By Marsha Sutton
Attending school in a traveling circus is much the same as normal school. Yet at the same time it’s as different as night and day.
At Cirque du Soleil, trailers adapted for school are transported from city to city across the continent and are occupied by students who utilize workbooks, textbooks, a library, art, computers and other curriculum materials one expects to see in traditional educational facilities.
Once inside, there is no mistaking the space for anything other than a classroom. There, the students are like other ordinary children — studiously learning math, reading, writing, history and foreign language in consistent, stable surroundings.
The difference is that the outside keeps changing.
Currently showing in San Diego at the Del Mar Fairgrounds is “Totem,” a visual wonder of spectacular proportions. The show travels with 60 trucks, 120 employees and performers, 60 more family members, and literally tons of sets, lights, electronics, musical instruments, 250 costumes and accessories, physical therapy equipment, gymnastic equipment, a full kitchen, security — and of course the giant blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau tent.
When the tour heads to Boston after its run in San Diego ends May 27, the outdoor landscape will once again change for the children in this most unique of schools.
Totem tours with 21 children under the age of 18. Eleven attend the Cirque school, and 10 of them are 5 or younger. Three little ones will start school this fall and join the 11 older students, bringing the total enrollment up to 14. With three full-time teachers, that’s a fairly nice ratio.
Because Cirque du Soleil is based in Montreal, the teachers, all Canadian and fluent in both English and French, follow the Quebec curriculum and report in to a pedagogical director regularly. Standardized instructional materials are used, and grade-level assessments are given each year to measure achievement.
“We do a subject-specific division,” said teacher Patricia Elliott. “I get the students for math and science, Julie [Grenier] gets them for English, and Marie-France [Roy] gets them for French and social studies.”
Elliott, who has been teaching for 10 years, nine with Cirque du Soleil, said she applied for the job for the opportunity to travel.
“And professionally it’s very stimulating,” she said. “You can do projects and you have a lot of flexibility with the activities. It makes it very interesting for us and for the kids.”
Marie-France Roy, who also teaches citizenship, history and economics, has been teaching for 11 years, the last five with Cirque du Soleil. Besides the opportunity to travel, she was attracted to the chance to teach in different contexts with very small groups.
“So I applied and was lucky enough to get the job,” she said.
“I’m the oldest one here,” said Julie Grenier, who has been teaching for 20 years – at all grade levels, in both French and English, and internationally. She came upon her teaching career with Cirque du Soleil after seeing the show in Mexico and noticing a young performer.
“I said, ‘Hmm, there must be a teacher around here somewhere.’”
The biggest challenge, all three teachers agreed, is the widespread differences in ages and abilities.
“We spend a lot of time working on lesson plans,” Roy said.
“There’s less correcting but there’s more preparation,” said Grenier. “Sometimes they work on the same project but we have different expectations for each of them.”
The age and ability differences mean the children learn to work more independently than students in a regular school, Elliott said.
All students have different schedules, which can change daily. But the subjects are recognizable to any American student: English/language arts, math, science, art, history and French.
In the lower school, there are four students, each in grades one through four. The three older students are ages 12, 14 and 17. These seven students come from Russia, Belarus and America. The three youngest students to start this fall are Mongolian, Russian and Italian-Spanish.
In a separate school are four Chinese girls, ages 15 to 17, who travel with their own teacher but come to Grenier each day for one hour of English lessons.
The Chinese girls, who began training at the age of 5 with the Chinese circus, perform in the startling act called Unicycles and Bowls, in which each girl, while riding a tall unicycle, flips a bowl with her foot to one of the others who catches it and balances the bowls on her head.
Once the children start school, families choose which language their children should learn – French or English. Most pick French, the teachers said, because the parents assume the children will learn English on their own by traveling on tour throughout the United States.
Regardless of which language the students choose for immersion, they all learn both languages. If French is chosen as the primary language, they will learn English as their second language. And vice versa.
Because performers in Totem come from 20 different countries with their own languages, Roy said most children will become fluent in three languages – French and English from their travels and schooling, and their native tongue from their parents.
Computers play an important role in the educational environment at the Totem school, just as in any other school. Elliott said her students have done podcasts and are currently doing an animation project using technology.
Grenier said computers are also used to share classes on-line with other touring classrooms.
One advantage the teachers identified is the individual attention they can give each student. They also mentioned the close contact they have with the children’s parents and the satisfaction of watching the students grow and develop.
“We know the students so well so it’s easy to see them improving and getting better,” Roy said. “It’s so nice to see their evolution.”
One student, 17-year-old Nikita Moiseev, who performs in Totem’s Russian Bars acrobatic act, has been traveling with Cirque since the day he was born, with Elliott as his teacher since he was 8.
There are the inevitable classroom management issues that all teachers confront. But with three or four in a class rather than 30, it’s more manageable. “If someone’s causing trouble [here], you can nip it in the bud pretty quickly, so that’s more pleasant,” Elliott said.
The teachers have learned to work together as a team and adjust to the regimen just as the students must do.
“It takes time to get into that groove,” Elliott said. “We’re three different teachers and we have different approaches, as in any school. It takes time to figure out what works.”
Students also have challenges adapting. Friends their own ages are what the teachers say the children miss most — “especially the teenagers because there are so few of them,” Roy said. “They’re too old to hang out with the young ones and not old enough to hang out with the adults on site. It gets lonely.”
Grenier said the kids who were formerly in regular schools are used to being around other kids, so it is a more difficult adjustment for them than it is for the kids who have spent years on tour.
“Touring is a very friendly community,” Elliott said. “There are people around to be with – it’s just figuring out who to hang out with and who does what and who likes to do the same activities as you do. It’s adjusting to that reality and looking outside the box a little more for your friends and activities.”
One highlight for the students is the field trips they take at each city. In San Diego, it is the San Diego Zoo. In Philadelphia, the students visited the Liberty Bell. “We usually choose something educational,” Roy said.
Even the adults on tour enjoy their “field trips” in various cities. Francis Jalbert, Totem’s publicist, said he tried surfing for the first time while in San Diego and loves being near the beach.
Each scheduled stop lasts one to two months, so the performers, families and support staff are able to settle in to their surroundings. “We’re not really tourists because we live and work there,” Jalbert said.
While in San Diego, Totem personnel are living in La Jolla in rented apartments. “We do that in every city we go to,” Jalbert said.
School days are Tuesdays through Saturdays and generally start at 11 a.m., lasting until 5 p.m. For the performers, school starts later. Students are in school about 25 hours per week.
School is year-round but is not regular, Jalbert said, because school is not in session when Cirque is on the road.
Of the 11 students in the Totem school, six are children of actors and employees and five – Nikita Moiseev and the four girls from China — perform in the show.
Born in New York City to Russian parents touring with the Cirque du Soleil show “Alegria,” Nikita was trained in gymnastics at a young age by his father, an acrobatic coach and Totem artist. At one point, his entire family – Nikita, his parents and his two brothers — all toured together with Cirque.
Nikita, who speaks perfect English and is also fluent in Russian, joined the cast of Totem in 2009 and has been on tour, educated in Cirque schools, all his life save one year when he attended first grade in Las Vegas.
Because one of his favorite subjects is computer science, Nikita spends free time with the computer technicians on tour. Besides attending school and doing homework, he also practices with the artists in his act, prepares for the show (which includes applying his own make-up as all the artists do) and performs each night as an acrobatic “flyer.”
“I would love to go to college one day,” said the articulate 11th-grader. But for now, he’s content to stay with the show for another two to three years and loves the traveling.
Life on tour with Cirque du Soleil is reality for Nikita, who was born into it. But he, like other children in the school, suffers the hardship of limited contact with other children his own age. “There’s not much social interaction,” he said.
“It’s not like being in a classroom with 30 people, but their evolution is super-quick,” Jalbert said. “Even though it’s not normal and the lifestyle is very different, we try to make them feel that it’s a normal life and to make it as normal as possible.”
Jalbert said Cirque touring shows are like a small village where the children belong to everyone, all the kids go to the same school and everyone lives together.
“Even though there are so many different languages, we all understand each other and the language of entertainment and of Cirque du Soleil,” he said, comparing the culture to a mini United Nations. “Everybody is equal; every culture is equal. We all work together.”