Living and touring Japan with Cirque Du Soleil’s, ‘Totem,’ I learned a lot, especially about myself. We traveled around 5 major cities: Tokyo – Osaka – Nagoya – Fukuoka – Sendai, with many vacations and excursions in between. The topics I wanted to touch on are plentiful, but this time I only wrote on a few, including; integrations, expectations, and partnerships. This is a personal reflection of the journey, mostly for my own memories, but take a look if you’re interested.
[Disclaimer: opinions on my own. In no way does this have any association with companies mentioned or groups involved.]
A small woman shoved in front of me to pay at the counter, ignoring the line behind her. I returned to my seat with a snack pack of nuts for the flight, slightly agitated, to find that a man sitting next to me. Typically, this would be fine. However, he was so large that he took up his seat, along with half of mine. Forcing me to take my bags, and move elsewhere.
It was a wake up call, loud and clear. I wasn’t in Japan anymore. The days of order, politeness, and general regard for other’s comfort were gone.
I’m sitting on the airplane back to the states, Narita to Dallas. Duration: just under 12 hours. The lights are set to ‘night-mode,’ a dark, deep blue setting, probably in order to induce sleep. Ever the insomniac, I stay away to write some thoughts down instead of trying to snooze. I assumed that my lack of ability to sleep the past few months was due to work-related factors, but maybe it’s something more primal. Anyways.
15 months of social spoilage. Clean public toilets, precise public transport, and the ability to forget your umbrella outside of a convenience store, and return a week later to find it in the same spot, untouched. Japan is great. The only downside I can recall at this moment is somewhat of a veiled social honesty/connection, and inevitable weight gain. The food is just too good.
I think my Instagram feed is the best representation of ‘things that happened.’ (Follow me @maikaisogawa) So instead of writing a chronological diary of events and boring summaries, I want to reflect on general themes, lessons, and experiences I had while on this leg of my tour with Totem.
Beginnings are exciting, and they’re important. The cover of a book can make or break how well it sells. We’re judged on first impressions all the time.
I arrived just days before the premiere of Totem in Tokyo, the first stop on the long Japanese tour. The cast was busy with training and preparation for the shows ahead. The excitement of a brand new country, the refreshed faces of artists and employees that just got back from a vacation. Jet-lagged yet buzzed with anticipation (and undoubtedly coffee), I dove into the mix. Welcomed with open arms by most, I began my integration into the world of Totem.
When you start something new, there’s a learning curve, adjustment is required. But in the beginning, the possibilities seem limitless, and it’s a period of growth and change. It’s an addicting feeling.
Entering a touring show, I’m an outsider approaching a group of people who are like a family. They’ve lived and worked together for awhile now. They have shared memories, expectations, beliefs, and way-to-do-things.
EXPECTATION VS REALITY
5 weeks of training at headquarters in Montreal prepared me for about 28% of what would be the reality of my life actually on the show. Physically, I was in pretty good shape. I was confident in my ability to execute the acrobatic elements of the act. (Comparatively, I was probably more physically conditioned when I first arrived than I am now, but that’s to be expected when you’re body figures out how to work smarter, not harder – ah, adaptation. occasionally inconvenient).
The winch system (makes me go up and down) isn’t computerized in Montreal, so that took some getting-used-to. The heights were pre-set to somebody else’s preferences. The stage was nothing like the gymnasium-like training center that I prepared in. And when they turn on the lights? forget about it. It’s a whole different world.
I hadn’t formed many concrete expectations of the show or company before I arrived, and I think that saved me. This way, there was no disappointment, and I was happy across the board with most of what was going on.
^ I disagree.
The nature of the Japan tour requires extra artists to be hired for the show (I was one of those). Duplicates, back-ups, split-role, whatever you want to call it. Expect egos to clash, complaints to be made, and hopefully, compromise.
From all of those female-targeted magazines, apparently there are certain qualities that you need to make partnerships work (from an article on marriage). I’ve listed a few here, along with my take on them:
- Commitment – to the job. You’ll find it much easier to work together if you have a common goal; make the performance as good as possible.
- Humility – Comparison is inevitable, but it’s not a competition.
- Honesty and Trust – Nobody understands what you’re going through better than the person who has to do the same thing. Find solice in similarity.
- COMMUNICATION – probably the MOST important (and arguably the most difficult)
There’s probably many more things to add to the list, but i’m not married and am definitely not a master of group projects. I am so grateful, to the struggles and trials, and to my partners and coworkers.
But since this is life, I’m still left with unanswered questions. Why did this happen? Why was this a certain way? Did you even like me, or were you just dealing with me because you had to?
Sometimes it’s better not to know.
DEVELOPMENT OF PERFORMANCE
I noticed something interesting.
When I was first learning the role of beach girl, it was about acting, pretending. I learned the background of the character. Her personality, what drives her actions, what the story is that we’re telling on stage. I learned and created vocabulary for this character’s motions and movements. Her attitude, her demeanor, her facial expressions. I would head to stage not as Maika, but as much ‘in character’ as I could muster. I was Maika-acting-as-the-pink-lady.
Months later, I was standing on the bridge before my entrance. I noticed I was about to walk on stage, not acting as a character, or pretending to be someone else, but as Maika, the beach girl. I was no longer pretending to be a character. I had become what Maika would be, if she was the pink lady in real life. If Maika was a tall, fabulous woman in a pink bikini on a beach with two hot dudes vying for her attention (which happens every day – duh). If Maika was a badass who could fly around on a pair of rings, effortlessly and elegantly.
When did this change occur?
It’s like a friendship. You might be able to recall when you meet someone for the first time. A while later, there you are, best friends that share your deepest, darkest secrets. You probably can’t pinpoint when that transition happened. When did you move from acquaintances to friends?
That’s how I feel about this role. I know how calculated I was in the beginning. How much I had to think. I FELT like I was acting, and I KNEW that I was acting. But now, I don’t consider it acting at all. It’s 100% Maika on stage (for better or for worse).
I have a few thoughts that I can recall that may have something to do with the growth:
- “Fake it ‘till you make it” was a phrase I told myself a lot. It works surprisingly well. Sheer confidence can make anyone buy what you’re selling.
- “If I don’t believe me, they’re not going to believe me.” Some days I doubted myself. I realized that if I didn’t fully believe every action I made, every look I gave or skill I performed, it was going to be really hard for anyone watching to believe it. It’s another branch of the confidence tree. So I learned to believe myself on stage, even when I really didn’t. Throwing caution to the wind, I had to give up feeling stupid, looking awkward, making a mistake. That had to be thrown out to make room for all that awesomeness I was bringing.
- The assistant artistic director of Totem during the Japan tour was someone I learned a lot from. He often shared stories; trials and tribulations of his days as an actor attending auditions. He told me that when he auditioned as a character just as the role described, it didn’t go anywhere. It was only when he included a part of himself, that there was interest. “How would I, actually react to this?” ^This really propelled my progression. I started doing this with moments in the act, little by little. How would MAIKA flirt with this boy, or that one?
These are just a few of the things I can recall right now. I’m sure there’s plenty more, most of which I can’t consciously pick up on.
My questions, this character exploration, is getting more complex. Did I wake up on the wrong side of the bed? I get to play that on stage. How would CRANKY Maika react to shirtless dudes flexing all over her beach? It’s actually a lot of fun.
I feel free.
I remember my show condition, a sort of ‘dress-rehearsal’ for any new act or performer with full lights, costume, and music. Instead of an audience, there’s something even better. A whole section of your co-workers, whoever decides to show up, ready to judge and chew you apart within the framework of their own expectations and preferences. A lot of people attended my rings trio show condition. It was a strong sign of support, for which I was grateful, but it 10x’d the sweat accumulating on my palms.
Standing backstage, the mind races. Think think think. Remember to do this, move over there when the music goes ‘daalallala.’ The character does this, reacts like this. Wait when do I walk on? Oh the bridge is moving. Oh god the lights are so bright. Wait I forgot to count the music. Don’t fall.
The show condition came and went, and I began performing.
Moral of the story? Things come and go. Don’t let nervousness (which is really just a combination of fear and thoughts – it has no tangible power) debilitate you.
Superfans. I’ve heard the word. Only now do I understand what it truly means. They’ll come to over 150 shows. At around $100 a ticket, it ain’t cheap. They’ll follow you on social media, comment on all of your photos. They’ll write you letters, make pieces of art in your image. They’ll give you 20 roses for your birthday. Print custom photos on chocolates. They’ll give lotions to take care of your body. They’ll ask to take photos every. single. time. They’ll ask for autographs.
They’ll wait outside of the staff gate after the show for hours just to see people. They’ll travel across the country, even fly around the world to see the show. They’ll learn what you like and don’t like. They’ll make you custom name-engraved notebooks. They’ll scream loudly from the audience, scream your name. And they’ll cry.
They are extremely generous.
However, I believe that every action we make has a reason behind it. As living beings, there’s something we want, or desire (even if unconscious), and these things drive our actions. So I often wonder, what do these fans want? Friendship? Attention? Did they want bragging rights that they were ‘friends’ with the cast of the show?
In a country where the audience’s reaction can be described gently as, awed silence, the boisterous fans were appreciated. At least they cheered.
I’m half Japanese and half American. I was so grateful to be treated as a Japanese artist on the tour of Japan, rather than some in-between. Fuji Television, the sponsor of Totem while in Japan, was wonderful. They took fabulous care of me, and didn’t treat me any differently for only being partially Japanese.
My language skills increased exponentially during the Japan tour. Living in the country, being immersed in the culture and community, does wonders to your brain. I did interviews, live TV, special events, and community excursions.
One of the reasons I agreed to do the Japanese tour (causing a delay in my return to university) was the opportunity to be in Japan. I was able to perform for most of my extended family. I got to see my friends and revisit my childhood. I was able to return to a community of discipline and kindness, one that values attention to detail and dedication to a craft.
Look around, and everyone is shirtless. Sculpted bodies, washboard abs, body fat percentages so low that you can see the striations of muscle as they move. Somebody’s always working out. Putting in sweaty minutes on the stationary bike, bench-pressing twice my weight, or even training other circus disciplines between the shows. It makes me want to work out more too. But it also makes me think, “are these people superhuman?”
There’s a pressure to be in shape. Obviously, we have to perform well. However, in a world where physicality is vital, sometimes it’s as if being ‘fit’ is the only thing in life. Often I spend my entire day moving: Get out of bed, walk to work, warm up for the show, perform, train and stretch, perform again, and then train on stage before walking home and collapsing into bed, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again. And despite all that effort, a coworker will still comment, “you used to be skinnier.” Thanks, asshole.
What does wearing a bikini every day for work do to a young female’s emotions? Well, some days I feel like a Victoria’s Secret Angel, and other days I want to cover my body as much as possible, curl up in a ball, and sit in the corner.
It’s up and down.
Until my return to school, my days remain structured with vegetables and gym-sessions with a dash of orthorexia. (Even on my vacation, the first thing I did was look for a gym where I could maintain my skills)
No rest for the wicked.
That’s it for now. This has turned out longer than expected, which is a shame because there is so much more to write about. With time!
I want to express my gratitude to the people I worked with during this leg, the people I met, and the many people who have taken care of me.
Some time in America, then off to Russia.
Also, here’s the short clip I posted to Instagram and Youtube.
The music is different from Instagram to Youtube because of Instagram’s new copyright laws, and I didn’t want to re-do it all again. Poo.
Japan leg in less than a minute.