In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Kyle Cragle, a performer with Cirque du Soleil’s tour of “OVO,” spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about the show and how he became a contortionist. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Marcheta Fornoff: I have so many questions for you. First, how does one become a contortionist? 

Kyle Cragle: I suppose this is one of my most asked questions, my most frequently inquired questions. The journey is a little different for everyone.

Personally, I started in gymnastics when I was 7 years old, and I discovered that I was a lot more flexible than the other boys my age. On the gymnastics team, I was a kid that never had to stretch my splits.

Shortly after I discovered circus (performance), then (I) found videos of real contortionists, not just gymnasts that were doing the splits. I fell in love with the art of contortion and ended up going to circus school and training for that.

However, there are a lot of contortionists my age that are working professionally at the same level that I am that couldn’t do a split when they started, but learned techniques to develop more flexibility. But for me, it was through gymnastics. 

Fornoff: I also have to ask about circus school. Tell me how old you were when you started that and what exactly circus school is. 

Cragle: Circus school is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s an arts program, so all of my arts credits were circus classes like contortion or juggling or acting.

I was 15 years old when I left Houston and moved to complete my high school (education) at the National Circus School in Montreal.

A few years before that, when I was about 12, I started doing their summer camps. I was really eager at the time to get formal training because in South Texas there was not a lot of circus going on. Through the summer camps, I discovered their full time programs. I ended up getting accepted to the high school, as I said. So I left as a 15-year-old, and when I was 17, I auditioned for the college program and ended up getting accepted. (I) spent three more years there, so I did a total of five years. I graduated the month before I turned 20. 

I ended up specializing in hand balancing and contortion and I had a minor in Diablo, which is a juggling slash manipulation discipline that we actually have in the show. 

But yeah, we did dance classes, acting classes, flexibility, tumbling (and) our specialties. There are a lot of other kids in school doing aerial disciplines, trapeze, aerial hoop, partner acrobatics; everything under the sun we have in that school. They train us up and give us a full formation to be able to go into any type of contract for multiple types of circus, whether it be traditional or contemporary solo work, group work. 

Fornoff: What made you commit to contortion?

Cragle: There are a couple of different factors that led to me doing contortion. It is something that was natural to me. It was something that kind of set me apart from other people my age, my level. In my first year of circus school, I saw a show and there (was) a hand balancing contortionist. At the time, I was doing an aerial discipline as my primary discipline at school, and I kind of was feeling a change. I wanted a new challenge. Hand balancing and contortion (are) very difficult discipline(s). I was competing against people who had been hand balancing for 10-plus years more than me. It’s a discipline that takes a long time to develop just because of the nature of balance and body control. When I saw her act, I was completely enthralled and totally enamored with the discipline in general.

The coaches at school were telling me, ‘You’re one of the most flexible boys we’ve ever seen at the school. You have the potential to be an international headliner, and this discipline will set you apart from everyone else … It’s a good career choice to be able to have some longevity and be able to just work in amazing, beautiful places.’

And sure enough, they were right. I’m glad I’m right here traveling internationally with this incredible show. 

If you go

Time: Shows are at 1, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Date: Sept. 22-25

Location:  Dickies Arena

Tickets: Prices vary. More info can be found here.

Fornoff: What about this show specifically (made you say) this is the one I want? 

Cragle: There were a couple of other shows as well that I told them I was really in love with, but when I was speaking to them for some reason, it popped in my head like, ‘I feel like I should mention this (show).’

There’s something about the nature of the character that’s really interesting because we are insects. I just love the movement style and the possibility for movement under the insect or animal umbrella.

I have (a) more contemporary style of movement, even outside of an insect-themed show. As I’m answering this question I’m going through some specifics, but really it was more of one of those moments where my gut was telling me to mention the name of the show. And so I did. Then in the end, it ended up taking me on this crazy ride.

Fornoff: What does your typical day look like now? I know you said you didn’t have to stretch as a kid, but you have to do that now, right?

 Cragle: Yeah, of course I do. But it’s funny that you mention that, because a lot of people assume that when you’re younger, you’re more flexible, which is totally true. But when I was younger, I was also stretching a lot; I just didn’t have to work hard like the other kids. I never had to get pushed past my limits. My body could just naturally go there, and it continues to be that way. But I’m 26 years old now. I’m not 16 or 17 anymore.

We change cities every week. We have three types of shows: resident shows, big top shows and arena tours. Usually on Sunday after our two shows we’ll transfer to the next city. We have a couple of days off. By the time that show time rolls around, I’m usually out of bed before noon. There’s usually a rehearsal or two to do before I can really go into my show prep. Because things are always changing, especially with the nature of the tour and how hard we’re working, sometimes people are in and out: someone (might) get sick, someone needs to cover and all sorts of stuff. I’m back-up for a couple of roles in the show, so I’m always on standby to cover someone in case there’s a spot that needs to be filled.

I’ll come in and do some rehearsal. I usually just warm up a little bit and stretch, and validate everything. Since we’re changing cities every week, the nature of the set feels different. Every week the stage is being constructed by hand in a matter of hours and deconstructed in a matter of hours in order to move.

On my apparatus, it can feel a little bit different depending on the type of flooring in the arena, even depending on the humidity and dryness of the air, things can change. So I warm up and see how things are feeling that week. And then usually I just eat food, slap on the makeup and get ready to go. It really is a wash, rinse and repeat sort of cycle. It turns into a finely tuned, well-oiled machine.

The work is as hard as you think, but the schedule is as simple. Not to say it’s easy, but as simple as it sounds. I have quite a beautiful job on the tour. Someone else tells me when to come in. I’ll come in for my rehearsals. I have to make sure that my body is ready to go, and then it’s showtime. 

(Courtesy | Cirque du Soleil)

Fornoff: You mentioned that you felt like you could connect with the style of movement of the insects. I’m curious how much is choreographed for you versus how much you get to (craft)? 

Cragle: I am a soloist in the show, which it’s kind of the most open style of (any) act in our show. We have some really high risk group acts, and in those acts, things have to really be choreographed tightly. There’s a whole plan. Backstage there’s a board and we have what we call (a) lineup, and it’s literally a detailed run of every act in order of the show, who’s in this place and who’s doing what in the group. Things have to be a lot tighter because you’re depending on each other to be in the same spot all the time to do things properly.

Whereas I’m alone on stage. If I feel like moving a little bit this way or a little bit that way, as long as I’m not getting in someone’s way or as long as I’m not changing an automation (I can). My structure is on a turntable and it lifts up and down and it turns, so I have a relationship with the stage manager to know when I’m doing this trick, this is when this effect will begin. Outside of those small cues, I’m really allowed to do anything that I want.

Of course, the most effective way to have a really beautiful and consistent performance is for it to be very tightly choreographed. 

I kind of created this act two times. I joined the tour in 2016 when everything was really fresh and I had never done the show. They paired me up at the circus headquarters with a choreographer and an acrobatic coach whose specialty is in handstands and a couple of other things. It was then where they’re like, ‘We’re looking at videos of the previous style of acting and some other inspirations that are on the table, and do you think you can do this?’ I can try.

You give it a couple of days, if the idea is not working, (you say) ‘Oh, I can’t do this. But maybe this will have this kind of effect.’ They always give artists, especially solo artists, an opportunity to have a team that they connect with really well that can research something that lets us as artists shine.

If you see the show, the choreography that I do in the act is my own original choreography. It’s not something that was done by an artist previous to me. It’s not something that will be done by the artists after me. So you really kind of get to see Kyle shine through the lens of who the (character of the) dragonfly is to me. 

Fornoff: I know you’re from Houston, not Fort Worth, but what is it like to be back in Texas after traveling all over the U.S. and Canada? 

Cragle: It’s phenomenal. I mean, I have family in Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, Houston, you name it. We’ve already done some cities in Texas and now we’re coming back. Whatever schedule I’m given, I end up coming home. I don’t know how to describe it (that’s) not cliched. It’s really priceless.

Fornoff: Wonderful. Thank you so much for the time. 

Cragle: Absolutely. Thank you for yours. It was lovely speaking to you.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...