Maintaining a sense of balance can be hard enough in an off-kilter world. But just try doing the way Anna Ostapenko does it – on one hand clutching to a skinny narrow pole.
Somehow, the 24-year-old Ostapenko keeps her equilibrium. But don’t try this at home. She’s a professional.
Ostapenko is an acrobat – a hand-balancer by trade – with Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian company that has redefined the notion of modern circus. Out with the animals, ringmasters and stinky tents. In with the dazzling lights, costumes, music and gravity-defying performers.
Ostapenko is currently on tour with Quidam a circus that has been around in one form or another since 1996. The last time the show played the Bay Area, it was in the usual Cirque big-top. But this time around the show is playing indoor arenas: in San Jose at the HP Pavilion through March 27 and at San Francisco’s Cow Palace April 6 through 17.
In her native Ukraine, Ostapenko started participating in AcroSports, a program of gymnastics, tumbling, dance and circus arts for kids at age 5. Ten years later, she was so good at it that she auditioned for Cirque du Soleil when they came a-calling.
Keep in mind that while Ostapenko was auditioning for the world’s most successful circus, she had never seen a Cirque show or even a traditional Russian circus. Her coach told she should audition, so she did. And then her life changed.
Once she was cast in Saltimbanco, she said goodbye to her home and quite literally ran away with the circus. Suddenly life for the teenager was all about a community of people from every corner of the world working together on a show. She was required to go to school and learned to speak English (and quite well, it must be stated).
“The people at Cirque, they spoil you a lot,” Ostapenko says on the phone from Vancouver, where the Quidam tour was slated to open that night. “They teach you an enormous amount of different things that you wouldn’t have a chance to learn in real life, things about acting, dancing and everything about the stage world.”
In her first show, Ostapenko worked with a partner who would hold her in a handstand, throw her around and catch her.
These days, after almost nine years with Cirque, Ostapenko is a solo act – but that’s only on stage. In real life, she’s with Gabriel Dube-Dupuis, whom she met when he was part of the backstage management crew on Saltimbanco.
The Quebecois Dube-Dupuis is now the general stage manager for Quidam, and the couple is happily touring together.
“Just because you are in Cirque doesn’t mean you are locked in a closet,” Ostapenko says. “You have your right to be a human being. It’s really nice to have somebody there for you on the road. He feels the same way. It’s good to have a partner, somebody to help you in hard moments. What helps is that Gabriel and I have different jobs. I’m an artist. He’s a stage manager. We see each other at work, but not that often. We come home and share what happened at work.”
Home is, of course, a never-ending stream of hotels. Life on the road can be grueling – and now that Quidam is in arenas instead of in a tent, the tour moves more swiftly and to even more cities.
On this day in Vancouver, Ostapenko is nervous. It’s opening night in a new show (new for her) and her first time as a solo act.
“I’m pretty nervous,” she admits. “I’m feeling a little pressure because I want to do a good job and do my best. With hand balancing, you have to be calm. My body is prepared and ready, but I have a lot of nerves in my body right now. I’ll try to meditate and really calm myself.”
Even when she’s no longer an acrobat, Ostapenko says she’ll probably stay in show business.
“I’m really in love with the stage,” she says. “I love the reaction of the public, so I’ll do it as long as I can. I won’t do acrobatics forever. I do enjoy acting a lot a lot a lot. Maybe later on, I’ll look into acting, which could take me to a different place in the theater. Maybe a little cabaret show. I don’t know. We’ll see where time takes me.”
In its tent-touring incarnation, here’s what the hand-balancing act in Quidam looked like.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam continues through March 27 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose and moves to San Francisco’s Cow Palace from April 6 to 17. Tickets are $40-$115 for adults ($32-$99 for children, seniors, students and military). For San Jose tickets call 1-800-745-3000. For San Francisco tickets call 1-866-448-7849. Or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/quidam for information.