Cirque du Soleil is the pinnacle for performing artists from all corners of the globe.
It doesn’t matter if they are spinning at warp speed high above the ground or playing a behind-the-scenes role, they all combine their talents to make each Cirque du Soleil show a memorable one.
And the experience can elevate relative unknowns to the very pinnacle of the performing arts field. Kailah Cabanas is a case in point. The puppeteer from Shellharbour, south of Wollongong, is working on Toruk – The First Flight. The show is inspired by James Cameron’s groundbreaking film Avatar.
As a puppeteer Cabanas manipulates objects and brings them to life to evoke an emotional response from the audience. She says it is “magical” to watch.
“This magic is what first drew me into the world of puppetry. We all know that the object isn’t real but when we allow ourselves to believe, it is so captivating to watch,” she tells Weekender.
“I always had a flair for the performing arts at a young age and my parents always encouraged me to pursue interests in dance, drama and athletics.
“When I was 19 I moved to Sydney to attend three years of drama school at the Actors College of Theatre and Television.
“I met and worked with some incredible people who I still call good mates to this day.
“They helped me get my foot in the door and, through a lot of hard work and persistence, I was able to get my first professional job on a kids’ TV show.”
The show was The Amazing House and Cabanas operated the quirky and curious “Fi-be” who lived in a magical house with her brother “Ben-ji”.
“A good friend of mine and colleague on The Amazing House, Kay Yasugi, taught me the technique and subtlety required to make puppetry believable to audiences. I also worked on Martha the Monster, a short film directed by Christopher Weeks, where I played the main character – a monster who has a big, beautiful, sensitive heart and dresses as a person to fit in with the harsh world of humans.”
That particular foot in the door enabled her to successfully audition for the National Theatre’s production of War Horse Australia. Cabanas operated the head of the life-sized horse puppets Joey, Topthorne and the Goose.
This, in turn, opened another door – this time to the exclusive club that is Cirque du Soleil.
“A friend of mine sent me a link on Facebook saying that Cirque du Soleil was doing an open casting call from all over the world and they were looking for puppeteers who had experience operating full-size body puppets in a team,” Cabanas explains.
“It sounded too good to be true but I figured I had nothing to lose so I should just apply.
“I had to send many, many, many audition videos doing all sorts of random things.”
One month later Cabanas got the news she had been waiting for. The job was hers.
“You may remember the unique animals from the movie? As puppeteers we manipulate the direhorses, the viperwolfes and the woodsprites as well as new Pandoran creatures that were invented for our show,” Cabanas says.
“Our full-body puppets are all manually operated by our awesome team of six puppeteers. Some animals only require one or two puppeteers, while our huge flying Toruk puppet requires all six of us to bring it to life.”
Cabanas has travelled the world but can’t wait to bring the show home to Australia.
“I reckon the public will be impressed because this is a very different Cirque du Soleil show. The projections are incredible, like nothing I have ever seen before, and the puppeteers are very present,” she says.
“If you had told me years ago that one day I’d be working for Cirque du Soleil, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“It’s amazing how one opportunity can lead to the next. If you are open-minded to challenging yourself and learning different skills, who knows? You may one day run away with the circus.”