A Willingness to Work Harder Than You Ever Dreamt Imaginable: 10 Questions with Marjon Van Grunsven, Artistic Director of Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 by two former street performers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix. Through the assistance of a grant received from The Canada Council for the Arts, the troupe debuted “Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil” to the small town of Gaspé, Canada. What began as a production with 20 street performers has grown to become the unchallenged leader in circus arts. Since its formation, Cirque du Soleil’s team of approximately 5,000 employees has inspired awe in more than 155 million spectators in over forty countries on six continents.
2006 was a milestone year for Cirque du Soleil. “DELIRIUM” premiered in Montreal as the company’s first arena production. Prior to “DELIRIUM” Cirque du Soleil shows were performed in either custom-built tents or as permanent shows inside specially designed theatres. In April 2007, Netherlands born Marjon Van Grunsven joined Cique du Soleil and toured as Artistic Director of “DELIRIUM.” A year later in 2008 Marjon was hired as the Artistic Director of “OVO” and took the show on tour in 2009 until its closing in 2015. From 2015 until 2016 Marjon worked as the Artistic Director for “QUIDAM.”
“OVO” resumed touring in 2016 and Marjon returned to her role of Artistic Director. The production includes acts of hand balancing, foot juggling, aerial acrobatics, contortion, slackwiring, dancing, and trampolining. “OVO,” which is Portuguese for egg, was inspired by the world of insects and is all about movement. SMG and Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena will host “OVO” from October 5th through October 9th.
The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville had the privilege of conducting a 10 Questions interview with Marjon Van Grunsven prior to Cirque du Soleil’s Jacksonville tour dates. Marjon holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Dance from Fontys Hogeschool Tilburg (1995). Marjon has lived and worked in the United States, the Netherlands, France, and South Korea. In addition to her role as Artistic Director, she has worked as a professional dancer, teacher, choreographer, and producer, as well as a certified Pilates instructor.
10 Questions with Marjon Van Grunsven
In 2012, Alexandra Marie Daniels wrote an article in which she referenced a 1997 conversation between the two of you. In that conversation Daniels asked “What is your dream,” to which you replied “I want to be in Cirque du Soleil.” 10 years later you became the Artistic Director of “Delirium,” Cirque du Soleil’s first arena production. Can you describe your path to becoming Artistic Director and what working for Cirque du Soleil means to you?
When Alexandra and I met, it must have been 1996 in New York City where we were both studying dance and Pilates. I had mounted my own dance company in that same year and produced my very first Off-Broadway show, which was titled ‘Memento.’ It was a tribute to the survivors of the Holocaust and was inspired by stories of my aunt who fought in the 2nd World War resistance. This production received several awards and prizes and it initiated my career as a choreographer.
I had seen my first Cirque du Soleil productions, “Saltimbanco” and “Alegria,” a few years prior performed in New York and Europe. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the productions, the eclecticism of how music melted with dance, acrobatics, acting, the set, lighting, costume design, and with story. Everything and everybody that was part of Cirque du Soleil performances were engaged and working together in such an artful manner. It created magic, a magic I had never before seen in a theatre performance. It was new to me and it touched me deeply. So, indeed, I spoke of Cirque du Soleil to the dancers in my company, Memento Dance Company (named after its first production). Cirque du Soleil had inspired me so much that it had become a dream of mine to one day be a part of such a production, no matter what capacity.
As my career continued, my company took off and brought me back to Europe in 2001. I taught master classes at festivals and performed in Europe and North America with Memento Dance Company. In 2004, I opened Memento Bodyworks – Studio for Performing Arts and Pilates Education in The Netherlands.
My dance education began at the conservatory in Tilburg, The Netherlands, where, at the time, Ria Martens was the Artistic Director. She became my dance mentor and good friend. In 2007 I received a call from Ria. Her career had led her to the role of Artistic Director at Cirque du Soleil. We spoke for hours, catching up on our lives and careers. The next day Luc Tremblay, Senior Artistic Director for Cirque du Soleil, called me and said Ria had recommended me for the position of Artistic Director for “Delirium.” It was to be a 3-month engagement. Today it is 10 years later and I am still here loving every single minute of what it is that we do.
How are the concepts behind Cirque du Soleil’s shows first formed and once they are formed how are they developed to a finalized production?
First there is a dream, an imagination, an idea. This idea can come from different people and once it is picked up and recognized it becomes a concept. For example, for “OVO” the idea was born to create a show inspired by the world and life of insects. The concept was brought to the creative room and put on a story board wall. Pictures, images, videos, questions, and exchanges. Soon it became clear how incredible the world of insects is.
What to do, something scientific or something full of fantasy? We chose the latter. A creative team was selected that was led by a Director of Creation and consisted of a Choreographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Make up Designer, Set Designer, Acrobatic Designer, Lighting Designer, Sound Designer, and many more. The team then worked together extensively for about two years, leading up to the world premiere of “OVO” in May of 2009. The International Head Quarters of Cirque du Soleil in Montreal plays a big role during this process. This is where all productions are created. This is also where our casting department works to select artists and recruitment staff.
I am giving you only a little sneak peek here, there is so much more that goes into the creation of our productions. It is an amazing process.
Live shows have a lot of moving parts. This is especially true for Cirque du Soleil. What have you learned about yourself through your role as Artistic Director and through your career in the arts?
You must adopt an attitude of great flexibility and openness. Our lives and days can take unexpected turns at any given moment, especially at the circus! This requires creativity and adaptability.
I have learned that I truly enjoy this part of the job. It is like being an actor, dancer, or musician that has to improvise on the spot when something in a performance goes differently than expected. Our days consist of making sure our performances are the best they can be each night. Sometimes our ‘ line-up’ can unexpectedly change and we need to improvise to an extent that the audience won’t notice. In this, and many other examples, I learned that ANYTHING is possible, so long as you believe in what you do. This goes for ALL individuals that work on our shows: artists, crew, staff, and creators.
I guess it goes for all artists in the world. It is incredible what we can do, what we can achieve, and how much we can touch the hearts of thousands of spectators every day, as well as those within our team. With that, we can hopefully make a tiny little difference in this world and inject it with a love and passion for what we do.
I learned that artists are blessed with a very important gift, and we get to share that gift with the world. We cannot and should not ever underestimate this.
Your career has provided you with a lot of opportunities to travel. What are three cities that you consider to be art and culture capitals, and what about them do you find engaging?
To choose only three is difficult for me…there are so many! Here are the first three that come to mind:
New York City – This is where I learned that anything is possible! It truly is in this city! NYC bubbles with creative and artistic energy, and the support from its people is incredibly inspiring. I am not talking about official fund providers, although of course these are incredibly important too. I am talking about THE people, the audiences of this city. They love to be part of the cultural community, they love to give, to help, and to support. This is both inspiring and invigorating for young and upcoming artists. Now, NYC is also one of the most arrogant cities when it comes to critiquing art (Rightfully so, the best of the best go there). Anywhere you go, from the subway to Carnegie hall, the talent and skill in NYC is simply out of this world! As the saying goes “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” It isn’t easy and the bar is set very high. Even just as much as being noticed by the press is a victory for upcoming artists. I absolutely thank my entire career to the lessons I learned in this city.
Melbourne Australia – Such a beautiful city with so much opportunity for the arts. I am inspired to find cities or places where you can find great art on the streets, in alley ways, in bars and restaurants, and in small theatres. A city inspires me when it is eclectic, full of different colors and kinds of arts. I love when you don’t have to search for creativity because it simply meets you in as you roam the streets. Melbourne does that to me. There is a state of mind in Melbourne that promotes inspiration, creativity, innovation. and artistry. There is a similarity between the people of Melbourne and the people of New York City. In both cities there is a deep and intimate sense of history. I am drawn to peoples’ stories and how they relate to, and find a renewed respect for, the wisdom of their ancestors and the area in which they live and create. It’s very powerful.
Amsterdam – I read about Amsterdam and first visited as a tourist when I traveled to Holland. Amsterdam is a city with vast possibilities, and with great art everywhere! Yet again, each time I go there, I am surprised and amazed by its its people – their roots, their beliefs, and their sense of community. The history of Amsterdam and its people is very powerful, as well, and it brings them together with the purpose to create. Last year I witnessed a full-blown opera concert organized by a neighborhood. I literally stumbled upon it. It was clear that there wasn’t much funding but so much talent and creativity was brought to the stage. The people of Amsterdam poured out of their homes and tourists gathered in the streets to witness this beautiful performance. It was both humbling and touching to see how art, creativity, and passion, can bring people together. I believe Amsterdam is a GREAT city for the arts!
Do you have any routines, habits, or rituals when you prepare to leave for tour or return home from a tour?
This is a question that made reflect for a minute, as I feel it is rarer for me to return home from a tour than it is to leave for a tour. My home has become the tour and the people on tour are my family. I feel more nervous going home to The Netherlands than I do to return to tour. It is always a relief for me to return to the tour.
Of course, its always such a great feeling to return to The Netherlands to see my family and friends whom live there! There aren’t actual rituals either way. I pray and I meditate every day, whether on tour or in transit. I also write a lot. I used to see each transit as an actual ‘transit’ in life and I would write about achievements, future goals, and desires. It became a Mantra each time I traveled. But now we travel EVERY WEEK and Mantras need time and space to breath and be effective, so I stopped writing as much as I used to. I believe I still have this habit, but I use it only when we are on our longer tour breaks. So, let’s say, every ten to twelve weeks.
Cirque du Soleil is a highly memorable production for most audience members. It’s nearly impossible to watch a performance without feeling a grand sense of awe or childlike wonder. Outside of Cirque du Soleil, what productions and live performances impacted your life and how you viewed the arts?
It is difficult to say as, again, there is so much beauty and so much incredible art. The first ones that come to mind is the work of:
What are some unique characteristics of “OVO” when compared to other Cique du Soleil productions?
“OVO” is unique for its colors, energetic performances, and live Brazilian musical scores. “OVO” is also unique because it tells a simple story that young and old can easily follow. It is a love story between a young ladybug and a young fly. Our show lifts your spirits and makes you smile, laugh, wonder, and stand up and dance! It is a very happy show where you will witness incredible acrobatic performances, as well! The costumes designed for “OVO” are out of this world with all their colors and complex patterns. The fantasy aspect of the story leaves you curious about crickets, butterflies, ants, spiders, cockroaches, and scarabs, just to name a few of our many families of insects. Where other of our shows are more mystical and dark, “OVO” gives you the simplicity of ‘What you see is what you get,’ and that is what I believe to be the strength of “OVO.”
This year OVO went thru a complete re-creation process to make it ready for arena touring life, after having performed under the big top for nearly seven years. I believe the show is better than ever before with all its refreshed changes!
You worked as a professional dancer, choreographer, and certified Pilates instructor prior to your role as Artistic Director. Can you describe your approach to health and wellness and outline any diets or workout regimens you adhere to?
I try to get to the dance studio, Pilates studio, or gym every day, but there simply hasn’t been much opportunity to do so. However, my daily meditations help, and I do stretch as often as I can.
Everyone should move as much as they can and at a pace that works for their mind and body. With all my heart I believe in Private Pilates instruction on the apparatus as well as on the mat, and it should combined with a healthy dose of dancing and movement (OK – you can go to the gym too)!
I try to eat healthy. I know that I should eat three meals a day, or more times a day if eating smaller portions, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. I was much healthier as a performer than I am today as a Director, and thank you for the question because it pushes me to look at this aspect of my life again.
What first attracted you to movement as a form of art?
Music, dreams, and visions.
I loved ballet. I watched it as much as I could as a child. I danced full ballets in my mind and listened to “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Nutcracker” endlessly until I discovered rhythm and Jazz and African music and dance.
But to answer your question, music is what first attracted me. My mother was a classical singer and I conducted her songs for her endlessly. Music made me move and dance. When I was 4 or 5 years old my mother started taking me to live performances. I was lucky.
What qualities or characteristics do you feel a person should possess in order to succeed in a career in the arts during modern times?
A passion for all that is art, a dream, a personal vision, a goal to reach, and a drive thereafter.
An understanding of the simplicity required to create from your heart and soul.
An overpowering belief that you can reach your goal and make your dream come true.
A willingness to work harder than you ever dreamt imaginable.
A sense of humbleness mixed with pride.
The capacity to always remember where you came from, where your roots lay.
Now, even more than ever, it is important to look at, listen to, and get to know your audience and people in general. What keeps them occupied? What makes them want to peel away their layers of protection so as to open their hearts and souls to your art? How can your art touch them in a way that they will never forget? What is YOUR message?
I believe that artists have to ask themselves questions to discover the roots of their creativity. Creativity is the ability to dream, to question, and to imagine. Innovation then, is the ability to put into action your dreams and turn them in to reality. All these aspects I am describing require a certain level of consciousness and awareness.
It isn’t really different today than it was centuries ago. The only difference is that, in these modern times, we must contend with technology. You can be inspired by all influences around you, but don’t let outside influences blind you from seeing what you really need in order to create art. I encourage you to stay connected to your true self. Through being conscious and aware you will learn what it is that you need.
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