During a heart-thumping moment In Cirque du Soleil’s 1992 production of Saltimbanco, Karyne Steben would lay her body on top of her twin sister, Sarah, who was sitting outstretched on the bar while the trapeze, on 70-foot ropes, swung in wide, violent arcs high above the stage. Suddenly, at the weightless back end of one fast swing, Karyne would slide her body off her sister’s and launch into space. It was reasonable to think at this point that she would begin to fall — what was there to stop her? And she would — until, at the last possible minute, Sarah would catch her sister by the armpits. With her feet.
Even on the ground, sitting outside on the patio of their Studio City home, Karyne and Sarah Steben still seem to function in synchrony. They finish each other’s sentences, speak the same phrases in unison, hold each other’s wrists and tuck errant strands of hair behind each other’s ears. From the beginning, they say, their trapeze performance was less about stunts or daring than love: “We always knew we were on this planet together to give a message,” Karyne says, “to show how two people can use each other, trust each other, complement each other in their strength and weakness.”
“We wanted people to leave the show and look at their husbands and wives and friends and see how they could use this, what we have,” Sarah says.
The Stebens came to Los Angeles in 2001 because the men in their lives wanted to pursue jobs in Hollywood. A few years later, they found themselves benefiting from the industry’s largess when they were cast in the HBO series Carnavale.
“We didn’t plan to go after movies or TV,” says Karyne, who also appeared on the trapeze with her sister in the 1995 film When Night Is Falling. “But they have a good budget and treat us well.”
“So if something comes, we’ll jump on the occasion like we always did,” Sarah adds. “We always have a star in the universe with something to give us.”
The Stebens were just shy of their 16th birthday when they wandered into Cirque du Soleil headquarters in their native Montreal and asked to be part of the circus. “We came with pictures of us doing gymnastics,” Karyne remembers. “Two ponytails each.” The company scout managing audition slots, Andrew Watson, only spoke English; the Stebens only spoke French, but somehow they persuaded Watson to let them join the circus.
“He took us underneath his wing,” says Karyne. Within six months, they had won the gold medal at the Paris Festival for the Circus of the Future, and within a year of training, they became the hands-down highlight in Saltimbanco. They subsequently spent 11 of the past 16 years performing with the company, most memorably in the resident production of O at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Under the guidance of Cirque coach Basil Soultz, they not only perfected the foot-to-foot catch, the one-leg catch while swinging and the feet-to-armpit maneuver, but came to understand that none of that mattered as much as the expression in their eyes.
“Sometimes we’d do a whole routine and be so happy that everything worked,” Sarah says, “and we would look at Basil and he’d just say to us, ‘I didn’t see any emotion. You didn’t tell the public anything.’ We’d say, ‘What public?’
“He’d say, ‘Look at the walls. Use your imaginations.’ ”
Says Karyne: “We gave the walls so much of ourselves.”
One day five years ago, Karyne climbed an aerial rig that hadn’t been secured; it fell with her on it, and she shattered her foot. “It’s big details and I don’t want to talk about it,” she says, except to say that she was immediately grateful. “When the doctor told me it would be nine months to a year before I could go up again on the trapeze, I said, ‘Perfect!’ That’s exactly how long I need to have a baby.”
“She really wanted to have kids,” says Sarah.
Karyne now has a 4-year-old named Azia, and Sarah is eight months pregnant with her first child. “Of course, we’re still not completely finished with our career,” says Sarah, who with her husband, Cirque veteran John Hay, played the heavenly Isolde and Tristan in Bill Viola’s visual accompaniment to the Tristan Project. “It’s something we’d like to go back to for the fun, but now we’re ready to give back.”
With babies to raise, the twins have begun teaching circus arts at Le Studio, a Santa Monica rehearsal space run by fellow Québecois Nathalie Gauthiér, with whom the Stebens have developed a workshop specifically for women.
“We think everybody could express themselves in the circus world,” Karyne says, “no matter what their shape or their age is, as long as they have a message.”
“We are welcoming all the people who think they are not good enough,” Sarah says. “The little gymnast who just broke something and now her career is over. The adult woman who thinks she is too old or fat to start something new.”
“The circus world is demanding the perfect gymnast because they don’t want to waste time,” Karyne says. “But we know that in imperfection there is beauty. We were not perfect. Picasso wasn’t perfect.”
“But he created something —” says Sarah.
“That was unique,” says Karyne.