Head Over Heels

Make no mistake: The young performers in Le PeTiT CiRqUe are small but mighty.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Marlene Stang
  • Photographed by
    David Schlatter
  • Nobel Peace Prize Concert Photographed by
    Olav Stubberud

Nathalie Gaulthier’s passion for her work is infectious. The founder of Le PeTiT CiRqUe® is herself a petite yet formidable powerhouse with a fascinating history (she lived the first 10 years of her life in the predominantly Eskimo community of Iqaluit, Canada, and from the age of 10 through her 20s she was both a TV and film actress in Canada and a competitive gymnast). She moved to Los Angeles 23 years ago and soon after opened her own talent agency, where she helped cultivate the careers of such stars as Hayden Christensen and Ryan Gosling.

Sounds like a lifetime of achievement, yes? But Le PeTiT CiRqUe (LPC), Nathalie’s true life’s work, came to be—like many great endeavors do—when the founder identified a desire for something more.

“I wasn’t happy just being an agent,” she shares. And so five years ago she set out to build a troupe of youth performers that exists to “give them a supportive environment in which to thrive, while spreading the message of love, kindness and understanding.”

Early on, LPC caught the attention of Debra Brown, who joined Cirque du Soleil in 1987 as that troupe’s choreographer. Cirque du Soleil follows LPC on social media, in admiration of LPC’s young performers who maneuver the same feats that Cirque du Soleil performers do.

Most recently LPC performed at the 24th annual Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, which was held last December 11. As Nathalie tells it, she fought hard for this opportunity, which was ultimately booked by Warner Bros. Television “sight unseen” because the decision-makers at the studio knew and trusted Nathalie’s vision. The audience of 10,000 people at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert offered LPC a standing ovation.

The kids who comprise LPC’s A and B teams (A team members are the troupe’s seasoned performers, while B team members are “up-and-coming”) come from all over the world, although the majority of them are from California. Trainings are designed to fit in with the kids’ lives. California-based troupe members carpool from the state’s major cities once weekly for trainings that are three to five hours in duration.

Kids from other states or parts of the globe will fly in approximately every four months for a weekend or a full week of in-person trainings. Once back home, they will train with the California youth via Skype. Approximately 50% of LPC youth are homeschooled, while the other 50% attend public or private schools.

In addition to Nathalie, LPC maintains a staff of eight trainers who train LPC’s A and B teams in art forms that include acrobatics, stunts, lyrical dance, contortion, hand balance, stilts and clown arts/physical comedy. The end result is sophisticated performances that dazzle audiences of all ages.

Of the recruitment process, Nathalie says, “It’s been very organic, which I like.” She discovers new talent either by word-of-mouth or through occasional castings, usually in that order.

She notes, “At parties someone might say, ‘Have you heard of so-and-so?’ And we NEVER advertise.” Nathalie explains that LPC avoids advertising in order to avoid inquiries by overzealous parents whose children lack real talent.

LPC staff audition parents as well as their children. Stage parents are not tolerated. “We boot stage parents if they are not responsive to feedback,” Nathalie says. Many LPC youth also attend—or have attended—circus schools.

Some of the youth in LPC are outright prodigies, meaning that although they are under 18 years of age, they can execute a skill or more than one skill as well as an adult. It’s important for parents to be aware of their child’s capabilities and limitations, but that isn’t always the case.

One of LPC’s prodigies—a contortionist—first came to the troupe at the age of 11. She was referred by a circus school but was underdeveloped at that time. Now 15, she is performing at the level of many adults in her field. Other prodigies within the troupe actually compete with adults in fields such as martial arts.

Next up for LPC is a Nelson Mandela tribute concert in Germany. As always, there are big projects on the horizon but also a constant need to find more talent. As the troupe’s concept centers on tiny bodies performing big feats, LPC performers need to be shorter in order to fit in with the troupe’s visual presence.

There is currently a need for more performers in the 8-to-14 age range, since kids grow so quickly. Four of LPC’s performers are heading off to college next year. Five LPC youth have received full college scholarships—in no small part because of the humanitarian bent of their work with the troupe.

Ultimately it’s LPC’s humanitarian focus that makes it so special. In addition to only booking performances that raise awareness of a greater good, Nathalie is committed to helping her kids become their best selves. Trained in psychology, she incorporates a meditation session into the end of each class. She and her staff also create space for discussion groups amongst the youth, in which they address such topics as how to be a good person.

LPC staff also prioritizes teaching their youth to maintain humility. “The first thing Steve Harvey said when he had them on his show was how poised and well-behaved they are,” Nathalie says. We tell them, “You’ve been blessed, and so you’ve got to give back.”

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