‘I Ran Away With the Circus and Came Back Home With a Wife and Two Kids’

'I Ran Away With the Circus and Came Back Home With a Wife and Two Kids'

Jennifer O'Neill
Writer
February 16, 2016

Juggling career and kids can be tricky — but for Karl L’ecuyer, it’s a literal circus because the Montreal native is raising his 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son on the road, while traveling to perform with Cirque du Soleil as a trampolinist and acrobat. 

It’s not the sleeping together in one room, the constantly packing and unpacking all of their belongings into just two bags each, or even having to negotiate play dates with kids who only speak Russian or Portuguese, though, that phases him and his circus-dancer wife. The father, 33, swears it’s the prospect of having to call their globetrotting quits that really stresses them out. “I ran away with the circus and came back home with a wife and two kids,” explains the performer — a star in more than 2,000 shows as part of Cirque’s KURIOUS and OVO tours — in a candid interview about parenting under the Big Top as part of Yahoo Parenting’s “What It’s Like” original video series. “Now, every day I’m wondering, ‘Should I go back home and settle?’" 

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Karl left for the circus at age 25 with family far from his mind. “I used to be on the national team of trampoline in Canada and I always said that when I finish university, I would stop competing,” he says. “But my summer job was to do shows at the amusement park and I developed a taste for the stage. So the goal that I put on myself was that if I cannot reach the Olympics, I’ll hope that the level of acrobatics I could do was high enough to be part of Cirque du Soleil. Luckily, it was. When I finished university, Cirque du Soleil gave me a call to join their show OVO.” 

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(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

Preparing for the show in Montreal is where he met his wife, an independent performer. “Her background is ballet,” he says. “She can do contortion and aerial silks too. She’s a really versatile artist and when she hits the stage, she shines.” The couple “never really thought about kids or no kids,” he reveals. “I was just like, ‘I’m traveling. I’m discovering America. It’s going to be amazing!’” Then he says, “One day she was like, ‘Oh, I’m pregnant.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, okay. Yeah, okay.’ Then we looked at the dates. She was going on another project in Germany [and I was in Mexico]. So we had to mix everything up and we just thought, ‘OK, that’s our life. We are just going to go with the flow and see where it brings us.’" 

Once her pregnancy prevented her from performing, she joined Karl in Mexico and he says, “That’s when our first child [son Raphael] was born, in Mexico City.” Two years later, they welcomed their daughter during a stint home in Montreal. “Since they were born, they’ve always traveled either with me or with my wife,” Karl says of his kids, tallying up their son’s trips so far to include the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Australia, Dubai, and Germany. 

For childcare, the family enlists friends. “We had a Canadian friend that had traveled with us after we met her in Australia,” says Karl. “She decided that she wanted to get out of Australia and we proposed to her, ‘Would you like to fly to Germany and then you can fly home?’ Being on tour, you talk with the people around you [to sort out help].” That friend has since decided to move on and now Karl explains that an Atlanta-based sister of one of the Cirque technicians has begun watching the kids on tour while he and his wife work. “I was like, ‘Hey, would you like to come to California and babysit my kids?’” Karl recalls. “She said yes.” 

(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

There are, after all, many children who travel along with their parents on the road. “Depending on the time of the year, and how school is working, we can have almost 30 kids on tour from newborns to 15-year-olds,” he says. “The Big Top is like a village.” 

Typically each family bunks in an apartment. “We’ll have two rooms but we all sleep in one room,” explains the dad. “I have the crib for my daughter and a nice camping bed that I found, with suspension and all that, for my son. That’s the only furniture we have. The rest of the time we live in the living room where we have the TV, couches, and the kitchen.” 

The family doesn’t need more space because they don’t bring much stuff with them anyway. “Normally, when you’re on tour every person’s allowed two pieces of luggage,” he says. “We have a lot of toys in Montreal that stay in our main house, but we have two big plastic bins that we use for toys, books, small chairs, and their main toys that they like to have with them: a soccer ball or Ninja Turtle. The heaviest suitcases are the ones with books because the kids always like bedtime stories. You never realize how heavy books are until you travel.” 

In addition to the regular routine of bedtime books, the family manages to carve out playtime regardless of where they go. “We really try to challenge them by bringing them out in many of the cities where we are, instead of trying to stay locked in the apartment,” says Karl. “We try to use the chance that we are traveling to make them discover new things.” And it always starts at the park. “When we get to a new place the first thing they ask for is the playground because that’s how we discover a city now,” he says, noting that next it’s, “‘Where is the grocery store? Are they going to have the cart with the little car in the front?’ because they never go to the same grocery every month.” 

On days when Karl is performing in a show that starts later in the day, he says, “I have all morning with them, so we try to go to the park, have lunch, and what I really like to do is have the afternoon nap with them so that I can rest before my show.” 

(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

The kid-focused routine is completely different from the way Karl and his wife lived on tour pre-kids. “I party a lot less now, for sure,” he laughs. “I go home [after work, which typically ends around 11:30 p.m.] to see that the kids are sleeping.” The children’s bedtime routine is also a bit different — from that of other kids. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s put on pajamas,’ and I turn around and they’ll be jumping on the bed,” he says. “When I ask, ‘What are you doing? We need to put on pajamas,’ they’ll say, ‘But Dad, I’m working right now.’ How can I tell them not to jump around when I bring them to the show where that’s what I’m doing?“ 

Do the kids love trampoline as much as he does? “I don’t know how much they love it, but I know they like it,” he says. “I know if they see a bed, a couch, they’re going to jump on it. I actually needed to teach my kids to be careful with other people, that they can do that kind of craziness only with me or their mother, because not everybody can catch them jumping off the couch. I play with them a lot and they are not afraid of heights,” he adds. “If my daughter feels that you’re holding her legs, she’s going to let herself drop backwards.” 

(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

It was the costumes that Karl’s son didn’t initially like. It took Raphael about a week to understand the makeup part of performing, Karl says: “When I would show up over the crib or to the stroller and he saw me in makeup, he would stop. My daughter, she never had that problem. She would just try to take off my makeup thinking that it’s a sticker.” 

His son also had to learn to have confidence in his acrobatics. “He got scared once because I was training trampoline and I missed a little bit and I screamed,” the dad recalls. “I remember he started crying because he thought I got hurt. Now he understands that it doesn’t always go the way I want, and until I really fall to the floor, he’s good.” 

Watching their parents’ performances has helped the children get used to mom and dad’s death-defying maneuvers. “We do 10 shows a week and when I know they’re watching, I have a lot more energy,” says Karl. “Those two little persons give me a lot more energy than the 2,000 others watching. Even if I just hear one second of, ‘Papa,’ or their laughs, that’s a good moment.” 

There’s lots of good that the children get out of the experience of being on the road with the circus too. “At Cirque du Soleil within the crew we have 14 different nationalities,” Karl reveals. “And English is a second language for most of them. So let’s say they play Ninja Turtles, but the one that loves the Ninja Turtles the most is the Russian kid. They’re going to play it in Russian. Or if it’s about dancing, and it’s the Brazilian little girls that love the dancing. They’re going to switch and speak a bit more Portuguese. In everyday life, my children are getting exposure to all of these cultures.” 

(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

“I hope that that is going to open something inside them,” he adds, “an acceptance or understanding of all the different languages and cultures in the world. I see it already when my son meets people. He will not speak to them in French. He’s going to try English, or sometimes he just switches to gibberish because he knows that that person is Russian.” 

Of course, there are still drawbacks to this nomadic lifestyle, Karl acknowledges. “The biggest challenge is when my wife and I are apart for too long. Then it becomes really hard to accept that to keep your job, or her keep her job, we will not be together for certain amount of time… When she would be in Germany, I would be in San Francisco. And she would go to Dubai, I’ll be in New York. We’re always changing places like that. And that means sometimes I’m going to be alone with my kids, working, doing 10 shows a week.” 

Calling it a “good challenge” to follow their family rule of keeping the kids together, Karl says he appreciates that “I get a big connection with the kids when I’m the only one there and I do everything, giving the bath, brushing the teeth, cooking the food, eating with them, going to the park, playing.” 

When it’s his solo stint, Karl has mixed feelings. “At the beginning it’s like, ‘I can read my book, it’s amazing,” he says. “And after a week you’re like, ‘Okay, I don’t know what to do now.’ After two weeks, I’m always on Skype trying to call them. Then after about six weeks it’s, ‘OK, I’m quitting my job and I’m going to be on tour with her on her show.’ [But eventually we’ve learned to] accept and expect all those months that we’re not together. Having only one person not traveling, and changing the kind of job we would do, would change who we are and why we want be together.” 

Parents who don’t constantly travel “and see what I’m doing,” he says, “like my mother and my father, they think I’m crazy.” But for his kids, Karl insists, “It’s not about having the house and the friends and everything. It’s just, ‘Is the Big Top in the truck?’ They’re not looking for their room, they’re looking for their pillow or their bed. It’s all a different way of seeing life. ‘Steady’ is not something that they know.” And staying put in one place is not something that they miss. 

"If you feel confidence, and that you have control of situation that is changing, they’re going to feel it and follow you,” he says. “They look at what we do and they accept that things are always going to be different.” 

The stress that Karl feels is mainly about the future. “Every day I’m worried about my kids not having seen a ‘normal’ life, because we have that openness to all these cultures, but we live in our own bubble all the time as we travel from city to city,” he says. “So when it’s time for school in a few years… some people are going to push [them] around, and [they’re] going to push people around, older ones, younger ones. Living in our bubble, we don’t have all that.” 

As far as where they’ll ultimately settle down for school, Karl says he’s considering his hometown. “I’m really thinking to go back to Montreal to be able to have school for the kids because in Montreal, school is almost free until the end of university,” he says, “and I went through it so I know, for me, I’m really happy with it.” But before then, they have some more of the world to see, together. 

“The show business, circus business, most of the shows are in Europe, Germany, England,” he says. “Or with Cirque du Soleil, you going to travel the States, Australia, Japan, South America.” Settling down, Karl says, “is a big question.” For later, that is, he declares: “I still have two years to answer it.”

(Top photo: Yahoo Parenting)

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