A “crossover between world-class circus and acrobatics and ice skating and the mixing of those two worlds within a story that is led by two really strong female protagonists”
Joining ice skating with acrobatics, 43 Cirque du Soleil “Crystal” artists will challenge the laws of gravity as they unveil a misfit heroine’s world of imagination and her journey to self-discovery. Since its 2017 premiere in Louisiana, “Crystal” has brought exceptional visual and musical experiences to audiences all around the world.
Featuring more than 100 people from 18 countries, the “Crystal” production team is a “big international family,” said Senior Publicist Christine Achampong, who comes from Toronto, Canada.
I spoke with American figure skater Scott Smith and Australian Artistic Director Robert Tannion about the performance. The interviews below have been combined and edited for clarity and brevity.
How long have you performed in Cirque du Soleil?
Smith: I am one of the figure skaters in “Crystal,” and I joined in 2017 right after the show opened. I’ve done the show almost 700 times.
What tours have you been on with Cirque du Soleil?
Tannion: This is the first show that I’ve worked with with Cirque. I started in 2019 on “Crystal.” I love it. I really love the show. And I’ve had the fortune to come back to it now that we’ve picked up operations after the pandemic.
We re-launched on the fifth of May this year, so not that long ago. And so far we have only done Savannah, North Charleston and Amherst and now we’re here in Boston. So we’re really at the beginning of this phase, but previously the show had, I think, we’re up to show 725. So we’ve been around North America quite a bit, also Canada. We’ve been to Mexico. We had done a two-month tour in Russia back in 2019. Also Eastern Europe, and we had just started a UK tour before we all went home for “a little bit of a break.”
What is the most challenging part?
Smith: I think just the overall schedule gets challenging. I’ve done the show over 700 times. We do anywhere from 5 to 8 or 9 shows a week. So, just the traveling and the overall schedule, I would say is the most challenging part.
Tannion: The most challenging thing for me at Cirque has been the amount of variables moving pieces that we have that can happen at any one time. That’s now been complicated a little bit more with COVID and COVID protocols that we have in place. So I can have injuries, I can have technical issues, I can have sound issues, I can have issues with the ice. There are things I’d never expected before, like someone saying, “Oh, the ice is one degree warmer.” And as an Australian, I go, “Oh, that’s fine.” But the skaters will tell me that one degree is the difference of being able to perform or not perform. So I’ve learned a lot about how many technical elements really go into place to make this entire wonderful experience work.
If someone had asked me 10 years ago, if I was ready to do this job, I probably wasn’t. But I certainly am now. I’m used to working with large casts and big productions. I feel very much at home in this, and I know it’s a really strong part of my skill set. So I’m very happy to be here.
What do you do in “Crystal”?
Tannion: My job title is artistic director. What does that mean? It means I look after the overall quality of the show to ensure that the very best performance is given every night or every day to our audience. So that means I have to have an overview of the show artistically and the processes. I need to rehearse backup acts. I need to create mitigation plans to make sure if something doesn’t work or something is not functioning technically, that I can make sure that the show continues seamlessly without going into a show stop. I look at casting. I work with a head coach. I basically had a team of 44 artists and an artistic team of 10  people, which includes 2 performance medicine therapists, 4 wardrobe, 3 stage managers and 2 coaches.
How long do you usually practice for “Crystal”?
Smith: So usually we have our opening day, and we kind of run through all of the acts. I personally have about a half hour of skating training where I can focus on the tricks that I need to do in the show on the skating side. And then I’m a part of some of the other acts as well, so we’ll rehearse throughout the day for that and then we open the show on that first day. Then after that, I usually skate for about a half hour each day before the show.
What is the most dangerous act for you in “Crystal” and what precautions do you take?
Smith: I perform two backflips in the show. One of them’s in the opening and then the second one that I mentioned I do in the tap dance over a person so that’s probably, for me personally, the most dangerous thing that I do. To practice that, I’ll usually put something down on the ice, like my skate guard or a sweatshirt or something, and I’ll really make sure my timing is correct jumping over that, so that when I go to do it in the show, it’s hopefully very consistent.
How long have you been skating? Why did you choose a career in skating?
Smith: I started skating when I was 7 years old, so for over 30 years. I competed internationally till I was 28. And then started show skating when I was 30. So I’ve been doing shows for almost 10 years now.
I just love it. From the first time I skated as a little kid, I went to a birthday party at a skating rink and then begged my parents to get me group lessons. So then I quickly progressed to the group lessons and started doing private lessons and then started competing locally. And it slowly just kind of took over my life.
But I think I just love the individuality of it. I did some team sports as a kid, and I loved feeling the full responsibility for doing well or not doing well and not relying on teammates or how somebody else performs. I like having that full responsibility for it. And I think actually being in the cooler air attracted me to it as well. Sometimes playing baseball or whatever it was hot in the sun, you know, out on the field and I think I liked the cool air of skating.
What was your daily routine when you were training, and what is your routine like as a professional now?
Smith: Back when I was a kid training, I skated usually five days a week, usually about three hours a day on the ice, and then did off ice training for another two hours a day. So it’s about five hours of training every day, and then I had to balance school with that. So it was a full schedule.
Now, I skate a lot less than I used to and I do more of the fitness and strength training just to keep my body healthy. As a professional, I’m mostly doing tricks that I know how to do, so it’s more about maintenance and staying healthy. Whereas, as a kid growing up, you’re learning more tricks, so it’s a different mentality.
Having been a part of the Skating Club of Boston for many years, how does it feel to perform in a city that you’re so familiar with?
Smith: It feels great. I have some family that still lives here, and lots of friends from my time here. I still come here a couple times a year to coach at the Skating Club of Boston. So I have a lot of colleagues that will be coming to the show as well. Some of my students that only see me as Coach Scott and they’ve never really actually seen me skate, will come and see me performing, so see me with a different hat on.
I have a sister that used to live in Lexington and now she lives in Newburyport. And I have a nephew that’s a UMass Amherst and my niece lives here as well. So the three of them will for sure be coming. And then my niece is actually graduating high school next week, so my parents are flying in to see her graduation, you know, and my show happens to be here at the same time. So my parents will be here as well. And I’ve got aunts and uncles from New York that are coming up.
So I will have somebody in the audience almost every show over the next two weeks. And it’s exciting to know that I’m not just performing for strangers, I’m also performing for friends and family.
What is the most memorable experience you’ve had with Cirque?
Tannion: Now that’s a very good question. I’ve had multiple wonderful experiences. One is that the show has a lot of heart. The show itself has a really big heart and it’s a very generous spirit. And what I love is that all of the artists and all of the technicians here have all got big hearts and there’s a real sense of generosity that I feel is really, for me, one of the best experiences. It’s not a job. It’s almost, for me, a lifestyle choice.
Working with Cirque, I am on tour a lot. I had really great, memorable moments performing in Mexico City. The two weeks in the arena were sold out to capacity, and we’re performing to 8000 people a night in one show, that was amazing. The electricity was amazing. Performing in St. Petersburg and Moscow was really amazing. But equally, being down in Savannah, Georgia where people may not have had the opportunity to see an ice show, you know, it’s nice hot and humid down there. So being able to bring the show to audiences that are hungry is really the memorable thing for me.
What would you say is the most exciting part of “Crystal”? What is the one thing that makes “Crystal” such a unique experience?
Smith: I always get the most excited right before my main act. It’s called a “tap dance.” About 15 minutes into the second act, three other skaters and I will have microphones on our skates so you can hear all the sounds that our skates are making throughout the whole arena. And we’re kind of one upping each other. And at the end of the act, I backflip over a person. That’s the most exciting part for me in the show.
Tannion: What makes “Crystal” unique is the blending, the crossover between world-class circus and acrobatics and ice skating and the mixing of those two worlds within a story that is led by two really strong female protagonists, that takes us on an emotional journey that is visual and beautiful. And what I love is no matter where we’ve performed it, no matter the language, no matter the culture, the reaction is the same. And that two hours of “wow” and “oh” and dreaming and crying sometimes, is really really unforgettable.
Artemis is a Taiwanese writer, activist, and entrepreneur. At the age of 16, she founded Taiwan’s largest student-based independent international news organization. She graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree from Peking University and is now a journalism graduate student at Boston University. She hopes to achieve social justice with the power of communication.