The Performer: Alevtyna Titarenko, aerial acrobat

On trying new things, becoming a mother and a mentor, and working with others.

(Photo: Cirque de Soleil)

Alevtyna (Alya) Titarenko was just 17 years old when she won the 1995 title of world champion in sport acrobatics for the Ukraine as half of a women’s pairs team. When scouts from Cirque du Soleil arrived in search of new talent, she decided to audition for the company, and by 1997, after winning another world title, Titarenko moved to Canada to train for Cirque’s Las Vegas water show, O.

Still with the company, Titarenko shows no signs of slowing and is preparing to travel around the world performing in Cirque’s Totem show as the female member of the rings trio. She spoke with Canadian Business associate editor Jacqueline Nelson.

Birth place: Nikolayev, Ukraine
Began gymnastics training: Age 5
Sport acrobat world champion: 1995, 1996
Left home: Age 17
Joined Cirque du Soleil: Age 20
Years performing with Cirque du Soleil: 14
Cirque shows in repertoire: 4

Totem is your fourth Cirque show. How has your role within the company changed?
When I came to Cirque du Soleil I knew nothing. I never wanted to be in circus before. But when I finished performing in O and joined the touring show, Saltimbanco, I watched the other performers and I liked their acts. I learned the Chinese poles, bungees and Russian swing. Then I began to learn the aerial straps. Over the years, I’ve changed what I do considerably.

Did you learn those acts from other performers or choreographers?
Well, actually, I did a lot by myself. I kind of fell in love with the straps and I decided to learn them. I went to a store, a Home Depot kind of place, and I bought the kind of nylon straps they use for moving supplies. Somebody helped me rig them up, and I just started to try them, not knowing much about it. When you have a certain number of tricks you can do, you can ask for somebody to help you choreograph it or just do it by yourself.

Totem will be your second travelling show. You’ve also been in two stationary shows in Las Vegas. Which do you prefer?
I started with a stationary show, O, and I learned a lot. Then I tried a touring show, Saltimbanco. Eventually I got tired of touring, and I had a child, so I went back to Las Vegas. I think it just depends on where you are in your life. When you’re in a permanent place, you have permanent life. You have a mortgage to pay and bills to take care of. If you want to escape all of that, you go on tour.

Your daughter is seven years old now. Will she be touring with you?
Well, she has to go to school this year. Her father is in a different show with Cirque du Soleil in Australia, and my daughter is going to live with her grandparents in Germany. It’s difficult, but everybody has their own home, and since she’s half-German she really feels at home there. Having a child on tour is challenging because you have an evening schedule for the shows, but the child has to have a normal schedule to go to school and to bed.

What is the hardest part about working with such a large cast?
Sometimes the group clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m finding that the Totem show really clicks. The Beatles Love show had a very young cast, and there were a lot of break dancers and crazy guys who moved all the time. They were full of energy. At Totem, we still have a lot of energy, but the people are a little older and a bit more mature, so we don’t have a lot of showing off backstage. We come and do our jobs, we do what we love to do, and at the same time it’s a very friendly environment. This is especially important for a touring show, because you spend a lot of time together on site.

What does success mean to you?
When you feel confident about what you’re doing and you’re able to control yourself, maybe that’s success. Doing a live show is very difficult on your body and on your mind, because you’re really tired and you have no idea how you’re going to pull yourself together and perform. I think success is the ability to pull yourself up and go perform the show even though you don’t feel like it.

Can you draw from the audience’s reactions to motivate you?
Yes, the public love and applause and cheers are another part of success, because that’s what you’re doing it all for—to make the public happy. We have one dance at the end of Totem, and sometimes you see people start to get up like mushrooms, one first and then another, and a third, fourth. And they start to sway and dance a little. And it really makes you smile genuinely, and they give you energy to go on. You give, and you get it back.

You’re well established at Cirque, but there are always new performers joining the company. How do you handle the competition?
I’ve learned over the years that, for better or worse, everybody’s replaceable. Of course I’m getting older, that’s a part of life, but with age comes experience. And sometimes the younger artists are coming in with all this energy, but they can break much faster than the older performers because they don’t know how to pace themselves. To do this kind of job for a long time is challenging.

What skills have helped you find strength while others around you were burning out?
I think you learn from watching other artists. In each show, there’s been someone who I’ve watched to see how they do things, how they warm up and their attitude toward performing. When I spoke to them, I was storing it all away.

Do you feel you’ve now become that mentor for younger performers?
I’ve been told that I am, but it’s a lot of pressure. If I’m captain of an act and I’m standing in the front and the whole cast is behind me, I have to be more concentrated on not making a mistake, because if I do, it goes on like a snowball.

Do you ever still get nervous before a performance?
Of course I do. Every day, and before every show. It’s a good thing, because it keeps you aware of what you’re doing. And when you’re not aware, that’s when big mistakes might happen. You have to think about every step you’re doing.

What else do you hope to achieve in your career?
Right now I love performing, and I want to keep doing that. There are some artists who cannot finish their performing years because of health reasons or injuries. Then something inside them always feels unfinished. I want to end my career on the stage when I choose to stop.