When physical therapist Vanessa Gurie assesses the condition of her clients, she often looks way up into the rafters of an arena to see them fly and flip and tumble in astonishing displays of daredevil acrobatics.
"They're amazing. A very, very talented bunch of people,'' Gurie said one afternoon in April, watching 16 men and women climb and leap and swing among four tall poles — taller than telephone poles — with uncanny power, speed and precision.
Gurie, 29, is health services supervisor with Saltimbanco, the arena show that Cirque du Soleil is bringing to Tampa this month. She was watching a number called Chinese Poles as the company went through its training routine. A few hours later, the acrobats would don outlandish, colorful costumes for the opening performance of a five-day run at the Lakeland Center.
"We see a lot of repetitive strain injuries,'' Gurie was saying. "We tape a lot of wrists and ankles. But we also design exercise programs to prevent pain or we modify routines if somebody has an injury."
If you've ever seen a Cirque show, you've probably wondered how the performers' bodies hold up under the strain of these incredible performances — often two a day. The answer: They're as vulnerable as any athlete, so Cirque employs people like Gurie to head off show-stopping injuries.
While obviously geared toward the highest-level athletes, the Montreal-based company's training practices, emphasizing strength, nutrition and the body-balancing approach of Pilates, hold lessons for many who'll get no closer to a Cirque show than the front row.
ACROBATS AS ATHLETES
A South African who has a master's degree in sports medicine, Gurie worked as a physical therapist for cricket and Australian-rules football teams as well as an Asian tour of Cats before joining Saltimbanco in 2007. She finds many similarities between the performers in professional sports and Cirque. Now, though, she has to be concerned not only with the health and fitness of her charges, but also with the safety of their working environment.
"My main duty is to ensure that their health and safety is taken care of at all times,'' she said. In Lakeland, the big concern was the swine flu alert, then in its early stages.
"We worry about things like swine flu because we're part of a close-knit society, a traveling village, really,'' she said. "It's my job to make the artists aware that this problem exists and what to do and not to do, and making them aware in about 10 different languages.''
Unlike Cirque shows staged under its trademark blue and gold big top, Saltimbanco, the company's second production to play arenas, has to adapt to different venues. "Because we travel from week to week, we try to maintain exactly the same conditions,'' Gurie said. "For instance, we keep the temperature always at 72 degrees, so artists won't get cold when they come off after doing a number.''
They also pay careful attention to food, with Cirque employees preparing and serving all the performers' meals. Menus often are inspired by local foods. "Florida seafood would be high on the list of things we would have on this part of the tour,'' said Gurie, who figures that the company includes 10 to 15 vegetarians.
The acrobats often wear safety harnesses when they practice their high-flying tricks, but during the show they perform without them. In the act of sister trapeze artists, one dangles by her calf hooked over the other's foot, high above the arena floor, without a net.
Not surprisingly, it's tough to come down from that kind of excitement. That's why many of the performers do their major workouts after the show is over for the night.
"They have a high level of adrenaline, and it's hard for them just to go to bed,'' Gurie said. "When they're really pumped from the show, you'll see them doing their workouts.''
Backstage at Saltimbanco is the training mat, a communal area where the performers do their workouts, tailored for each of them by Gurie, another physical therapist and head coach Michael Ocampo, a certified Pilates and yoga instructor.
"Most of these artists come from an extremely high level of sport,'' Ocampo said. "They were on national gymnastic teams and competed at national championships, world championships, some of them in the Olympics. So they pretty much know what they need to do to keep themselves in shape and stay healthy. If they do need assistance, that's what the two physios and myself are there for.''
Arranged around the large mat are exercise bikes, an elliptical trainer, free weights, weight machines, training poles and climbing ropes, a chin-up bar and Pilates equipment. Gurie and Ocampo are big proponents of Pilates.
"We're learning how much Pilates is beneficial for someone like an acrobat who tends to overuse certain joints, overuse one side of their body more than the other,'' Ocampo said. "With the Pilates approach we try to almost recenter people, because otherwise acrobats can quickly become unbalanced from side to side, from front to back, because almost everything that we do is one sided or unidirectional.''
Ocampo, in his mid 30s, a Cirque performer in Alegria and Saltimbanco for 10 years before becoming a coach, explained that acrobats nearly always twist one way — to their right or left — when doing things like a salto (a flip) or cartwheel.
"Pilates tries to address the imbalances that are going to start to form in your body because you're only twisting one way,'' he said.
However, Pilates, with its focus on breathing and disciplined movement, can be a challenge for high-energy young athletes. The 50 or so performers in Saltimbanco range from 18 to 47, but most are on the young side.
"When you say to them, 'Okay, let's slow down, let's take it on the mat and do these small, slow exercises,' it's a hard thing for a lot of acrobats to grasp, because they like to move fast,'' Gurie said. "But when they see it work for them, how injuries become less and less when Pilates is incorporated into their training regimen, then it becomes attractive, then everybody wants to do it.''
Gurie and Ocampo run half-marathons when they can work a race into the touring schedule, but they haven't persuaded any of the Saltimbanco performers, who apparently prefer a little more excitement in their workouts, to join them yet.
"I may change their minds as time goes on,'' Gurie said. "But when they look at long-distance running, they go, 'It is so boring.' ''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.