IHQ (International Head Quarters) as its referred to mystically by residents.  The inside is another universe.  The over arching feel that the place gives me, is exactly similar to the one I had reading Roald Dahls ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ many years ago.  There are a multitude of different rooms, each dedicated to some bizarre and fantastical circo-theatrical delight.  A room filled with the most amazing incredulous hats of every absurd, grotesque and humorous shape and size, and along side them, tens of sexy Canadians making more hats that look even more absurd and grotesque and humorous.  This goes the same for the shoe room, the special effects room, the costume department, the props room…..the list goes on endlessly.  I have been exploring for a full week and still I have not plumbed the depths of how staggering that place is.  It is.
So, my first day there goes something like this:  I arrive, get signed in and get my sexy Cirque key card with my mug on it.  Go straight to the physio, a French-Indian-Canadian ball of fire called ‘Rookie’ who bends, twists, punches, mud-wrestles, head-butts and judo-chops every nook and cranny of my body until releasing me with a clean bill of health.  I leave a staggering crippled insect of a man with the knowledge that Rookie has imparted upon me that my left leg is significantly longer than my right.  Later I ask my father why he didn’t ever insist I wear one of those shoes with the big heels; he replies that he did, but he made me wear it on the wrong foot.  Thanks dad.  I then head for measurements in the costume department.  After I squeeze my naughties into a revolting pair of “poo string panties” (as Matthew so delicately referred to Leah’s g-string) and rolled my excess me into an old bathing suit shaped lycra getup, Richard the
 measuring guy proceeds to measure every conceivable part of me:  Length of arm- ses pon niut, middle fingers cuticle on nail- un pon katre, diameter of sphincter – des pon nuit, not really that thorough but that general kind of thing.
From there, shoe fitting, hat fitting (they said they had never seen a bigger head, thanks Nonkuntla, and took a record amount of time with it) and almost finally: the dreaded head casting.  Now this is where they pour a gooey purple plasticy substance over your entire head, leaving just your nostrils free, and then plaster of paris the exterior for +15 minutes to get a cast of your noggin.  Interchangeably a mind-numbingly frightening, and brain explodingly soothing experience.  At one stage, when my eyes and ears had just been covered and the fear first set in I suddenly came to the realization that the whole Cirque thing had been an elaborate and unfairly long April fools joke, and the delightful climactic punch-line was me being suffocated in a head mold.  I focused on my breathing and the fear past.  The reward was seeing both mine and my fathers head casts sitting side by side together.  I remarked to the head casting Russian lady how big our heads
 were, and she needlessly pointed out how much bigger mine was compared to my fathers.  Thanks Russian head casting lady.
There was and is lots of other logistical boring stuff to do before contacts can be finalized and visa given etc, but lots of other fun stuff in the complex too.  The whole building is jam packed with wall to wall beautiful exotic people, that’s measurably entertaining.  There are two great cafeterias with moderately priced cuisine. There is a gym and workout station with sauna, the former is usually populated with Russian gymnasts, aggressively balancing on three fingers while juggling rabid dogs with their feet or the like, it is a singularly humbling place.
Then, rehearsals with Dominique Champagne, he of the Varekai tv series fame, he of the Director of the show ‘Love’ fame.  Our meetings have been short, and fraught with talk.  He wants to give us (me and my fellow Nowhereman Joel) a sense of the character without allowing us to watch the video and replicate what the previous artist has created.  An exciting, but daunting prospect.  On our first meeting I discovered that I would not indeed be playing the character that I had expected, the Nowhereman that I had auditioned for, but another of the Nowheremen, a far more active, acrobatic and less internal character, Joel has the internal Nowhereman role.  I did have my heart set on the introspective clown desperately trying to give the gift of flowers to some ungrateful dancer character….but not so.  Instead I play the adventurous excitable, extraverted Nowhereman….no prizes for guess who that is based on.
Second rehearsal however, Dominique sees us in action, improvising around vague themes, and just being present in the space.  He ends the rehearsal by saying that he is considering swapping our (mine and Joel’s) roles, which I am confused, but pleased about, but Joel is really cut up.  He has his heart set on the sad clown (obviously I think a more exciting role in terms of time on stage and focus and energy).  We are trying hard to not let any of this effect our working relationship, but, being a pretty easy going San Francisco guy, Joel is dealing with it all well.  After all, we’re clowns, who are we fooling, if we got into a fist fight over it all people would just point and laugh.  So anyway, Dominique sees us again on Monday and makes the final decision. Eeek.
The place looks like it can get very very lonely, with most people speaking a different language, and everyone seeming to be involved in their own insular cultural bubble.  Fortunately I’ve had my father with me for the last few weeks which has been sublime.  Besides being a really bad influence, encouraging me to drink far more than I really should, it has been very comforting to walk the snowy streets, or watch a Beatles research video, or giggle at some crazy foreign acrobat with him.  Unfortunately he has gone back to SA now….so now its just me and Justlav, the one Russian acrobat that I have managed to strike up a friendly vibe with (technically not Russian, but actually Kazakstanian, like Borat, and it’s a totally unsatisfying relationship as my Russian is limited to ‘Da’ and ‘Schol!’ and his English is limited to ‘hello’ and ‘letrene’, but we get along in our own weird little way).
I miss you all majestically, and hopefully I wont be home too soon, but just after that.  I trust you all are looking after each other and the rest of South Africa in my absence and sorting out that poverty AIDS crisis there for my return.  Miss you all and speak soon.


April 20th


I had my head wrapped up in clingwrap today.  For real real.  Not sure I know why they did it, and from their suppressed giggles I’m not sure they did either….I often get the feeling that they are just doing wierd stuff to me to see how far they can push me before I go “Ok, hang on, why the flippen hell are you cling-wrapping my head??  why are you doing that?”  But I never do, so they continue.  After they cling-wrapped my head they put thousands of little pieces of scotch tape all over it, took out permanent markers and drew and wrote all over it.  I still would not submit to demanding an explanation, remaining stoically, implacably in serious foreign proffesional artist mode. 
I’ve been doing classes with Renald, the crazy clown coach here who is great.  He reminds me of the fat green swedish catapillar from A Bugs Life, the one that sprouts tiny wings and proclaims “I’m a Boootiful Boterfly”, thats him.  When I first met him I recited a Xhosa poems with lots of clicks in it learned from Bongani Diko while working with Ubom!, and he was so struck by it (I think just the strangeness of it) that he wept.  I knew from then I would like him. 
And be a bit afraid of him.  Yesterday he pointed out to me that I wasn’t acting with my upper back.  Before I could think, I responded that that was always my mother’s biggest acting note.  Everyone there had a good laugh at me.  So now, whenever I’m not acting with my back (‘Bacting’ as he calls it’) Renald calls out in a thick french accent: “Do eet Dannielle, do eet for yor Mosther!”  Its not so funny after the three hundredth time.
I’ve befriended a racoon across the road from me, and by ‘befriend’ of course I mean that I’ve never spoken to or had any kind of reciprocal interaction with him, but rather have just sat watching him out of my window as he heads out on his nightly galavants….could there be a more perfect friendship?  I’ve given in to tritness and decided to name him ‘Rocky’, not after the boxer, but rather after the guy who found Gideon’s Bible and was shot by ‘Dan’.  His explorations are great, I watch him come out of his burrow, run up the winding stair case of the first brick appartment, scrabble in through the doggy flap.  A moment later the light comes on inside and a hail of french abuses rain out across the street, and Rocky gingerly retreats from the house and goes to the next.  This happens all the way down the block.
Jesus, I’ve just read the last paragraph and am momentarily awe struck with how sad I am.
I have had some real human interactions too though.  The dancing girls arrived a couple of days ago and they are heaps of fun.  All very short, very young and very American.  The one girl, after I chatted a while with her and her friends turned to me and said; “You know, I like your accent, and I don’t usually like accents” followed by a chorus of affirming “Mmhm”‘s from her girlfriends. 
I was boggled by this. 
This not liking accents thing.  What did it mean?  That she hated variation in inflection and tone and musicality in speech?  Was her perfect orator Stephen Hawking?  Maybe she just preferred the written word.  Maybe her utopia was a place where everyone wrote to eachother, in the same handwriting. 
Then it dawned on me that it was not all accents that she hated, but everyones besides hers, she believed that her American accent was the final step in the linguistic and anthropological journey to perfect communication.  How wrong she is.  Buuuut other than that kind of stuff, they’re all pretty sweet.  I’ve attatched a picture of our venture into town.  It looks like we’re having more fun than we actually are.
I ventured into town last night to buy some new reading material and explore St. Catherine street which was fun.  Besides being totally ripped off by one taxi driver and getting horribly lost in town it was a good experience.  Its turned into full on spring here so everyone here has come out in full force.  That generally means wearing shorts and tshirts and the smallest skirts on a cool 12 degree celsius evening.  And of course the excess of flourescent strip clubs all proclaiming proudly the fact that in Canada, the client is allowed to touch the lapdancer.
Work in the Cirque is going alright.  We had our evaluation with Dominic in the begginning of the week to sort out our roles and it felt like it went terribly.  I walked out there feeling like I would be fired from the cirque and my coveted International Clowning License would be revoked.  However, they kept Joel, my Sisco Character partner for half an hour longer after the class…and when he emerged I found out that I had indeed secured the lead role….but how I cannot say.  Joel is handling it well.  He was really set on the role and has said that that was why took the job, buuut he’s currently reinventing the other role, and seems to be ok.  I am totally taken by the character, and while not aweing and amazing Dominic yet, I’m glad to have the sucker anyway.
I have one more week left in Montreal before heading out to Las Vegas so the pressure is certianly increasing. I hope you all are doing swimmingly.

Biggest Love to you all.
Miss you all like I generally miss the point
Daniel Buckland



This dated May 4th


The Americans got it right. 
Plane rides are such dull and tedious things, culture shock is so disarming, travel is expensive and such a task….buuuuut there are the undeniable benefits of seeing big constructions in distant locations….sooooo….
why not replicate the famous tourist attractions from all around the world in one place in America….and then, put twinkley lights on them….and then, put casinos and sexy revues inside them….and then, put them all in the desert where there is nothing to do but frequent these giant grown-up amusement rides of excess and debauchery.  That is the genius of Vegas.  Flying over it was like hovering above a giant luminous microchip, impecabley patterned flat grid design that is both vast and kind of pretty (I’ll guiltily admit).  As we approached landing, my mantra quickly became : “I’m going to live in Las Vegas.  How absurd.”

Walking the streets of Vegas, aka Lost Wages or Last Vague Ass, is a massive culture shock, the shock is of course that there is no culture at all, or possibly that is only a shock to the naive.  It is a massive alien landscape of glittering lights, 15 metre LCD screens everywhere, flocks of wandering tourists with overflowing pockets, loads of pimps advertizing their wares, everything not good for you, Las Vegas has, with ‘not good for you’ nobs on, that vibrate in a way thats very not good for you.
The last week in Montreal was good….but it really flew by in a heartbeat.  Our last meetings with Dominic went relitively well, I finally mastered the right left car thingy and stopped embarrasing myself on the sidewalks, I thought I contracted ringworm on my side (found out it might be excema {thanks Dad’s genes}) from one of the little russian squirts that dash around the residents swearing profusely in their native tongue.  Explored a bit more of Montreal, mastered their metro train system and built up to the final showing to the 1500 Cirque headquarter employees….scarey stuff.  In the end it was well recieved and it finally felt like we made some steps forward on our last day, and finally got my extensive and complex makeup right….hooray (thanks to the extensive training of Shelley Meskin).
Vegas has been crazy.  Unsuprizingly crazy.  Its wall to wall tourists here really, but the show venue is incredible.  It takes up a substantial part of the Mirage hotel and is super high tech.  The stage is massive, seats over 2000 or something.  It has several lifts that extend up over the basement tens of metres below.  In one one of the opening scenes, three of the other characters and I are raised up on the central lift, and if I dare peer over the edge, the 15 metre drop that confronts me is positively sphincter shrinking.  In fact, it feels like my whole lower bowel tract panics and tries to abandon my body through my throat, leaving a funny taste in my mouth (apologies to the sqweemish).  Its huge and amazing and the performers are well cared for.  I have watched the show a couple of times and it is truly a magestic peice of theatre.  Suitabley ‘whimsical’ and overpoweringly and staggeringly spectacular in typical Cirque fashion, it
 reads like a giant grand rock and roll poem.  I am as excited as I am petrified.
I have a suite in the Candlewoods Hotel on the corner of Paradise and Flamingo….hey, if you’re going to live in Vegas, live on the Flamingo and Paradise intersection.  My room is the only room in the world that has a ‘heat up’ and down button, and then just next to that a ‘cold up’ and down button.  It confuses me greatly.  If I concentrate deeply in the late hours I can imagine that the suspicious rhythmical thumps that assail me from next door sound like a soothing heartbeat, and the occasional wails of ecstatic joy sound like the calls of exotic midnight birds…..but for the most part it just sounds like I’m living in the midst of a brothel. 
We have been out dancing on the strip a couple of times with: Tal, a 27 year old street dancer is a master of ‘popping’, or ‘locking’ (I can never remember which is which), Booker is a self taught funk dancer who’s foot work looks like James Brown and Michael Jackson having acrobatic aerobic sex, Genise, a hispanic classically trained whirlwind of youthful energy who’s favorite personal saying is “Shu-uup!  Yoo thho thtooopeed”, and then a whole multitude of awe inspiring breakers.  If being at the Cirque HeadQuarters is a humbling experience, then going out dancing with the new dancers from Cirque is even more so.  I tend to try and camoflage myself in the crowd that quickly gathers to watch them on the dance floor. 
We all get along really well, and the old artists have been very welcoming.  It was good to touch base with the couple of Saffers who are already in the show.  The integration has been interesting so far.  Because of the success of the show and the importance of the integration of new characters, Cirque has smoothed out the proccess by throwing four directors into the mix, each with their own clear vision of how the show should run, and not a whole lot of inter-communication, which can be a little confusing and has led to me rechristening the company ‘Cirque du So Vague’….but all of them are passionate and reasonable so it has been alright.
Dad arrives in a couple of days which I am looking forward to greatly.  I hope you all are doing well, and miss you all super duper greatly.  Please send love to everyone you see, and keep a lot for yourselves.
Big love



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