COSTA MESA — A month from now, when the lights dim on Cirque du Soleil's final performance in Orange County, the artists and crew of this popular Canadian circus will begin another well-rehearsed, but less public performance: packing up and moving on to the next city.
The difficulties of living out of a suitcase are all too familiar to the 110 men and women in Cirque du Soleil's current production, "Saltimbanco." But nine months into a two-year tour of North America, almost of all of them agree that the rewards and satisfaction of being part of Cirque du Soleil--a uniquely theatrical display of artists and acrobats, without a single circus animal--more than make up for any difficulties they encounter.
The sense of community and bonhomie that has been created after almost a year on the road is evident everywhere in the friendly gestures and warm greetings that are exchanged in the dining area that acts as a second home for the cast and crew when they are away from their temporary apartments in Newport Beach.
"Many people dream of running away with the circus," said 31-year-old acrobat Alain Gauthier. "But only a few of us can fulfill that dream. I feel very privileged."
Sitting at a table in the dining area that serves as the social center of this eclectic community, Gauthier, who has been with Cirque du Soleil since 1986, said the circus appealed to his restless nature.
"I'm a nomad," said Gauthier, whose well-toned arm muscles strained against his casual shirt, "I love traveling, seeing new places and meeting different people. The idea of settling down gives me nightmares."
Gauthier, a Montreal resident who was at one time the North American Trampoline Champion, said he attempted to settle down after graduating from college in 1985, but after working for a year as a geologist, he decided to pursue his dream of being a professional aerialist.
"I've been involved with acrobatics since I was 10 years old and I was in too good of shape to be a geologist for the rest of my life," Gauthier said with a smile.
Being on the road, however, has not prevented Gauthier from settling down to some degree. After all, it was at the Cirque du Soleil that Gauthier met the mother of his 16-month-old son, Guillaume.
As he tried to steer the tip of a banana into Guillaume's reluctant mouth during lunch on Thursday, Gauthier acknowledged that he has some concerns about raising his son on the road, but said he is comfortable with his decision.
"I don't know if it's a disadvantage so much as it's a different situation," Gauthier said. "After all, Guillaume's got 40 aunts and uncles here," he said, turning his head to watch as Guillaume wandered over to visit a table full of crew members.
"He's very sociable, " Gauthier observed with a smile.
Cirque du Soleil has a distinctly international flavor--not strange, considering that the crew and cast members are from eight countries--but the circus' strong roots in Quebec ensure that it is the French tradition that dominates.
French is the operating language at the circus and everyone learns to speak it to some degree. Even the Chinese performers, who come from a culture where public displays of affection are not encouraged, greet their fellow performers in Gallic tradition: a kiss on each cheek.
Lance Taylor, 28, has been a crew member for more than two years and said he is certain he made the right choice when he joined the circus.
Originally from Seattle, Taylor first worked the show as a temporary crew member. But after seeing the performance on opening night, he said he knew he wanted to join the circus.
Quitting his job as a janitor, Taylor followed Cirque du Soleil to its next stop in San Francisco and was eventually hired as the head usher.
"My parents kept asking me what the hell I was doing and when I was coming home. They didn't understand until they saw the show," Taylor said. Gesturing at the crew members gathered at the table with him, Taylor said: "This becomes your friends and family."
For 25-year-old percussionist Alain Berge, the lack of privacy has been his biggest complaint about being on tour.
"We're here with each other all the time and if you want a life of your own, you have to make an effort to get out of here," the former Los Angeles resident said, as he dressed for a rehearsal. "It's a trade-off," he added, "But as long as I'm having fun, I'll be here."
Being on the road can sometimes bring pleasant surprises, as guitarist Guy Kaye can attest. Waiting backstage for the band's rehearsal to begin, Kaye, who is also from Montreal, sat in an affectionate embrace with his girlfriend, trapeze artist Karyne Steben.
"I'm used to being on the road," said Kaye, 22, as Steben nuzzled comfortably against his shoulder, "But I still miss a steady environment of friends and places to go."
Fellow Montreal resident Steben, a trapeze artist who performs with her 18-year-old twin sister, Sarah, said she sometimes finds the circus a confining place to have a relationship.