Lessons from Cirque du Soleil

My whole family was in Orlando for part of this week, so we decided to hold a birthday celebration for my sister, my brother, and myself (our birthdays are all fairly close). This year, my mom organized a trip to Orlando’s Cirque Du Soleil production, La Nouba.

It was the first time I’d been to one of these events, and needless to say I was shocked by the high price of the tickets. I realized halfway through, however, that I was watching one of the finest performances I’d ever seen, anywhere. The physical training and prowess displayed easily surpassed any other show of ability I’d seen, whether in sports or arts, and the live music must have been played by some of the best musicians in entertainment.

The show was also particularly interesting for me because it was one of those things where there’s always something going on. There was always someone or other dancing or doing something clever in the background, or flying across the upper parts of the auditorium on a wire, or whatever.

As a rule, I’m hyper-aware, so it was a feast for that hyper-awareness to always have things to notice. Every time I saw something I wasn’t intended to see because my attention was supposed to be focused on the main act, I got excited and leaned over and told David, who probably didn’t care. I’m just talking about times when the cast would surreptitiously clip a safety carabiner to a hidden harness on their way to a dangerous move, or when the electric violinist you could barely see, hidden behind several layers of columns, was really rocking out. I loved all this background stuff.

But, having been thinking a lot about community and spiritual things lately, I was surprised to also have several somewhat awesome realizations whilst watching this display of artistic excellence, relating to the spiritual life lived in community. I remember having 3 or 4 of these realizations, but all that I can recall now are two:

1. Unity is awe-inspiring. There were a number of times throughout the performance where a group of performers would be doing something incredible on their own, for example rolling around in these huge circular wire cages, or playing with this insane chinese yo-yo thing (I know, I need video clips). Anyway, it was amazing, and the crowd burst into applause.

Then, these groups of performers would do something even more complicated, namely performing with their respective props, but synchronously. That is, their actions and motions interplayed with the actions and motions of another, forming this intricate dance whilst maintaining an impossible individual routine. And of course, the crowd bursts into applause.

But then, the best thing of all would happen–two of the performers would actually pretend to be one person! In other words, say there were two girls doing tricks with this chinese yo-yo thing, which requires both hands to manipulate in all these incredible and impossible ways. Well, they would get together and share the same prop, using the right arm from the rightmost girl, and the left arm from the left, to act as one performer.

This subtly blew my mind away…the level of focus and control to do what they were doing seemed to require having one mind. It was insane how their hands could move as if they were receiving instantaneous instructions from one source. So now, the crowd goes the most wild, because they unconsciously realize this point–being that on-the-same-page with another human being is truly awe-inspiring.

The spiritual lesson: it is the same with our community relationships! If we do things with a unity like that the Cirque cast has achieved physically, then the crowd (read: outside world) will involuntarily shout out in applause, because it is delightful and amazing.

2. Discipline brings freedom. At one point during the show, a well-muscled, gymnast-looking man grabbed hold of two narrow red curtains which had dropped from the ceiling, took a short run, and then jumped. He proceeded to soar, arms back and back arched like gliding bird, in a huge arc toward the sky. With the fluttering of the sheets around him and the fact that his body was kept perfectly still, he appeared to serenely lift. In truth, it looked less like the curtains were pulling him upward, and more like his body was actually propelling them with its own power of flight.

The lie was given when the next act took center stage, and I glimpsed this man in the shadows, stomach heaving with the exertion he hadn’t shown during his routine. It had looked like nothing special for him to iron-cross through the air without even solid rings, but in fact it was hard even for this burly guy. It would have been strictly impossible, of course, for anyone in the audience.

But he had trained his body to such an extent that, with every muscle in it straining, it looked like flying was completely natural to him. This training came at a certain cost–daily discipline. No doubt he had some latent physical ability from birth, but without the discipline he would have been like the fat guy they picked for the mountain biker to jump over earlier in the show.

I’m imagining that, in none of his practice sessions, whether it was lifting weights or running or doing scores of pull-ups, did he ever feel like he was flying. To the contrary, his body probably never felt more tied to the earth than when he was bench-pressing something insane. But twice a night (or however often), he gets on stage and flies like a bird, with a smile on his face, and in the freedom that discipline brings.

The spiritual lesson: spiritual disciplines will probably not feel very illuminating or liberating. In fact, they may feel very much like chains. More importantly, they are not instant pathways to anything or at all related to my desire for the end state they bring, in the same way that, even if I wanted to be like this flying Cirque du Soleil entertainer, it would take me years at least to be physically able…who knows, it might even be impossible, given that I have been set in certain physical ways for so many years!

But in the end, after years of hardship and training, spiritual disciplines will pay out in the most unimaginable of ways–the ability to truly fly, spiritually. And if and when I do, those around will greet it with awe, believing that this is some supernatural power being shown, when in reality it is simply what happens naturally in a life that is oriented in a certain direction. It is a genuine natural miracle–natural because built into the fabric of life, and miraculous because it is the work that God desires to do in us.

Well, between these two things, I think there is a lot to ponder. The most excitement comes, in particular, with thinking about the integration of these two lessons–can you imagine a spiritually unified, disciplined group of individuals? I would like to see it; I would like to be it. It would be so amazing, just like the performance that moved me last night.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

4 replies on “Lessons from Cirque du Soleil”

Although I have seen the same routines that you did (two years ago), I can’t claim to have learned as much as you did from it. It was definitely a spectacular performance, with an equally spectacular price.

Those little chinese girls are AMAZING.

I like that your realizations aren’t a stretch at all, they are very true and bring out a lot of meaning.

My favorite line… "No doubt he had some latent physical ability from birth, but without the discipline he would have been like the fat guy they picked for the mountain biker to jump over earlier in the show."

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