(Formerly) Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Cirque du Soleil's Kelly McDonald

The Seattle native returns home to show off her acrobatic artistry in Cirque du Soleil's Mexican-themed 'Luzia.'

By Seth Sommerfeld March 29, 2017

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Kelly McDonald flips out in Cirque du Soleil's Luzia.

When you think of Mexico, the first thing that comes to mind is obviously flipping French Canadians. Okay, maybe not it's not the first thing. But the two sides of the U.S. border artistically merge when famed circus theater company Cirque du Soleil celebrates the vibrancy of Mexican culture via Luzia. Set against a backdrop designed by Oscar-winning Mexican set designer Eugenio Caballero (Pan’s Labyrinth), Luzia builds a magical world of butterflies, hummingbirds, luchadors, robots, and more. The physical displays of trapeze acrobatics, soccer juggling, contortionists, and hoop performers dazzle while Majo Cornejo’s enchanting Spanish singing helps drive home a sense of Latin vitality.

Luzia pitches its tent at Marymoor Park starting this Thursday, March 30, where it will run through May 21. The Seattle Cirque stop serves as a homecoming for one Luzia performer, adagio artist (i.e. acrobatic gymnast) Kelly McDonald. The UW alum grew up in the Seattle gymnastic scene and his since parlayed her athletic skills into a thriving performance career.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with McDonald about the details of her act in Luzia, the routine of a Cirque performer, and acrobatic character building.

What are your favorite aspects of Luzia?

For me any kind of live performance gets me excited. The fact that you always have to concentrate and continue training keeps it exciting. Our act is a very poetic and emotional act for me. I love presenting that in front of a live audience and hearing the reaction as we are doing acrobatic movements and high-level technical skills in a smooth and poetic way.

What does your act in the show entail?

The act is called “Adagio,” and the scene is in an old cabaret-type setting. It’s a bit smoky and there are musicians, costumes, and puppets that are like animals on stage, so it’s a bit of a surreal feel.

I am an acrobatic flyer in the number. I perform with three porters, so there are three men doing lifts and choreography with me. We go through our own kind of story while doing a quartet acrobatics. The stage has a big treadmill on it that's moving, and the stage is turning as well, so there are a lot of different aspects to it. We also have an amazing song that goes in our act.

What was the path that led you from Seattle to Cirque du Soleil?

I started gymnastics at Seattle Gymnastics Academy with my sisters when I was 5. I fell in love with the sport and was very serious in my training. I competed at Cascade Elite Gymnastics and then competed at University of Washington for four years.

A year after I finished that up, I was finishing up a study abroad through UW, but I was insane and heard of an opportunity to audition to be a performer in an acrobatic show. That was the first time I thought about it as an option. I had an audition, got the job, and fell in love with performing all over again.

I was able to be in a show in Las Vegas for eight years before having the chance to join Cirque du Soleil. I started during the creation for Luzia in October of 2015, and we opened in Montreal in April of 2016. So we have been on tour since then.

What’s the daily grind for a performer in your position? What the routine to stay physically and mentally sharp?

The audience gets to see the final product each day, but its all about maintaining. We do between eight and ten performances each week. We want every performance to be fresh and look like we’re excited about it so we can get the audience excited too. So that means we have to stay physically fit and fresh as well as mentally fresh to make it look like we are not just going through the motions on stage.

So I like to stay physically fit by doing a range of activities the keep me interested. We have a lot what we need— any kinds of weights and workout equipment—at the big top, where we have the shows. I do all kinds of outdoor activities to get moving around. I train with my performance team each day as well. We try to make corrections and work on new skills to keep us interested.

A lot it is really getting into the right mindset on stage. I try to become the character that I am onstage before I walk out from the curtain. I am discovering the scene with the audience. I make it fresh by entering each time as if it’s my first time in that scene.

What are the attributes of your Luzia character that you latch onto to find that mental space?

She’s a strong character. My partners represent different relationships throughout her life. It’s not necessarily a romantic number, but it is emotional and poetic. So I have a bit of a different feel with each partner and each part of the routine.

It’s all about connecting emotionally as well as doing the technical skills. So it’s a bit of a departure from sport where it is just about technique. You have to feel the entire stage when you’re out there. You have to see the other characters that aren’t necessarily doing acrobatics with you. You have to use the whole theme.

It’s not the isolationist exercise that gymnastics can be.


You have to convey a bit more than just smiling big to the judges after you land.

[Laughs] Right. This is not just about a smile. It’s deeper. You can get a good range of emotions when you are on stage rather than on a mat.

Do you have a favorite segment in Luzia besides your own?

The whole show is fantastic! It’s really hard to compare any of it. There are solo numbers where these performers are literally the best in the world at what they do. It is inspiring and mindblowing to see them.

It’s not just the performers, but also the technical aspects of the show. We have a rain curtain, something we’ve never had in a big top show before. We can totally transition to different parts of a desert or a jungle or a cenote. I can’t think of a part of the show that it would be okay to miss.

How do you feel like Seattle has influenced you as a performer?

Being in Seattle, the people around me always allowed this to be an option for me. You have a lot of open-mindedness and the ability to explore different areas and different passions. This is not necessarily your average job, but I think being from Seattle made it an opportunity for me.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to during your trip home?

I am of course excited to be around friends and family. I love the Northwest: hiking, getting on the Washington State Ferry, or going back to the UW campus, my old stomping grounds. I am really proud of what I am doing now Cirque du Soleil. I am excited to share Seattle with my Luzia family and share Luzia with my Seattle family.

Cirque du Soleil: Luzia
Mar 30–May 21, Marymoor Park, $29–$495

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