Stacey Magiera is a gymnast turned circus artist who shows her incredible versatility by playing three different characters in Cirque du Soleil’s new show Toruk, which is coming to United Center for a short run August 3-7. Toruk is a prequel to the Avatar movie and as such a unique Cirque du Soleil show. Stacey explained why when she sat down to talk with me about the show and how she landed her dream job. She stopped in Chicago briefly on her way to another leg of the tour, but she was happy to be here because Chicagoland is her home.
Where are you from in Chicago?
I’m from Jefferson park. I lived there until I was 7 years old and then we moved out to Barrington.
How does it feel to be home and on tour at the same time?
It’s so amazing to be home, especially since the shows I was in before were all in Las Vegas, so I’ve never performed in Chicago. It’s really nice that all my friends and family and old coaches will be able to come to see the show. I am so excited about that!
How were you discovered by Cirque du Soleil?
I made an audition tape and sent it in. But I didn’t hear from them for a year, so I moved to Alaska because my sister was living there. I was coaching gymnastics and working out in the gym and staying in shape in the hopes that I would someday get a call. Then I was out ice fishing and I got a call from them asking if I could be in Montreal the next week to sign a three-year contract and be part of the creation of a brand new show and I was like, yes of course I will be there! But the day before my flight was about to leave, a volcano erupted in Alaska and grounded all the planes because of all of the ash in the air! No planes were coming in or out of Anchorage and I was stuck, so I messaged and said I wouldn’t make my flight, but they rescheduled me two days later. When I was on the phone for the first call and ice fishing, I was screaming and saying thank you for this call, this is a dream come true! They were kind of laughing on the other side.
Tell us about your background in circus?
I started as a kid in gymnastics. I did club gymnastics at American Academy of Gymnastics in Wheeling and I did two years of high school gymnastics at Barrington High school. Then I did four years of Division One collegiate gymnastics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I wanted to keep doing gymnastics or performing so I auditioned for the show Cirque de La Mer in San Diego and I got that show and they taught me how to do Chinese Pole and flying trapeze in to the water and we did high dives and tumbling. That was my transition to circus arts. We did a full Chinese Pole routine and then we’d dismount into the water and swim out to a platform.
The first Cirque du Soleil show I did in Vegas was Viva Elvis and I was hired for men’s high bar. It’s similar to women’s high bar. Later, I did an acrobatic pole act and when I worked on Ka I was a different character, more martial-arts-based. I got to do fighting, high falls and bungee. So it’s cool because in different shows you get to learn different things and play different characters.
What is different about Toruk?
Our show is different because it is story-based and it’s told through acrobatics and projections and life-sized puppets. The projections really make you feel like you are part of the world and that you are on Pandora. It takes you thru different terrains, like mountains and forests and waterfalls and deserts. It’s a really beautiful, colorful show. It’s also the first Cirque du Soleil show to have English dialog. A storyteller narrates the story and there is also Na’vi dialog. There was a Na’vi language created for the movie Avatar and some of the characters speak Na’vi in the show.
Is this your first tour? What is your role/character in the show?
Yes, I’ve always wanted to be on a tour so this is a dream come true. I love traveling and it’s amazing to get paid for a job you love to do and get to travel. In the show I am in three different clans. I’m chief of the Anurai clan, so I do a balancing act on a spinning skeleton structure. It’s a one-of-a-kind apparatus. Then I’m in the Tipani clan, which is a warrior tribe. We do a Chinese Pole. Its super high intense and we’re running around fighting off viperwolves. Then I’m part of the Omatikaya clan, which is from the movie Avatar, and I do an aerial rope act.
Does Toruk have new characters?
There are new characters because it’s a prequel but the Toruk (a giant dragon creature) is in the movie Avatar and our show. Jake Sully is the sixth Na’vi to ride the Toruk, and our show is about the very first Na’vi to ride him.
What is a day on tour like?
It is so much fun going to different cities! The first couple of days we get off two or three days. We’ll go out and tour the city, sometimes we’ll rent a car and go to national parks and go hiking or rent cabins in the mountains, you know, whatever is in the area. We really take advantage of the days off in the different places we go. Then we do shows Wednesday thru Sunday and our training each day is different; we’ll have specific training for a specific act and we’ll do harder tricks than are in the show and try to come up with new combinations to keep ourselves challenged and up the acrobatic level. We have to run it by the artistic director, but we do get creative input. We’ll do acrobatic training and preventative exercises just to keep our bodies healthy and all of the muscles strong so we don’t roll an ankle.
Who should go see Toruk?
Our show is for all ages. Kids really enjoy our show. They see Na’vi and it is just real to them. Avatar fans love our show and recognize certain elements from the movie but you needn’t have seen the movie to see the show because Toruk is a prequel.
What is one thing that would surprise people about your job?
People might be surprised that we actually do our own makeup. Most people think someone does it for us, but we have makeup lessons and have to learn how to do very intricate and complicated steps to do all of the contours and highlights. It used to take me over two hours to do my makeup and now I have it down to about one hour. The rest of our costume is leotard body suits. On the suit there are UV reflective dots and on our face as well so that we’re kind of glowing, like in the movie.
What is next for you?
My ultimate dream was to be in Cirque du Soleil, so I am happy right now and want to stay and perform as long as I can. I’d like to stay with Cirque du Soleil and there are many creative opportunities, but I am not sure which direction I’d like to go with that yet.
What is the best part of your job?
I’d say performing on stage and doing different characters. I really feel like I’m in the movie Avatar with the projections and I think “I can’t believe I am getting paid for this!”
* * *
Toruk will be at United Center for one week only August 3- 7. Tickets range from $30 to $120.