Cirque du Soleil acrobats eat to stay fit

Some 50 Cirque du Soleil performers arrive this week for five days of shows at the Sprint Center, but don’t expect to see them all around town binging on barbecue and beer. Not that they don’t like to eat. They tend to eat a lot. For these are acrobats and dancers, a chef with an assistant and an extensive mobile kitchen travels with the troupe.Besides pulling off Cirque’s acrobatic spectacles, the performers’ other job is to stay fit and strong so they can do those impossible moves.Emily McCarthy, 18, from Leeds, England, is the youngest in the cast of Cirque’s “Varekai” show, which opens at the Sprint Center on Wednesday and runs through Sunday.McCarthy began gymnastics at 6 and switched to acrobatic gymnastics at 13, competing internationally. She was hired by Cirque at 16.Her weakness is chocolate.“Any kind of chocolate,” she says. “Every gymnast loves chocolate, but we have to be very careful.”And she is. That’s her “secret” — moderation. Plus, the traveling kitchen that offers lots of healthy choices.Cirque performers are physically active, to say the least. They do shows five days a week, with two performances on two or three of the days.For such athletes, food is fuel. But it’s still possible to overdo it.McCarthy is a “slippery surface flyer,” a routine performed with others on a specially designed sliding surface. Flyers get thrown and caught, and McCarthy’s male partner provides various holds as she balances and contorts.Outside of practices and performances, she spends most of her workout time focused on stretching for flexibility and standing on her hands.“I have to do a lot of handstands,” she says, “And I’m bending back, the wrong way, and putting my feet on my hands. So I spend a lot of time balancing on my hands, staying there for a long time to build muscles in my shoulders and wrists.”And when she says stretching, it’s a little different for her .“Extreme stretches, I guess,” she says. “I do a lot of splits and folding myself in half.”As for cardio, she has no set schedule, not every day, and not longer than 30 minutes. An elliptical machine and stationary bikes travel with the troupe. On a day off, she might go looking for an aerial yoga class.But back to the eating.“We’re never told what to eat,” McCarthy says. “It’s down to us to make sure we’re eating the right foods.”She’s big on chicken but likes most anything and has never been a fussy eater, she says. She always has a salad with lunch and dinner and lots of green vegetables.McCarthy likes to try new things offered by the Cirque’s catering chef. She’s found she likes Mexican food and sushi. But the guinea pig dish on a trip to Peru? Not a favorite.Then there’s bananas. As an athlete, she has long been advised to eat them for energy and nutrition.“I hate bananas,” she says. “I wish I liked them. I keep trying.”Her beverage of choice: “I drink a lot of tea, mainly because I’m English.”Liz Samatis, head chef for the catering team on tour with “Varekai,” has a lot of boxes to check while planning her menus, a hot lunch and dinner every day, with brunch on Sunday.Nutrition is big, but it’s not the only thing, she says.“There are about 100 people here from 18 different countries,” says Samatis, referring to the entire group of performers, technicians and other staff. “Variety is the key to making everybody happy.”To satisfy the nutritional needs of the athletes, Samatis and her assistant offer meals with two proteins, a high-carbohydrate starch and lots of leafy greens and fresh seasonal vegetables. There’s fruit, two kinds of soup, a salad bar and a smoothie bar.Samatis says she’s also attuned to the food from performers’ home countries, such as roasted salmon and borscht for the Russians and eastern Europeans and crepes for the French and French Canadians.Everyone looks forward to Sunday brunch, she says, particularly the omelet station filled with spinach, mushrooms, ham, shrimp and cheese.“This is supposed to be the place where they don’t think about work and the show, but where everybody socializes,” Samatis says. “We want to make it feel like a family dinner. We want to make sure they feel at home.”Samatis has yet another goal: local and fresh ingredients, as much as possible. And local flavor, too. She prepares more seafood on the coasts, for instance, crawfish and etouffee in Louisiana, and recently wild boar in Colorado.“Because I guess they’re roaming around everywhere,” she says.And when you’re in Kansas City?“Barbecue,” she answers, correctly.Raphael Botelho Nepomuceno, acrobat and dancer, will definitely be up for that.Nepomuceno performs a solo routine and interacts with the central character, Icarus. In “Varekai,” Icarus falls from the sky into a magical forest.For Nepomuceno, 31, performing with Cirque was a dream from childhood. Growing up in Brazil, he fell in love at 9 with dance and particularly capoeira, a form that combines martial arts, acrobatics and dance.Besides performances and practices, he does Pilates to stay in shape and stay strong.“Pilates does everything for me,” says Nepomuceno about the exercise system that focuses on flexibility and muscle strength.“I’m so skinny,” says Nepomuceno, who’s 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 134 pounds. “I eat everything.”That includes a lot of black beans, salads and vegetables, he says. And meat, particularly churrasco, meat grilled Brazilian-style.One more crucial ingredient, the athletes say, for staying in top form: sleep.“Eight hours is good,” Nepomuceno says. “Nine or 10 is perfect.”


The Montreal-based circus arts company brings its “Varekai” production to Sprint Center for seven shows Wednesday through Sunday, with evening performances Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and two shows Saturday and Sunday.

Varekai means “wherever” in the Romany language of gypsies, Cirque says. In the show, a solitary man begins an adventure after parachuting into a forest of fantastical creatures. The production “pays tribute to the nomadic soul.”

For tickets, go to cirquedusoleil.com/varekai or call 888-929-7849.