BWW Interviews: Tanya Burka Talks Being an International Circus Performer, Her Career, Aerial Silks, and QUIDAM
QUIDAM is internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil's ninth stage show. The production had its World Premiere on April 23, 1996; however, in 2010 it was converted from its original big top format into an arena format so that it could tour across North America and the world. It introduces audiences to a young, bored girl named Zoé, who is neglected and ignored by her parents. She imagines the entire show of QUIDAM to escape the monotony of her life. As the tour was preparing to open in Laredo, Texas, I got to speak to Tanya Burka who performs the aerial silks act in the show. We discussed her transition from MIT trained Nuclear Engineer to International Circus Performer, her career, and QUIDAM.
Me: You began to dream of performing in acrobatics during high school. What sparked that dream?
Tanya Burka: I was actually very lucky to go to a school where they kicked you out the last month of your senior year and said, "Go do something. We pretty much don't care what. You don't want to be here anymore and the teachers don't want to put up with you." So, I went off for a month and did a work trade at a circus school. I'd never really done any kind of performing before that. I had done gymnastics for years, and it was just like everything I had done acrobatically but without the competition aspect of it. It really just a lit a bulb up in my brain of like "Hey, this would be really fun!"
Me: While earning your degree in Nuclear Engineering at MIT you decided to apply to circus school. What motivated that decision?
Tanya Burka: My parents always thought I was going to go off and get a degree in some kind of, you know, physics or whatever and work for NASA. While I was getting my degree, I was lucky enough to be working at my university's research reactor, so I got work a bit in the field and gain some experience in Nuclear Engineering. I loved it, but it was a desk job, a really fascinating desk job. I was like, "I don't know that I'm ready for this." So I figured, you know, "I'll apply for this circus school and if nothing happens, then I go on my merry way as a engineer, and, if they decide to take me then, I guess, I'll see where this journey takes me."
Me: What was it like training at École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal, Quebec?
Tanya Burka: Wonderful. Dreaming. [Pauses] Challenging. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, equal to, if not surpassing, getting a degree in engineering at MIT. You leave there loving every person that you've worked with for those three years and ready not to step foot in there for another year or two thereafter, just to get a little detox time. I mean, every part of yourself is up for criticism there because they're making you a complete package. It's not just "can you do the flips," it's "can you captivate an audience? Can you dance? Can you juggle?" It's really intense to put yourself out there on that level and to leave every part of yourself vulnerable.
Me: At École Nationale de Cirque you trained in acrobatics and aerial silks? How did you get interested and involved in aerial silks?
Tanya Burka: Funny enough, the first time I ever saw aerial silks was in QUIDAM, in this very show. It was just so beautiful, so moving. The part I always like about gymnastics, as I wasn't a very great competitor because I was very tall for a gymnast, is being up high and being upside down. So when I auditioned for the National Circus School, I said, you know, "I'd like to do aerial silks." And I was lucky enough that they said, "That sounds like a good idea."
Me: Aerial silks have become vastly popular to study and for exercise classes. What do you think is so alluring about the art?
Tanya Burka: There's just so many possibilities. It's amazing the amount of diversity that exists in the art form and even in just the recreational practice. It's two pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling, and really anything you can think up that will work becomes something new that's added to the art form. So it's something that everyone can do differently. Everyone can express themselves through the art form because it's so versatile.
Me: Before joining the cast of QUIDAM you performed at many prestigious events and locations, including the opening ceremonies of 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. What have been your favorite aspects of those performances?
Tanya Burka: Performing for the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, it was such a trip. I was relatively new as a Canadian permanent resident at the time. I went there in 2008, so to get the opportunity to represent Vancouver and Canada in front of the world was just so personally rewarding for me. I felt so welcomed there, so to be able to stand up on a stage and to be part of representing that nation was really wonderful for me.
One of the other great experiences I also did in Vancouver one year afterwards was a small show with about 7 or 8 performers and a non-profit called the Health Arts Alliance. We took an outdoor circus show to all kinds of health-impacted communities that might otherwise not be able to go see a show in an arena or in a big top tent. We went out performing at hospitals, we went to one prison, and to living communities for people with disabilities. That, for me, was again, I mean, giving back to that local community was amazing. It was just so phenomenal to be able to go out and give a show of that caliber to people who couldn't come see it otherwise.
Me: Is there an interesting story behind how you become involved in this touring production of QUIDAM?
Tanya Burka: A little bit. It's funny. I first got hired on as a temporary replacement for the artist who was performing up until early this year. She was taking some personal leave in Montreal. I was on tour in Newfoundland with a small, family circus there called Wonderbolt, and got an e-mail from Cirque de Soleil saying, "Would you be able to start in a week's time?" And, I was like, "Actually, I'm finishing up my contract in a week. That would work out perfectly." [Laughs]
As I'm on my way home to Vancouver, I'm in the Toronto airport when I get the call and e-mail saying that they wanted to hire me for the job. So, I almost didn't even go back home. I almost turned right around in the Toronto airport to head back out to Montreal, but it was a holiday weekend. So, in the end, they wound up sending me home for two days.
I promised my husband when I got back from Newfoundland that we would adopt two cats. So, in my two days off I was negotiating a contract with Cirque du Soleil and going out to every cat shelter in the greater Vancouver area to find the two cats that we wound up taking home. So, Cirque called me on Sunday saying, "oh, we'd like to fly you out," and I said, "I have to go pick up two cats today. This is very important." They wound up having to fly me out on a red-eye flight so we could go out and collect our two cats because my husband doesn't have a drivers license. I got about three hours to put them in home and get them settled in, and I was on my way out to Montreal. [Laughs]
Me: What is your favorite aspect of touring in QUIDAM?
Tanya Burka: Honestly, it's the opportunity to perform consistently the same act night after night and to try and tell a story to the audience. There's all kinds of performances and all kinds of act scenarios. I've performed with everything from live opera singers to covers of Madonna's "Like a Prayer," which is really fun in it's own right. But to get an act like this, where it's really an opportunity to delve into contemporary performance art, it's amazing to go out and feel that electric connection with the audience every night.
Me: Why should Houston audiences be excited to see QUIDAM?
Tanya Burka: QUIDAM is really timeless. It's not the sort of show that ages at all. It's really a show about people and about how people's everyday lives can be transformed by encounters with other people. I think it's possible for everyone to recognize themselves in the performers that you see on stage in QUIDAM. And there's something really inspiring about that.
Me: Speaking of inspiration, as an artist, what inspires you?
Tanya Burka: My audience, everyday, for sure. Going out and just, for me, I think of it as like an energy exchange, and, like I said, it's electric. When I go out there and I feel people on The Edge of their seats as I'm hanging 30 feet in the air, and they see me starting to get ready for my act, it's totally inspiring. But also my family, for sure, is a big one. They've stood behind me all through this big transition from Nuclear Engineer to International Circus Performer. So, every day there is a thought that goes out to them that this is for them.
Me: What advice do you have for other people who hope to become performers with any of the various Cirque du Soleil productions?
Tanya Burka: The biggest one I have, and it sounds so silly, is be positive. There are so many talented people out there and so many great shows, but a lot of hat happens between a cast and crew and between cast members and the audience each night is that ability to really give freely of yourself and to give positive energy out to other people. You know, it's very, very hard doing all of the training, and it's super physically intensive to get to this level of performance and that positive attitude, working both with yourself and with other people, is really what carries you over.
Cirque du Soleil will present QUIDAM at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas from March 6 - 10, 2013. For more information and tickets please visit http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/shows/quidam or http://www.houstontoyotacenter.com/events/detail/cirque-du-soleil-quidam. You can also call, (866) 446 - 8849.All photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.