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Zara McLean takes a break from rehearsing in the Big Top to speak to SUR in English. Jennie Rhodes
The Yorkshire tumbler who ran away to join the circus
In the frame

The Yorkshire tumbler who ran away to join the circus

Zara McLean is a British Acro Pole and Powertrack performer currently appearing in Malaga with Cirque du Soleil's Alegría

Jennie Rhodes

Malaga

Friday, 7 June 2024, 14:14

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As I am led into the backstage area of the Cirque du Soleil Big Top, I step into a dreamlike world of costumes, masks and circus people pivoting, back-flipping and getting themselves into seemingly impossible contortions - I suppose for them it's just another day in the office.

I'm here to meet Zara McLean, one of two British performers (the other is Lucie Colebeck) in Alegría - In a New Light, which is on until the end of June in Malaga.

Zara bounces off the mat after a training session and we are introduced. The interview starts and I try to act as naturally as possible and not look too awestruck as the performers leap and twirl around us and technicians, costume and makeup people scurry past, getting everything ready for the opening night.

"I think we all know each other really well. We have to trust each other"

Zara, 33, explains that she has been with the French-Canadian company for 11 years, forming part of the Acro Pole and Powertrack teams. She says that she joined 'Cirque' - as it's affectionately called by the artists - after being scouted at the Trampoline and Tumbling World Championships in 2013. She had been competing with the Great Britain National Tumbling Team since 2002, collecting an impressive number of awards including Junior World Champion in 2007.

The Cirque du Soleil casting department is based in Montreal, Canada but they have around 26 people who scout around the world. Budding cast members can send videos of their performances, but in Zara's case some of the scouts specialising in different disciplines had contacts with the Wakefield Gymnastics Club where the young gymnast had discovered the passion that would literally see her running away with the circus.

A dream

Zara's first appearance was in Les Chemins Invisibles - a summer special event in Quebec City. She was then hired as a tumbler for the Powertrack act in the original production of Alegría for its 2012-2013 European arena tour.

Zara describes her Acro Poles discipline as "combining acrobatics with long poles that the performers use to bounce off and do tricks" before landing horizontally into the arms of powerful catchers. As for Powertrack, a discipline created especially for Alegría, Zara says it involves "tumbling and crossing under and over each other".

Zara McLean performing with the rest of the Acro Poles team.
Zara McLean performing with the rest of the Acro Poles team. SUR

Asked if she ever imagined being part of such a huge, international organisation as a child growing up in Barnsley, Yorkshire, she said, "It was always a dream to do it but I never really knew it would happen, so obviously I am so happy that I ended up living that dream."

The performer admits that she has lost count of the number of countries and cities she's visited in the 11 years she's been with the circus but she spent four years in Macau and has also toured the USA and Canada, Japan, South Korea and now Europe with Cirque.

"So a lot of travelling, a lot of different cities, I don't know how many exactly but that's one of the great things about this job," Zara smiles.

As far as working with such a big, international team - there are 54 artists from 17 different nationalities involved in Alegría, as well as all of the costume designers, chefs, security, physios, Pilates teachers... the list goes on - Zara says that you get the opportunity to "interact with everyone". She adds that while she knows the people in her "department" best, she points out, "I think we all know each other really well. We have to trust each other and we all spend so much time together."

Bringing joy to people

Despite Cirque du Soleil being a French-Canadian company, Zara says that the predominant language is English. As the Acro Pole team is all Russian except for Zara and one other girl she says, "I know enough Russian to get by in training but I'm not fluent."

Doing shows six days a week and having a gruelling training schedule too, the performers don't get much time off between shows, but they do get just over a week between cities while the big top is taken down and put up again and the technical side of this enormous, complex operation gets under way.

Zara says it's all worth it when she's on stage with her team: "Being on stage for me just feels so good. When you step out on the stage in all the makeup and the costume and the audience is there to watch you and you know you're bringing joy to so many people, it's a really fulfilling and a really nice feeling."

Like all the performers, Zara had to learn to do her own makeup, a process they are taught to do step by step as part of their training in Canada. As members of the team point out, "With 54 performers, we can't have that many makeup artists."

Each of the costumes is specially made in Montreal too and they and the wigs all get washed after every show - there's even a travelling 'launderette' with eight washing machines backstage. Zara has three different changes of costume in the show, which she says is quite easy as none of the performers are on stage all of the time so there's "enough time" to change.

This is her first time in Malaga where she says she's "really looking forward to looking around the city and going to the beach". She adds, "I've heard it's really nice and the weather is perfect at the moment."

And with that she bounces off to prepare for the show.

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