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Cirque du Soleil’s longest running show is coming to town. Mark Wheeler goes behind the scenes at the big top to speak to the two Barnsley sisters having the time of their lives as performers

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When I was about 15 a family friend moved to London to perform at the then new Millennium Dome – “running away with the circus”, we’d joke. And just last year it happened again, with a close friend heading south to pursue a career in the aerial arts. But on a recent trip to Stockholm I discovered, clowns aside, this is a serious business.

Heading into its twentieth year Alegria is Cirque du Soleil’s longest running show, having spent 15 years in the big top before touring arenas since 2009. It’s not hard to see why – the simplicity of the set compared with some of their more lavish Vegas shows lets the acts and costumes shine through and take centre stage.

Having been suitably impressed by the show I find myself the next morning even more taken back. We’re watching the rehearsals. Gone are the sets, lights and costumes. All that’s left are the performers. The dramatic music has been switched for dubstep as several muscular men practice the Russian bars. Perched upon a shoulder height, four-inch wide fibreglass plank the flyer is flung skywards, twisting their body in every direction before landing back on the bar set on the catchers’ shoulders. The whole thing makes Tom Daley’s job look like a clumsy stumble.

After struggling with my camera in the combination of low light and fast action (flash isn’t an option for safety reasons) we head out to the empty arena front. Zoe and Zara McLean, two sisters from Barnsley, are running through their lines for the high octane opener power track. Set into the floor, an “X” of specialised trampoline runs the length of the stage and several performers hurtle down it, cartwheeling and tumbling over at a dizzying pace.

“For me it’s all new – it’s still really exciting. I love to perform and hear the crowd cheering and enjoying what we’re doing,” says Zara, 22, who is new to Cirque, but her sister Zoe, 24, has been with the company a few years. Touring with your sister seems to present the same advantages and problems as any women of that age, they jokingly agree. Zoe says: “I like the character we use – it’s strong and aggressive yet fun. Part of the character is to show off and say ‘look at me’. It’s very far from my personality normally but it’s something I can show is inside of me.”

The whole thing makes Tom Daley’s job look like a clumsy stumble

Having come from Wakefield Gymnastics Club and competiing in tumbling at international level before joining Cirque, for them Leeds later this year will be something of a hometown show. “They love it! They’re so happy we get to travel the world while we’re young,” explains Zoe when asked how their parents feel about their life in Cirque. “And we get paid to do it so we’re not getting in debt,” she adds, smiling.

“It’s a different city every week – you get to see all the different sights and people,” adds Zara.

“If I didn’t have this job, I don’t think I’d ever make it there,” Zoe tells us about a tour break in Hawaii before shows in Honolulu. As we are finishing up the Russian bars practice moves on stage and when asked if the sisters do any other acts or would like to try, Zoe looks to the stage, saying: “Definitely not the Russian bars. I like to land by myself.”

After a quick chat with artistic director Bruno Darmagnac about the more technical sides of the production we watch a bit of the high bar practice before being whisked off to wardrobe. It’s at this point you begin to realise just how big a production this is. Alegria travels with four permanent and three local wardrobe staff responsible for costume maintenance and repair, along with their own industrial laundry service. The more elaborate costumes take roughly 200 hours to make, and the simpler lycra power tracksuits are repaired almost daily.

Down the corridors there are huge flight cases packed with make-up – the only thing missing from this 22-truck tour are make-up artists. In fact all Cirque du Soleil performers are responsible for their own make-up, often quoted as the hardest thing they have to do, and I can’t help but chuckle as I imagine some of the Russian bar catchers applying their lippy.

After a few hours in the company of Cirque it’s easy to see why it’s so successful. Theres a great sense of camaraderie back stage and everyone and everything is well looked after. From the performers to the supporting teams everybody gives it their all and it shows. Alegria is a great show, but as with most Cirque du Soleil productions, it really needs to be witnessed first hand to fully appreciate it.

Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria is at First Direct Arena, Leeds (23-27 Oct) and Echo Arena Liverpool (30 Oct-3 Nov)

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