There is beauty in art and gymnastics.
From watching a man fly in the air while hanging from a lamp, to watching bikers soar several feet above your head, or watching a woman stand on the shoulders of a unicyclist. Every sight is stunning, impressive, and little scary.
The circus is known for giving customers many of these daring feats and bringing a smile to their faces. Even further, Cirque du Soleil has become a world-renowned circus for doing all that and so much more.
I recently had the pleasure of watching Cirque’s newest show, titled Volta, as it visited the Greater Philadelphia area.
The story centers around a young man named Waz who joins a game show. Being disgusted with himself and what makes him different, Waz joins the show in search of fame and acceptance. That contest then starts him on a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and true freedom.
As if that message wasn’t relevant to Instinct alone, it seems there’s also a fun and capable group of LGBTQ people who work behind the scenes.
I was honored with the opportunity to interview two gay couples who work full-time within the touring company about circus life, love behind the curtain, and spreading joy while walking around the world.
“When the show first starts, sometimes it’s hard to see, ‘What is this show going to be?’ But it was definitely exciting, especially for Volta, because the concept is so different from a lot of Cirque shows that has gone before it. It’s very fresh,” said Ariel Layug, the Kitchen Manager working for Volta.
Volta currently hires about a hundred and twenty-six people full-time to tour around with the performance. As a member of the kitchen staff, Layug has to feed all of them.
“It was also just nice to have a different group of people. This show is a bit younger, so they have a different mentality,” he added.
It’s that different mentality that’s found all the way to the heart of the show. With Volta’s message of finding freedom and self-acceptance seeping its way to the audience and the staff. This is something that Customer Service Team Leader Francisco Nava Gomez recognizes in both the show and himself.
“Coming from a Hispanic culture and background, I felt like I was trapped throughout my whole teenage years and all that. I wasn’t being myself,” Gomez noted. “After I started joining the circus, I started realizing who I am. What I like about this show, it’s telling you it’s ok to be yourself. I think that’s what my whole career has been with the show and the company itself. I realized who I am and it’s ok to be who I am.”
Both Layug and Gomez were the first in their respective couples to join the circus life and Cirque du Soleil. For Gomez, it was due to the need for a job while in college, which led to a lifetime career. As for Layug, it was a fortuitous opportunity that sprung out of befriending a few Cirque employees.
“All of a sudden, I think, two of their chefs quit at the same time,” he told me. “And they said, ‘Hey, you should apply,’ and I thought, ‘You know what? Could be interesting.’”
As for the other halves of these two relationships, Layug’s husband, VIP Experience Team Lead Edonn Lerias, joined Cirque after meeting Layug through a mutual friend. As things got more serious between the two, Lerias decided to travel with Layug and eventually transitioned from his hotel job to the circus life.
As for Gomez’s boyfriend Joseph Swearingen, who’s the assistant head usher, he joined shortly after graduating college and now says he can’t imagine leaving.
“It was really lovely to see the environment because it’s literally just bringing people joy,” he explained. “That’s your whole job, make sure they have a good experience. I really enjoy it… So, I just kept doing it and it’s become something that I don’t see myself ever leaving. It’s become such a part of my life now.”
Social interaction is very important to each man’s job within Cirque du Soleil. Gomez, Swearingen, and Lerias all have jobs that involve customer service and hospitality. Each one makes it their mission to get engaged with the customers and bring smiles to their faces.
“And that’s one of the things I like about this job. Yes, I have office work where I’m sitting at a desk, but I also have a chance to walk around. Talk to guests, talk to our cirquedors (part-time/local workers), and then just engage,” said Gomez before later adding, “After a while, it doesn’t become a job, it just becomes a place that you’re at, and you’re trying to make someone happy.”
Swearingen agreed and added, “A lot of them come here and they’re lost, or they’re maybe not having the best day, or they’re frustrated, or they’ve dealt with a lot, or it’s hot outside. But, when they leave it’s like, you see all of that vanish and you see this transformation of finding happiness and finding relaxation and peace, and that transformation’s real. It’s lovely to see it.”
As for Lerias, who works over at the VIP Lounge, he surmises that his job is much like the hotel work he used to do back in his hometown of San Francisco.
“Hospitality. Hotels. It’s similar to that, except they’re not spending the night here,” he laughed.
As for the VIP Experience, customers get a lot with the increased price point. From premium seats, to an open bar, to a menu of hors d’oeuvres and desserts, to a VIP suite with private bathrooms, and a gift bag.
Meanwhile, Layug works in the kitchen. Though, his work is still fairly social thanks to the need for staying in touch with the wants and needs of the performers and staff.
As he explained:
“We only cater for cast and crew. In a way, they are my VIPs. When you’re traveling with the show, you don’t have a house where you have a pantry with stuff to cook for yourself. You don’t have your favorite restaurant, your favorite café. And so, we have to provide a lot of that.”
He then added:
“This is our family home, so a part of that also includes wanting to feel like you’re at home. Wanting your mom’s Bolognese, or lasagna, or pizza, Nutella, or whatever it is. There’s somethings that sometimes seem not very significant, but it’s really significant for people. So, we try to provide them as much of that as possible. Because, people have a lot to worry about. They have a show that they can put all their effort in. They shouldn’t have to worry about, ‘Where’s my next meal coming from?’”
As Layug touched on, touring with Cirque du Soleil means spending a lot of time away from your “home.” Thankfully for these couples, they have someone that they can spend that time with.
“It was a lot of adjustment, because living in San Francisco, I only traveled for maybe two weeks at a time,” Lerias explained, “Since you’re going to be gone and staying in every city for two months, you have to pack accordingly. You’re basically living off the suitcase.”
“Luckily, we’re the same size,” he later joked with Layug sitting beside him. “So it doubles the size of our wardrobe.”
As for Francisco Nava Gomez and Joseph Swearingen, they’re thankful to have a confidant and companion through it all.
“There are some times we do get stressed. One thing that helps is having him around,” said Gomez. “You have someone to vent to, if there is something stressful going on. Someone that you can get feedback from. Yes, it’s biased, but also helps you clarify things that are happening.”
The couple also have someone that they can walk around the world with and enjoy the many cities in which they visit.
“One of the great things about this job too is we do have Monday’s off, but also sometimes we don’t start until fairly late in the day during the week,” Swearingen explained. “So, we have a good amount of the morning to explore as well. So even during the week, we can spend a nice morning just walking around here and to the trails. Things like that. We’re planning on camping and hiking some of the local trails.”
Between the found family embedded in the touring circus and the love shared between each couple, it seems that Cirque du Soleil’s company is living out the message shared in Volta. Coming full circle, the circus life and that message has then inspired the couples.
“I actually came out on tour,” shared Gomez. “I was in another show, I realized, ‘Ok, I know who I am. I’m hiding it from everyone, but you know what? I see everyone around here. Everybody is free. Nobody cares if you’re gay, bi, or straight, or anything. Black, white. We’re a family and everybody cares about you.”
As for Layug and Lerias, they too were inspired by the circus and how it has reflected on their earlier lives.
“The journey that the show takes is a little bit relatable to me,” Layug said. “I was born in the Philippines and I grew up until my mid-teens in there. And it’s still a very conservative mentality about homosexuality. I used to hide it. I used to be ashamed of it. And then I moved to Australia… I had to go through a very similar journey of, ‘What does it mean to just accept yourself? No matter what color you have? What sexuality you have? Where you come from? What status in life you have?’ So, for me at least, that’s how I relate to the show.”
Edonn Lerias added that his San Francisco life was a stark contrast to the childhood of his husband. He even remembered how he bought his first gay magazine, Instinct Magazine, when he was a teenager.
“What he thought of the culture of the Philippines and how he grew up in Australia, I took those all for granted,” Lerias remarked, “I never thought about it until I met him. That other people do live like that. Where they have to suppress certain things.”
With that in mind, it’s important to celebrate self-acceptance and the freedom to be you. Each one of these men expressed to me that everyone has the right to be free and to live their best and truest lives.
If you need a little reminder to do so, and if you want to see a fantastic show, check out Cirque du Soleil’s Volta whenever it comes to a city near you.
But most importantly, make sure to live out your lives as freely as Volta, Francisco Nava Gomez, Joseph Swearingen, Ariel Layug, and Edonn Lerias are urging you to do.
“There’s a lot of message, from our show, that lets people know that even in some rural part of the United States where you’re feeling like you don’t belong,” expressed Lerias, “Its ok for you to find your free.”