For John Gilkey of Los Altos, Cirque du Soleil success is classic 'revenge of the nerds'
No one expected a few awkward dance steps to catapult John Gilkey to the big top after he dropped out of college to pursue his childhood passion and run away with the circus.
But using his shortcomings to achieve the extraordinary is something Gilkey has done most of his life.
Being a "dork" has paid off, Gilkey said.
Disguised by a white-powdered face, upswept eyebrows and a single tuft of spiked hair atop his head, the Los Altos native has been entertaining audiences nationwide with his animated gestures and circus tricks for the past 18 months as ringmaster of Cirque du Soleil's latest production, "Quidam," which opened in San Jose July 31.
"I got lumped in with a whole bunch of dancers (at the 1994 audition) which was scary because I'm not a dancer," Gilkey said.
"So I took my little place in the back and tried to keep from getting kicked in the face, and they liked that. They liked the goofy guy who kept trying to keep up with all of the dancers."
Gilkey and the 50-member circus troupe from "Quidam" will have performed 1,000 shows, in front of more than 2.5 million people in 13 cities by 1998 - the end of the production's three-year run in North America.
The renowned French-Canadian company is known for reinventing the three-ringed circus by combining the traditional circus arts, such as flying acrobats, with cabaret-style acts, outrageous costumes and live music in its all-human productions.
Cirque du Soleil has thrilled more than 15 million spectators in 123 countries around the world and has won numerous awards including an Emmy, since it began in 1984.
Gilkey said Cirque du Soleil celebrates the "human person doing superhuman activities."
For Gilkey, circus tricks provided him a way to be accepted by his peers in junior high school.
"You want to be good at something when you're a kid," Gilkey said. "Well when you're dorky, skinny, have glasses and braces, football ain't the best choice. I chose juggling."
Gilkey began performing in school shows, company parties, and by age 18 had even won first place at the International Jugglers Association annual convention.
After graduating from Homestead High School in Sunnyvale in 1985, Gilkey enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he expected to graduate and become some kind of scientist, he said.
Gilkey said dividing his time between studying and performing was too difficult and college "just wasn't doing it" for him.
He dropped out of school after his first year and gave himself an ultimatum. "If I wasn't performing in two years, I would go back to school," he said.
With a lot of hard work and some luck, Gilkey was touring with the Pickle Family Circus within a year. This led him to study acrobats which later earned him stints with the Tandy Beal Dance Company and other performance groups.
Gilkey was first introduced to Cirque du Soleil in 1987 when the show came to Los Angeles as part of the city's theater festival.
"I was taken aback, overwhelmed and wowed," Gilkey said. "It was clear to me that (Cirque du Soleil) was something I wanted to do eventually."
Gilkey said after performing 10 shows a week, six days a week since 1996, staying fresh has become the most difficult aspect of circus life.
"I work to find something new to surprise myself as well as the audience," Gilkey said. "The audience sees when you've done something a billion times before and you're not into it. It makes a difference between a pretty darn good show and an amazing experience."
Gilkey said he warms up several hours before each show by studying video tapes of his last performance and preparing himself mentally.
Gilkey said no matter how much he prepares for a show, his act always involves some improvisation.
"After 500 shows, things do go wrong," Gilkey said while reminiscing about the tour. He said the sound died out during a show in Oakland, requiring his otherwise silent character to sing. Gilkey said one time he almost drove his scooter into the audience. And another time, he caught a dart in the back of the head by mistake.
In Quidam, Gilkey guides the audience through the show which centers around a young girl who embarks on a series of adventures with a headless giant.
Between the clown stunts and the aerial, high-flying, balancing and manipulation acts, audiences are entertained by Gilkey's comical vignettes. He throws darts, twirls hoops, taunts the audience and mimics Fred Astaire's dance with a coat rack in Royal Wedding.
Gilkey said he didn't learn any of his stunts at a "circus school." He said performing simply takes practice and imagination. Gilkey said he used to lock himself in his room, stand in front of a mirror and practice several hours a day.
As ringmaster, Gilkey said he is responsible for keeping the show down-to-earth.
"I provide a bit of a wink," Gilkey said. "It would be very easy for the show to become pretentious if we didn't have someone winking at the audience and telling them we know we're taking ourselves a little too seriously."
Gilkey said every city responds to the show differently. So far he has had a warm homecoming in San Jose..
"Coming back is great but scary," Gilkey said. "All of my friends are coming to the shows. I have to do good every show, It's hard not screwing up.
"Quidam" will play at the San Jose Water Company at 374 West Santa Clara St. through Sept. 14. Performances are scheduled at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Fridays; 4:30 p.m.. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays. For more information call (800) 678-5440.