Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza is making a triumphant return to Houston a decade after it was last in the city. The show combines the circus traditions of acrobatic performances with the art form of clowning. Openly and proudly gay acrobat-turned-clown Cedric Belisle is excited to return to Houston with the show, but this time around audiences will see him as The Innocent, the character at the center of the performance’s narrative.
“When David Shiner, the original director of the show, created Kooza, he really, really wanted to bring the show back to the origins of Cirque, which are high acrobatics and hilarious clowns,” Belisle says. “So he built the show around these two big aspects.”
With that in mind, Kooza audiences can expect to see incredible feats that showcase the glory and delicacy of the human body in acrobatic stunts, audacious slapstick humor from the clowns, and more throughout the show’s kaleidoscopic mix of vibrant colors, engaging music, and playful storytelling that are Cirque du Soleil hallmarks.
Kooza also offers more depth than your average circus. “Throughout the show there’s a storyline about The Innocent and The Trickster, and I play the role of The Innocent,” Belisle explains. “It’s a fun role because it’s a story of hope, and it’s a story of self-discovery.” In the production notes for Kooza, The Innocent is described as “a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world,” which is a journey that many LGBTQ-identifying people, along with members of most marginalized groups, can personally relate to.
“Every single night I step out on that stage, I get to tell that story,” Belisle adds. “It resembles a little bit of my story during the pandemic, and my story of growing up and trying to find my place in the world, not really knowing where I fit or what I’m supposed to do with my life.”
Belisle’s own journey of self-actualization began when he saw Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría on TV when he was around 10 years old. “I was so mesmerized, and I looked at my parents that afternoon and I told them, ‘Mom, Dad, I think I figured out what I want to do when I grow up. I need to be in Cirque,’” he recalls. “It just piqued my curiosity, and it really made me dream about one day flying in the air.”
When he was 12, his parents took him to see Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion in Montreal, and shortly after that Belisle started doing trampoline and gymnastics. “I got good enough to get on the Canadian team, and I started competing internationally,” says Belisle. Despite his love for competing, he recognized making it to the Olympics or World Championships in these sports simply wasn’t his dream. “My passion, my dedication, my focus was always to make it to Cirque,” he emphasizes. And, luckily for him, two weeks after auditioning for Cirque du Soleil at 19, he was signing his contract and joining the company.
Belisle admits that his coming-out story and journey to self-discovery was a very pleasant and happy one, but it still gives him plenty of material to draw on to create his version of The Innocent in Kooza. “I grew up in a very open, loving, and caring family that was welcoming of any train of thoughts or ideas that you might have,” he says of his supportive parents. “Of course, I went through the phase of dating girls and being in relationships with women, but I knew that that wasn’t my happy place. That wasn’t who I was,” he adds.
“When I was 18 years old, I finally had the courage to come out in the gymnastics and trampoline world,” says Belisle. “We’re a very welcoming community. Artistic sports usually tend to be like that, so I was lucky to be part of that community.” However, Belisle also was a soccer player at the time, and he found that being out was not as easy in that realm. “You play with the manly men, and you kind of have to hide a little bit of who you are until you find that self-confidence,” Belisle explains. “It’s funny that now I play the role of The Innocent, because that story of The Innocent finding who he is—finding that self-confidence to be who he wants to be—really is the story that I went through.”
As an athlete who competed at the national and international levels before joining Cirque du Soleil, Belisle wishes more LGBTQ athletes would come out publicly. “There are these heroes that are finally coming out, not being scared of losing their sponsorships and all that,” says Belisle. But he also acknowledges that he is lucky to work for an organization that is inclusive of all people. “From day one, I just felt welcome. No matter what my opinions or my thoughts were, [Cirque du Soleil] encourages creativity. This is what the company is based on,” Belisle says. “Everyone is welcome in this company [because] the more ideas that come forward and the more differences that we can bring to the stage, the more special these shows become—and the more we can relate to every member of the audience.”
Whether or not you’ve already seen Kooza, Belisle welcomes everyone to attend this run. “Cirque is really good at modernizing and adding touches to their shows,” Belisle says. “So when we do return to cities, even though you might have seen the show ten years ago, it is a different show.”
And Belisle is also looking forward to the special enthusiasm that Houston audiences bring with them. “It’s always very relieving to us to know that we’re going to have crowds that are going to blow our socks off, because we know how loud you guys can get!”
What: Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza
When: January 25—March 5, 2023
Where: Under the Big Top, Sam Houston Race Park
Keep up with Cedric Belisle on Instagram @cb_lisle.