NEW YORK — It's hard enough for the parents of a toddler to balance work and home. So imagine how hard it is if the work itself is all about balancing.
Meet Jeremie Robert and Julie Dionne, two acrobats in Cirque du Soleil's show "Zarkana" who are raising a 2-year-old son while both earn a living by spinning in a metal wheel that's thinner than a hula hoop.
While their jobs are unusual, they're like any other doting parents. Robert, 28, from Paris, and Dionne, 36, from Montreal, are clearly enchanted by Emile, an exuberant blur of movement who speaks French and Russian.
"It doesn't matter how bad the day went or how good it went," says Robert. "We step in the door and it's 'Papa!' and 'Mama!' and lots of running. If you have a bad day or you're tired, he makes you forget."
Robert and Dionne helped create the $50 million "Zarkana" a year ago when it made its debut in New York at Radio City Music Hall. The 11-act, 73-performer "acrobatic rock opera" then visited Madrid and Moscow before returning to New York this summer. It has gotten leaner over the past year, the characters have been deepened and the acrobatics are tighter.
Before a recent performance in the cavernous, 6,000-seat Radio City, Emile gleefully ran all over the carpeted aisles, his laughter infectious. He tore about in every direction, clutching a toy horse, returning every few minutes triumphantly to his parents' arms, babbling and slightly out of breath.
"Papa! Papa!" he told Robert in French after one such moment. "It's so big!"
At other moments, he begged to jump up into his mother's arms and then, in a move that would make P.T. Barnum proud, successfully balanced with one leg in his mother's lap and the other in his father's.
Emile, who was born in Japan when his parents were in the touring Cirque show "Corteo," has now been to at least 10 countries and gotten used to a new bedroom every so often. "A lot of people say changes are hard for children, but he's adapted so wonderfully," Dionne says.
In "Zarkana," Emile's parents have dual duties. They appear between acts as part of a parade of white-clad performers — she as a pregnant bride, he as a sort of demented old-school pilot — who add some clownish humor to the show, which also includes high-wire walkers, handstanders, flag throwers and a sand-painting artist.
They also appear in the same high-octane acrobatic act — he onstage spinning inside a silver Cyr Wheel, while she performs stunts in and out of her own hoop that is suspended dozens of feet in the air. While they're at work, Emile is cared for by the wife of another performer.
Having Emile has made his parents not only more focused, but also more creative, particularly when it comes time to channel their inner clown. They say they watch his games and try to capture his sense of naivete and play.
"We try not to censor ourselves onstage and I think that comes from him," says his mom. "Sometimes I'll have an idea, but I'll wonder, 'Will it be good?' or 'Is it believable?' He just goes for it and to see him do it is an inspiration. I've learned from his curiosity."
After "Zarkana" ends its run in New York in early September, it will take up permanent residency at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Emile and his parents won't follow, instead moving to the circus-friendly city of Montreal.
Emile's parents have spent long years perfecting their skills. When he was 15, Robert enrolled in the French National Circus School, where he studied for three years. He then moved to Montreal to study for three years at the Canadian National Circus School, specializing in trampoline and teeterboard.
Dionne studied modern ballet and jazz as a youth and was trained at The Dance School of Quebec, specializing in modern dance. She also studied at the National Circus School, but never overlapped with her future partner.
They met in "Corteo," which toured Canada, the U.S., Japan and Russia. They were friends for two years before it turned into romance. Cirque didn't discourage it since both were artists and there was no imbalance of power. Both say Cirque is a great place to work, with insurance, sick days and parental leave offered.
Romances in Cirque companies are not unusual since performers and crew spend all their time together, especially on tour. Some Cirque acts also include whole families. "It's work, it's life, it's family — it's everything all at once," says Robert.
Emile was born close to midnight on Dec. 27, 2010, but Robert couldn't linger too long over the newborn: He had two shows to perform the next day. By the next New Year's Day, Emile was walking; his mother went back to performing after nine months.
New dad Robert gave up the teeterboard, which in Cirque is not the simple seesaw you find in playgrounds. In the circus, it's a macho duel among performers who reach ridiculous heights as they catapult from a large board. "I was used to it and everything but sometimes it was difficult with only four hours of sleep," explains Robert.
Might little Emile have inherited some acrobatic genes from his parents, both lean and muscular? "He's got the energy," says his mother, with a laugh. Emile is already interested in basic acrobatics and does rolls and the splits. He enjoys watching his parents' shows and he juggles at home.
"We're not pushing. I don't think we will. If he wants to follow us, that's fine," says Robert, pulling Emile into his arms. His mother agrees: "He might want to be an accountant. Who knows?"
But even as she says this, the boy uses his father's chest as a climbing wall.
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