Blogging from Los Angeles, world and Olympic medalist Raj Bhavsar describes his new life in Cirque du Soleil, which begins its newest show, "IRIS: A Journey Through the World of Cinema," next month at the Kodak Theatre.
Set to star in Cirque du Soleil's new Hollywood-themed show, world and Olympic medalist Raj Bhavsar will write an exclusive blog for IG Online with periodic behind-the-scenes updates. "IRIS: A Journey Through the World of Cinema" begins July 21 with preview performances at the Kodak Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles.
It's been a while since I've checked in with my beloved gymnastics community, so I thought I would drop a note and let everyone know where I have been channeling my passion lately.
Bhavsar poses on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to the star for Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil
In November of 2010, I left my hometown of Houston, Texas, and embarked on a journey with Cirque du Soleil. The decision to do so was made after analyzing all aspects of my life, many career options, and by diving deep down to ask one of life's most important questions: what are my most genuine passions? .
For me, one answer came quickly: gymnastics. As a 30-year-old retired gymnast, I still had juice in the tank and found myself clocking into the gym to play gymnastics. I am a physical person and love to participate in all sports, but to me, there isn't another like gymnastics. However, it wasn't the competition that I was still in love with, nor had the desire to do. Throughout my career, it was the feeling of doing gymnastics that I've loved the most. While I will always miss competitive gymnastics and am grateful for all the valuable life lessons it has taught me, I knew the time was right to move on without totally relinquishing my physical talent.
I mentally toyed with the idea of Cirque for almost five years, starting with my post-2004 season. I thought about retiring after the 2004 Olympics, but that decision never sat well with me, as I had unfinished goals in the sport. Four years and an Olympic medal later, I knew the time was right. I loved performing and always had a strong urge to expand on gymnastics in creative ways. I had seen many Cirque shows before and always remember sitting in the audience thinking how beautiful it is to see these acrobats combine gymnastics and theater elements in magical ways. I remember one moment specifically as I was watching "O" in Las Vegas. The boat act (or "Bateau") was one of the most fascinating things I had ever seen and I was literally moving in my seat, trying to feel what the acrobats were feeling as they were pushing the envelope, throwing some amazing tricks. Maybe someday I would feel it for real....
After compiling a video highlighting my gymnastics career and some fun tricks in the gym, I began talking with Stacy Clark in the casting department at Cirque to see if I would be a good fit for one of their shows. Turned out that I got really exciting news when they told me they wanted me for "Kodak," a new Los Angeles resident show, now titled "IRIS." I've been wanting to live and work in Los Angeles for a long time, so one dream was now coming true.
I arrived in Montreal on Nov. 21, 2010, and began training the next day. I remember, vividly, the first time I walked through the doors at headquarters. I was a mixed bag of emotions; excited, nervous, anxious.... a bit like being at the Olympics. Meeting other members from the cast was a joy as Team IRIS is fully represented by former athletes and entertainers from all over the world. It was even nice to talk gymnastics and recall people we know in the community. It made the new world I was stepping into feel more comfortable and not so far from home.
The creation experience in Montreal is something I will cherish for a lifetime. It felt similar to being at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado as we lived right across the street from the studio, and we made several trips back and forth for training sessions, physio appointments and cross training. What was interesting though was to walk into the training rooms and see in one corner, someone balancing a one-arm handstand on someone else's head, or a contortionist with her leg pulled over her head and feet tucked under her chin, and maybe even someone flying 40 feet in the air on a trapeze. It definitely isn't the normal scene I'm used to, but that's what I love about Cirque.
I spent the first three months training new acrobatic skills and devoting a lot of mental energy to getting acclimated to my new life as an artist. Cirque knows gymnasts can bring many acrobatic tricks to the table, but what I love is that they spend a good deal of time nurturing an ex-gymnast like myself to become a theatrical entertainer. Outside of the acro, we were fortunate to learn about all aspects of production. In the mornings, we had dance, acting, clown and yoga classes. My favorite classes were the acting and clown classes, or "bouffon." Sounds a lot like buffoon, and that's exactly what you behave like. (I'm sure most of my friends know that it suits me well!) On a deeper level though, what I really love is that these classes pushed me to free myself of judgement from myself or the outside world. As an artist, I am learning that the best performances are given when an entertainer is truly committed and has absolute conviction to the role he/she is playing. In June, the entire team, production and cast, moved to our new home city of Los Angeles. We were taken to see the Kodak Theatre the same week, and when I first saw the stage, my jaw was on the ground. For one, I could not believe that we will be sharing the same stage that previous Oscar-winning actors and actresses have walked and talked on. When I set foot on the stage for the first time, I could literally feel the immense energy of the place. Believe me when I say, there is something magical about this theater. There is a special quality about it and I haven't yet found the words to describe it. All I can tell you now is that it's a pleasure and I am humbled to be performing there.
Upon arrival in LA, we had many things cluttering our minds. Before we enjoyed the California sun, everyone was scurrying to find apartments, buy bikes and scooters, and pretty much settle down in Hollywood. Of course there is some pleasure in saying that I am an entertainer in the industry's lead city, but what I get more satisfaction from is knowing that I have a responsibility to entertain the very tourists that I pass every day on my way to work. Many of us walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on our way to the theater, most of the time with our heads down staring at the names of successful entertainers encased in gold stars. I want to believe that on some level, we aspire to be like them.
Right now a typical day consists of training sessions from 9 a.m. until noon. We break for lunch, which is readily available as the Hollywood & Highland Center is packed with restaurants and great places to grub. We come back in the afternoon for staging sessions where we run certain numbers and put the Cirque quality polish on our work. Evenings consist of some cross training, physio treatments and dinner. I crash early nowadays as I'm drained after work, but honestly, I don't mind being tired from something I love doing.
All in all, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience thus far. Being a member of this cast has not only given me the opportunity to enjoy gymnastics in a different format, but has mainly placed me around creative, imaginative and quality people. Our team has sacrificed some of life's immediate gratifications for the last six months — including a winter in Canada, some physically taxing training sessions and a complete relocation to another city — in an effort to produce a breathtaking show for the world to enjoy. If you get a chance, come see "IRIS." You will love it!
External Link: Official IRIS Site
Raj Bhavsar is a two-time world silver medalist (2001, 2003) and member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. men's team at the 2008 Olympic Games. A native of Houston, he competed for Ohio State University, where his victories included the 2002 NCAA all-around title. Learn more about post-competitive careers with Cirque du Soleil at cirquedusoleil.com/jobs.