With 13 shows a week, Miao Miao Chen is on a tight schedule. The Cirque Shanghai director pauses for a quick lunch and a chat before the next performance of “Dragon’s Thunder,” the latest summer marvel from Cirque Shanghai. Miao Miao, now in her third year with the perennial Navy Pier-favorite, talks about her transition from performer to director, some food-favorites of the Cirque crew, and what we can expect to see next year … sort of.
You’re a second-generation performer and now a director. How did you start?
My parents are TV hosts, and they were doing all kind of shows in China. They sent me to an academy when I was six and I started to practice all kinds of acrobatic skills. Eight years later, I graduated from that school and started performing and touring around the world. My whole life, pretty much from six-years-old ‘til now, has been circus, circus, circus.
How did you transition from performer to director?
It happened in a natural way. Everything started to fall into place year by year. After I moved to the U.S., I was performing with an independent contractor in L.A. The more I performed, the more people kept looking for me and asking if I could bring their shows together. That’s how I started; I had a group of performers from all over the United States. I put them together with an Asian-style acrobatic show for corporate events, different parties. [Cirque Shanghai producer] Haiping found me and asked me to choreograph the Cirque Shanghai show. That’s how I started to direct Cirque Shanghai.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you, going from performer to director? Has there been a big difference?
It is a big difference, but it’s something that’s nice, too. I can use everything I learned from the backstage to the front-of-stage, everything I love to do like the hair and makeup, the costumes, the lighting, and everything that I used to be interested in. Now, I can actually design and do creative ideas on the show, especially for the acrobats. I know exactly how they feel, and I know how much more I can get out of them. That’s the advantage I have from my experience. I can work with a cast and crew very smoothly.
What’s a typical day like for the Cirque Shanghai crew?
For the troupe, because they don’t speak English, everywhere they go I have to take them. I’m like their mother when they’re in the U.S. We not only bring them to the U.S. and ask them to work, but we also want them to experience the culture here. We have a really busy show schedule, but during days off we try to take them to the museums, the parks, the go-karts, and lots of shopping, all kinds of stops that we try to manage and arrange. In the morning before they come to work they cook in their hotel. They cook their favorite Chinese food and bring to the theater. At lunchtime everyone’s eating steamed rice and all the other stuff they like. After the show in the daytime, they’ll chill out and talk to their friends or talk to their family in China on the Internet. They’re full of energy because a lot of them are teenagers, and even though they’re doing three shows a day they’re still singing in the van back to the hotel at midnight. They’re a big circus family.
It’s funny that you mention food; there’s a rumor floating around that the performers can’t get enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when they’re in the U.S. Is that true?
They do like that. This year, most of the performers are male. They eat a lot. Actually, after I talk to you I’m going to Whole Foods to buy snacks for them: bread, milk, dried fruits, chocolate. The refrigerator is always full. They love all kinds of food in the U.S.: peanut butter, potato chips. All the things an American teenager likes, they like it too: McDonalds, everything.
Have most of the performers been to the U.S. before?
For most of them, this is their first time. They’ve been to other countries; they’ve been to Italy and France, and they’ve been part of world acrobatic competitions before. They’ve traveled a lot, but most of them, this is their first time in the U.S. They’re very excited.
What are some things most people wouldn’t think to ask about Cirque Shanghai?
Most people don’t know how hard they work. Before they come [to the U.S.], they work eight to ten hours a day, and even before we come here with the show, we work together almost six months. We use a lot of time and energy to bring everyone together. Everything you see onstage is like six months advance work.
This year’s show, “Dragon’s Thunder,” incorporates traditional Chinese drums into the performance. How important was it to incorporate more Asian culture or Chinese history into this year’s show?
Every year in Chicago, there are tons of shows and performing groups from all over the country. Every year we have to bring something new and exciting. When people compare our show with other shows, I want them to feel like it’s very different, fresh. For this show, you can tell the performers have a lot of energy and put on a big smile. They look nice and pretty with makeup and the hairstyles, but you can feel the difference when you’re sitting here and the performers give you the energy face-to-face. There are other shows where you don’t get that; people try to copy too much. For Asian culture, you can see a lot of different circus out there, pretty much the same, but for our show you can feel the country. The music, the energy is very universal. The music is upbeat with Asian flavor in there, but you can feel the energy. It’s really a combination of traditional and modern, so the audience doesn’t feel bored. When the show’s finished, I want them to feel like it’s not enough.
Have you thought about next year’s show? What can we expect?
That’ll be a secret. [Laughs] After this show I’m going back to China to audition the troupes that are working out right now. After the show in Chicago, the troupe is going back to China, but I’m going to go to a different city to do the audition. Every year will be a new thing.
No, not yet. [Laughs]