A native of Manchester, England, gymnast Andrew Atherton is no stranger to L.A., having lived here a decade ago for about a year and a half, taking dance classes and auditioning for work on cruise ships. His memories of Yucca and Vine streets, where he then lived, are less than enchanting.
“First thing, I got into a taxi cab and was asked if I wanted to be in porno,” he says. “Got out of the taxi cab and was asked if I wanted to buy some crack.”
He and his identical twin brother, Kevin, plus acrobat-dancers Preston Jamieson and Kelsey Wiens, lounge during an interview in the otherwise vacant balcony seats of the Kodak Theatre, where they’re performing in the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, Iris. Meanwhile, in an onstage rehearsal, acrobats in sweats and shorts and sneakers bounce on a trampoline from the stage, up to 50 feet into the sky, nimbly touching a platform at the top of their trajectory, before sailing back down to the trampoline. From the balcony, the quartet watch with distraction. They’ve seen it many times before.
For Iris, Andrew and Kevin employ a skill called “straps,” in which the pair, often tethered to each other, do intricate aerobic contortions. Both gymnasts since the age of 7, Andrew and Kevin were selected to represent Great Britain on the national team. Cirque du Soleil recruited them upon their “retirement” at 24 and invited them to Montreal to begin training in the circus. They’re now 36.
So when the call went out about a new piece to premiere and perform indefinitely in Los Angeles, Andrew was a bit wary — “not a place I could imagine myself calling home. But it was a pleasant surprise — it feels cleaner and safer.”
Kelsey Wiens and Preston Jamieson also are gymnast-dancers, recruited for Iris from a Montreal clown school two and a half years ago. In one Iris scene, he clutches just one of her hands, and yet she hovers over him, almost horizontally, as though suspended in air. The act culminates with her standing on his head.
Though both are from Vancouver, they met in Los Angeles nine years ago. This is why, Kelsey says, she loves L.A. “I came in, and it was sunny and beautiful and I fell in love,” she says. “I’ve been in love with this city as well as this man since then.” Preston smiles demurely while standing in an aisle. They’re now engaged to be married.
All four agree that even planning, let alone having, a personal life outside the circus is next to impossible with rehearsal, training and performance commitments that average 12-14 hours per day, including gym workouts of two hours per day.
“We don’t know what our schedule is until the evening prior,” Kelsey explains. “So that’s going to be two years of not being able to plan anything.”
Though the show has opened, the performers must be available to train alternatives in the event of injuries — an understandable strategy, given that Kelsey rejoined the show only two weeks before opening after suffering a fall and being out for 16 weeks with a concussion. (The performers are covered by company accident/medical insurance and worker’s comp.)
Yes, there are mishaps — rehearsals when aerialists crash into empty seats, for example, which in retrospect become a source of amusement.
“We would follow a guy who would dance on crutches,” Andrew says, “a beautiful dance, a tumbler, and he would finish his act. During his big applause, we flew out. The rigging was off, so we took him out, flat on his face. There was silence as he crawled offstage, and we noticed after that, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get any applause from that crowd.”
All flights are rehearsed with sandbags before humans are involved.
“Sometimes the sandbags crash into things and we figure, well, guess that one’s not working,” Kevin adds.
This is all recounted with amused affection: “If you get stuck in the air, and you cannot come down, you have safety mesh they can throw to bring you down,” Andrew says. The riggers are very good, Kevin adds, “as good as they get. … They tell you in advance a dozen things that could but probably won’t go wrong, and how to get out of it safely. Most of all, we’re pretty safe.”
For touring performers, issues of home and family become paramount. “We both lived on a tour for 18 and a half years,” Kevin explains.
They’ve traveled the world with Cirque, and in 2003 and 2004 they were on a tour for nine and a half months of the year.
“We didn’t feel we had a home,” Andrew says. “The home was the tour.”
When it comes to family, it’s probably no surprise that the circus is a primary source of significant others. Kevin’s husband lives in Montreal, he says, working as a director on the next as-yet-untitled Cirque show. “But he’s here so often,” he says. “I would lie if I would say that was the original plan, but it’s working out.”
Andrew’s wife, born in Kazakhstan, performs in Iris as a bungee acrobat. They met five years ago during a tour in Australia, and got married just one week before this interview. “My biggest thing was never to get involved with someone I worked with,” Andrew explains. “She came along and that changed, and it’s worked out great.”
Though now living in West Hollywood and Silver Lake apartments, the quartet say they’ve seen little of L.A., spending most of their time at the circus.
In Cirque shows, after preparing individual acts largely in isolation, the entire company is thrown together for the first rehearsal. What happens then can be messy and frustrating for the performers. Cirque’s hothouse creation process sometimes generates resentments, largely over which acts get cut.
“When we created [the earlier show] Varekai, we said we’ll never do that again,” Andrew says. “The pain is the frustration, spending weeks and weeks on a particular scene; one day they say that’s not working, so it goes nowhere.”
Still, on Iris, the performers have been feud-free, the quartet agrees. “So far, this company has stayed respectful and supportive,” says Kevin, adding that given the Cirque process, “It’s rare.”
IRIS | Presented by Cirque du Soleil | Kodak Theatre, Hollywood & Highland, 6801 Hollywood Blvd.,
Hlywd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through Dec. 31 | (877) 943-IRIS | cirquedusoleil.com/iris, kodaktheatre.com