Exactly 20 years ago, Canadian native Allister Booth was a physics student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He'd been a competitive gymnast since he was a little boy, and had actually set the Canadian "degree of difficulty" record for power tumbling at the National Championships.
Still, college — and responsibility — beckoned.
Ah, but that didn't last long. "A friend of mine, who was also a competitor, called and said 'There's a company here that pays people to do acrobatics,'" Booth remembers. "That was it. I dropped out of school and joined. Acrobatics has always been my first love."
The company was Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based production house then starting to get the world's attention for its dramatic, dynamic blend of circus-like acrobatics and physical feats, theatrical costumes, makeup and effects, and unprecedented emphasis on stories and characters.
Cirque du Soleil ("Circus of the Sun") hired Allister Booth on the spot, and he joined the cast of the show O at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, flying overhead, swinging on dangerously teetering swings and essentially performing amazing feats — fully made-up, costumed and choreographed — for millions of tourists.
He left O in 2005 and did his stuff with KA, over at the MGM Grand, and two years later he transitioned into a coaching job for Cirque tours and "stationary" shows.
Today, he is Head Coach for Quidam, the touring production that visits the Savannah Civic Center for three performances, May 7-9.
The Quidam company includes somewhere between 120 and 150 people — it's like a small, traveling city — and half are performers.
Booth claims he rarely worries that his well-trained specialists will get into some sort of physical trouble when they're onstage.
"Sometimes the cast members change, or we upgrade tricks," he explains. "We train backups for different positions in case someone's out. So there's quite often still something new happening.
"If it's the same guy doing the same thing, I don't really get too nervous. But one of my jobs as coach is to make the decision, 'OK, this new person is ready to do this new trick.' I'm the one giving the final approval that yeah, they can try it onstage in the show. So then it's 'Um ... Hope I made the right decision.'"
Still, the performers train and rehearse constantly when on the road, all under Booth's watchful eye.
"Typically the group acts require the most training," Booth says. "We have one that's a 16-person sports acrobatic number, where we have people linking arms and then other people standing on their arms and being thrown in the air.
"When you have to synchronize a bunch of people to work together to make an acrobatic element, that requires a lot more training. Just to make sure the timing stays good. And then if you're switching partners, that's a lot more training just to get the timing down, and make sure the timing is perfect every night."
Solo artists, he adds, "have a bit more freedom. "Some might not need all that much training once they're in. It depends on the apparatus. Jugglers, however, will still train three hours a day, just to keep everything perfect. Because it's so precise, what they do."
Touring, he admits, can get a bit wearying, but the Cirque company is like a family and they all look after each other. "Thank God for Skype," Booth laughs: He talks to his wife, back in Canada, at least once a day.
Booth resigned from performance after an old ankle injury flared up. "When my body started feeling old, and my ankles were hurting a lot, I realized that it was coming close to the end of my performance career."
But his expertise — and passion for the work — was invaluable to Cirque du Soleil. During his stage career, he had chalked up more than 2,000 performances.
"It's nice to be onstage, and get the applause from the public and everything like that," Booth says. "But to me that's all icing on the cake. For me, the best part was just being able to do the acrobatics as my job.
"It wasn't like 'As soon as training's over, I've got to go run over here to my job where I make money.' Doing the acrobatics was my job. That was what I did all day, every day. That in and of itself was the main thing for me."
Connect has 20 tickets to give away to the May 7 Cirque performance: Visit www.connectsavannah.com and click on the "Contests & Stuff" tab, or go to www.savpennysaver.com and click on the Cirque Du Soliel "Enter Today" web ad.
Deadline for entries is Friday, May 3 at noon. Winners will be notified by 5 p.m. May 3.
Cirque du Soleil: Quidam
Where: MLK Arena, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, May 7-9
Tickets: $18-$100 at etix.com