Lord of the ring

Posted on 01 Mar 2012 at 5:03pm

As ringmaster for more than a decade, gay North Texan Mark Ward keeps Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Quidam’ on track

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19 YEARS AND COUNTING | Since Ward joined Cirque du Soleil in 1993, he has not missed a performance of Quidam or Mystere— that’s 6,500 trips around the ring, and counting.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Mark Ward will admit his career — his life — has surprised even him.

Growing up as a gay kid in Denton, he played sports, especially gymnastics, but really wanted to dance — especially after he saw Baryshnikov fly through the air with grace and power on TV. But that remained a pipe dream.

“I didn’t know any black-Latino kids doing that,” he says.

Then in high school, a teacher noticed he stood with a duck-footed stance endemic to ballet dancers. The teacher “tricked me into joining a ballet class,” he says. “Then they coerced me with money to keep auditioning … until I got a scholarship to the Dance Theater of Harlem and American Ballet Theater. I haven’t stopped working since then.”

But Ward is actually luckier than most ballet dancers. At 46, he’s still going strong at his profession … although it’s been years since he’s had to pirouette en pointe.

Since 1999, Ward has played John, the ringmaster in Cirque du Soleil’s show Quidam; he’s been with Cirque since 1993. And in that entire time — now nearly 20 years — he has never. Missed. A performance.

Not once.

It’s a remarkable achievement, unique among all the artists working in all the Cirque shows throughout the organization. It makes Ward the Cal Ripken of the circus.

“I’ve been called that before,” he says with a wry sigh.

And he has no plans for slowing down. A friend of his, a prop mistress, had a similar record among the crew until one day her boyfriend wanted to go to dinner. She said yes, and missed her first show in ages.

Ward jokes that he doesn’t have to worry about that — he has never been in a relationship; instead, “Cirque du Soleil is my relationship. It’s just a way of life.” (He is starting to date, finally, in his 40s. “I keep hoping to find some mature, out, masculine gay man but I keep getting asked out by guys who are like 19 or 25 years old,” he laughs.)

It’s an incredible dedication to a company that he’d never even heard of until the call came in asking him to join them.

“The call came at like 6 in the morning,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Call back!’ But once I went [to Cirque’s facilities] I was blown away to see so many different cultures and artists.” He was immediately hooked.

Running away to join the circus, even as an adult, proved to be an oddly liberating and fanciful adventure.

“I still think that fascination with running away with the circus is present,” says Ward. “We still pay homage to those traditional circuses because that’s how we got here.”

Ward has spent all 13 years with Quidam as the ringmaster, performing 300 shows a year (one 12-month period in Japan, they did a staggering 516 shows), but he insists that while the structure has remained, he has enjoyed watching as the show’s spirit changes.

Quidam is so great because it’s the most human of the Cirque shows,” he says. “We can rotate another act in, and when you do that, you change the dynamic of the group. Each bit of new blood brings their own thing to the show. You want to allow them to do that — we don’t want to bottle up our talent. Sometimes an act will do something, and you think, ‘wow, that’s so sexual,’ then another will do it and you respond to it emotionally. You can come back every night and see something you didn’t before.”

When Ward isn’t performing with Quidam, he makes his home in Buenos Aires, where he has lived since 2006; he even has dual citizenship. So the performances next week in Frisco, near his hometown, are especially meaningful for him.

“My sister lives in Denton but I have a lot of friends coming to see the show, some I haven’t seen in 25 years. Some coming up from Mexico, or other places in Texas — even France. That’ll be weird. It’s quite the emotional time.”

Not enough to make him miss a show, though. He does have his priorities.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 2, 2012.

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