Talent pool includes musicians, dancers and athletes

If you’re planning on running off to join the Cirque, you might want to talk to Bernard Petiot.

The Moroccan-born, Montreal-based former elite gymnastics coach is vice president of casting and performance at the Cirque du Soleil, with the high-stress job of running the team that scours the planet looking for creative talent to staff the arty circus. This is a particularly intense period for the Cirque, with “Zarkana,” written and directed by filmmaker Francois Girard, just having premiered at New York’s Radio City Music Hall; the cinema history-themed “Iris” coming Sept. 25 to the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles; and the arena show “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” launching Oct. 2 in Montreal, with stops set for 25 cities across North America.

“What we’re looking for in a performer is (someone who has) a very high-end capacity in his or her field, and something distinctive (to) bring,” Petiot says. “We’re looking for someone who can take risks and can push boundaries.”

Nearly half of the performers are from the sports world, and of those, more than half are gymnasts, which is why the Cirque has a cooperative agreement with the Intl. Gymnastics Federation. The Cirque also hires athletes who specialize in martial arts, swimming, diving and extreme sports.

Petiot’s team is always on the lookout for dancers, musicians and circus performers, with scouts checking out talent at festivals the world over.

Circus performers make up about 20% of the Cirque’s talent pool, with the biggest number of those coming from Europe. The best place to find gymnasts is still Eastern Europe, says Petiot. China and Mongolia provide the majority of the contortionists, one of the Cirque’s key types of performers, while the musicians tend to be North American, with many hailing from the Cirque’s home province of Quebec.

The Cirque will usually sign a performer for a two-year run on one show, with a possibility of renewal. It frequently has to ink temporary contracts with fill-in talent for an acrobat who’s injured.

There is always a training period involved before a new hire can join a performance, and that time span can vary. Musicians and dancers can be stage-ready in a few weeks, while an acrobat might take several months to prepare for a show. The training is constant, mostly at the Cirque’s headquarters in the north end of Montreal, though the company also has training facilities in China, Russia and Ukraine.

With more than 1,300 performers needed to fill the Cirque’s 21 shows around the world, there’s no doubt Petiot will continue turning backflips for those who can, well, turn backflips.

“I have to provide the casting for the existing shows, and then I have to provide casting for three new shows,” Petiot says. “It’s keeping my team busy.”

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