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A Circus Life

Christina Campolongo has come by her circus lifestyle honestly. At the age of six her parents joined a European circus, and she spent most of her life touring around the world. Having a circus dancer for a mother, and an animal trainer for a father, meant less white picket fences for the now 26-year-old native Texan and a lot more lions and tigers.

“At seven I was thrown in a cage with a bunch of baby tigers,” she says in a casual tone. “I would babysit them, grind up their meat, and play with them so they’d be handleable with people. I loved working with animals.”

Around the same age, Campolongo also experienced her first taste for the stage. When the ringmaster’s daughter became too old to perform in the kinder circus’ pony act, Campolongo was more than happy to don a white tuxedo and fill in.

“It was a lot of fun. I was on stage and I was a ham,” she laughs.

The incident proved fateful, fuelling Campolongo’s lifelong passion for entertaining. Though she originally wanted to work with circus horses, at 16 she tried her hand at training for the trapeze, just to have as a “back up” act in case she couldn’t get work with animals. However, her natural flexibility and knack for acrobatics forced her to rethink her career aspirations.

“I found out I was really, really good at it. Plus, I loved that it gave me the same kind of feeling as riding, the feeling of wind running through my hair.” She proved so capable in her training, that she was thrust into the circus’s trapeze act just two months later. In less than a year she landed an audition for Cirque du Soleil.Started in Quebec in 1984, “Cirque” quickly garnered an international reputation for its super-charged athleticism and colourful, whimsical shows. On her seventeenth birthday Campolongo got the call that she was in.

“It was the best birthday present anyone could have given me,” she says.

After performing for seven years in La Nouba, their resident show in Orlando, Florida, Campolongo is currently performing in their latest travelling phenomenon, Corteo—a whimsical story of a circus clown imagining his own funeral procession and the friends who would attend it. Though it sounds morose, Cirque’s Senior Artistic Director Alison Crawford says the show is anything but.

“It’s very whimsical,” she says. “It’s not a look at death, it’s a celebration of life and all the people who are involved in it. And because it’s a circus clown, there’s circus acts.” She’s quick to point out though, that doesn’t mean there’s no emotion. “It’s very touching because you get close to the main personage. Some people cry at end. There’s something very soulful and moving about the show.”

When Campolongo’s on stage, however, there’s nothing to cry about. She plays one of the clown’s former lovers, appearing onstage in risqué lingerie, an appropriate costume for the bedroom scene. Unlike other Cirque shows, in Corteo performers act as themselves—their character names are even their own.

“It is a very human show, and I get to be myself and have my own hair, and my own costume and not act out an animal or bizarre being,” Campolongo says. “My character is me. I’m kind of shy, but also very outgoing. Sweet, but strong. I think that I really tried to care for the clown, and take care of him. I used to make him laugh, and so sometimes I’ll do little gags for him to remind him of the special times we had together.”Campolongo equally enjoys the technical aspects of the show. One of the highlights of her act is when she hangs from just her neck on a spinning chandelier. To Campolongo, who’s never been bothered by dramatic heights, stage fright or a serious injury (just “a couple of sprained ankles”), it’s all in a day’s work.

“She’s very spunky and alive on stage,” Crawford says of Campolongo. “You can tell how much she adores what she does. The way she moves, the way her face lights up and when she walks across the stage, it’s real.”

It’s the first time chandeliers have been used as an aerial apparatus in a Cirque show. Other new devices in Corteo include a cyr wheel—a large, hula hoop-like wheel that performers spin inside of, bouncing beds with trampolines as mattresses, and a stage designed as a circle with the audience seated around two sides. There’s also a moment where performers set a world record by flying a distance of seven metres through the air. Complementing the cutting-edge technology is the show’s visual appeal.

“The costumes, colours, curtains, are stunning,” Crawford pipes in. “There’s lots of materials like lace, velvet, linen and silks in blues, reds, and whites. It’s a beautiful, beautiful show to see. It’ll be a nice uplift to your life.”

Campolongo is looking forward to bringing the show to Calgary. She’s never been here before, but as with all cities she visits, she intends to explore it to the fullest. She says she often gets to know the cities she tours better than the one her actual house is in (Orlando). For Campolongo, being on tour is home.

Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo runs July 31 to August 31 at the Currie Barracks, for tickets call 1-800-361-4595.—Laura Pellerine

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