Friday, November 13, 2009

Cirque Life

Trent and I communicated by e-mail for this story and I remember thinking I had enough material for at least two stories. Also, we'd had a fire in our office a few weeks before this went to press and we were moved into a smaller space a few doors down in the strip mall. The morning I wrote this was also the first morning I'd heard our publisher raise her voice to anyone.

Published August 20, 2004, in the Keizertimes

When Trent Wells suffered an injury at the trials for the 2000 Olympic gymnastic team, he was fairly certain that his career was over.

Little did he know that he'd be given the chance to put his skills to the test in front of sold-out audiences, "rapelling" headlong down a down a 20-foot pole doing his best imitation of a lizard.

But that's exactly what the former Keizer resident is doing twice a day, five days a week as a house performer with Mystere Cirque du Soleil's permanent show at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

"Six months after the trials, I realized I was in the best physical shape of my life, but I wasn't doing anything with the skills I spent almost 20 years refining," said Wells.

In 2002, he was doing genetic research at a laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. While planning to travel to Vegas to watch a gymnastics competition, he spotted a poster for Cirque auditions.

"The casting call was for an Olympic-level male gymnast between 5'3" and 5'5" and 130 and 140 pounds who was good at parallel bars or high bars," said Wells.

Wells - at 5'4", 135 pounds, the U.S. National Champion on both parallel bars and high bar - wrote to the casting department and sent in a videotape of some of his competitions.

"I missed performing. I loved competing, but the real thrill was getting out in front of people and doing things that nobody else could do," said Wells, now 30.

Wells describes his story as "typical."

As a child he had an energy surplus that kept him moving constantly. He played soccer and baseball, was an avid swimmer, but he didn't even need a structured sport to keep him happy.

"Just jumping on the family trampoline or swinging around in the trees was good enough for me," he said.

It wasn't long before his parents enrolled him in gymnastics classes to provide him a safe environment for his tumbling.

He graduated from McNary High School in 1992 and attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he continued competing for the school and eventually tried to land a spot on the Olympic gymnastics team in 2000.

When Wells arrived in Vegas he met with the show's talent scout and asked what to expect, and she gave him the prepared answers. However, after the audition, as everyone else left, the talent scout pulled Wells aside to ask him if he'd like to see one of the shows.

"That meant that I had already made all the cuts," said Wells.

He had never seen a Cirque show before, but a month later he quit his job and moved to Montreal, Quebec, in Canada to train at the Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters.

"Training was intense. We worked from 8 a.m. till as late as 10 p.m. I spent three hours a day on a structure with three high bars and a double-trapeze swing 60 feet in the air," said Wells.

Most of the time was spent in "jeux," the French word for games, but training included weights and cardio workouts, instruction on movement, choreography, and even breathing.

"The breathing class was a bit of a joke. The instructor thought it was important, but we didn't become international-level athletes without knowing how to breathe properly," said Wells. "It ended up being 40 people lying on the floor, trying not to fall asleep and attempting to 'breathe through our stomachs,' something I still don't understand."

When Wells had completed the courses, he was ready to perform both the aerial high bar and Chinese pole acts of Mystere.

The aerial high bar, also known as the Lev Act for its inventor Andrei Lev, takes place 60 feet in the air and is akin to a complex trapeze act. Instead of one bar, the swings have three differing heights and the artists spend their time weaving through the different levels.

Wells is the only performer to leap from one bar across the stage to the other, where another performer catches him after a 10-foot drop in a part of his routine called the "short layout."

"It's like being on top of a four-story building and there's a guy leaning out the third story window, telling you to jump and he'll catch you. Except the guy only speaks Russian, so you don't even understand what he's saying," said Wells.

In Chinese poles, where Wells performs his lizard impression, four 20-foot poles are placed 3 to 4 feet apart. The artists climb, slide and jump from pole to pole. A highlight of the Chinese pole act is the "handstand up," where the performer turns himself upside down and then leaps up the pole using the strength of their arms.

"I was amazed when I saw it the first time and I still haven't mastered the skill," he said.

In addition to his featured acts, Wells also provides spotting, moves crash mats and equipment and even plays drums when he isn't center stage.

Wells was added to the Troupe Maison in January after signing four six-month contracts in the years before. He is one of fewer than 10 Americans in his 80-person troupe. The group spans decades in age, with the youngest being a Ukrainian woman who just turned 20 and the oldest a 72-year-old clown from England.

Well's mother, Laurel Wells, who has been to see the show four times said that her thoughts often turn to hoping he doesn't fall.

"They've got the net, but he's still awful high up there," she said.

Wells said that for the first six months, he was so focused on the routine, he didn't even noticed the audience. Then, when he did, he felt naked, he said.

"The hardest part now is simply keeping my energy up. In competition you always have the next level to look forward to, but in Mystere I need to make my own goals so I have something bigger and better to shoot for," said Wells.

He expects to stay with the show through 2005, but isn't certain what's next. An offer to continue with Cirque as a talent scout is something he's weighing.

"It appeals to me because I would get to travel all over the world, which is another thing I miss about competing," he said.

Given the choice between Olympic dreams and working for Cirque, Wells said it would be the hardest decision of his life.

"When I got injured at the Olympic trials I didn't get the closure I needed. I didn't get the chance to end my career on my terms. I needed something more and I found it with Cirque du Soleil," said Wells.

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