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Friday, August 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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The big top beckons Olympic athletes

By Theophilos Argitis
Bloomberg News

Gymnast Lisa Skinner of Australia competes on the parallel bars during the Olympics in Athens last week. As she considers ending her competitive career, Skinner is interested in auditioning for a spot in the Cirque du Soleil.
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Australia's Lisa Skinner leaps onto the uneven parallel bars at the Olympic Indoor Hall, grabbing hold with a puff of chalk dust and swinging through a routine that may be the 23-year-old gymnast's last in competition.

The big top now beckons the three-time Olympian.

"She's very good on the bars, so she could possibly become a great flyer in a flying act for one of our shows," says Florence Pot, who is at the Athens Olympics scouting for Cirque du Soleil, a Montreal-based circus known for performers who suspend themselves from yards of silk and launch somersaults from swinging platforms.

Cirque, founded in 1984 by a group of street performers, is looking for talent as it adds shows and produces acts for MGM Mirage, Walt Disney Co. and Celebrity Cruises.

It estimates the expansion will boost sales, which reached $383 million last year, by 15 percent to 20 percent annually.

There's one hitch: Where do you find workers whose skills include the ability to swing from a trapeze?

Florence Pot, scout for Cirque du Soleil, films prospective recruits at the Olympics. The company needs to hire 150 new performers each year.
You go to the Olympics.

With Olympic tickets in her pocket and a video camera in her backpack, the 34-year-old Pot spent last week searching for gymnasts who have the athletic skills and artistic flair to make the leap to the stage. This week she's watching divers, synchronized swimmers and trampoliners.

The company needs to hire as many as 150 performers a year, Chief Operating Officer Daniel Lamarre says. Cirque already has nine shows, including three at hotels owned by Las Vegas-based MGM Mirage and one at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. It begins staging shows for Miami-based Celebrity Cruises this year.

"If we didn't invest as much as we do in recruiting, then I would be concerned," Lamarre, 51, says. The closely held company has a staff of 35 dedicated to casting.

Cirque expects a new circus school in Montreal to supply performers, and the company has an agreement with the Chinese government that provides acts, Lamarre says.

Increasingly, though, Cirque is relying on scouts like Pot to find athletes who want to put their skills to work. About three-quarters of Cirque's 660 artists were trained as athletes, including 17 former Olympians.

Pot, a former gymnast not much taller than the mostly teenage girls competing in Athens, videotapes Spain's Jesus Carballo, a 27-year-old gymnast who won gold medals on the horizontal bar at the 1996 and 1999 World Championships.

Carballo fits the profile Pot is looking for. Like Skinner, he's in the twilight of a career that may end in Athens. He's also strong on bars at a time when Cirque is looking for men who are skilled on the apparatus.

When 12-time Olympic medalist Alexei Nemov performs a half hour later, Pot leans back and rests the camera on her lap. The Russian sticks his landing to score 9.737, third-highest of the day.

"I don't need to videotape Nemov, I just sit back and enjoy," Pot says. "I wouldn't approach him. He can still compete for a long time, and as a star in his country I guess he's making very good money and has a lot of privilege."

Cirque performers receive at least $69 a show for as many as 10 shows a week, Pot says. That equals about $34,430 for 50 weeks of work.

Skinner — who competed in the uneven bars and balance beam, but failed to qualify for Sunday's apparatus finals — says she's just looking for a way to earn a living from the sport she took up as a 6-year-old in Australia.

"I'd love to join the circus," she says. "If I can make money from my skills, then why not?"

While Pot likes Skinner, there is no guarantee she will win a spot with Cirque.

Skinner needs to send videotapes and do a live audition. If she passes that test, she has to travel to Montreal for a four- to six-month training course before receiving a contract.

Many athletes have failed to make the transition, Pot says.

"The most important characteristic we are looking for concerning an athlete is the artistic openness to learn new things and adapt to a new environment," she says. "Open-minded people artistically are the most important thing."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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