James Johnson: Missouri Native Tours with Cirque Du Soleil

By Maggie McCarthy
In Culture

James Johnson is grounded. Born and raised in Sullivan, Missouri, a small town about an hour outside the city, he knows his passions and pursues them without hesitation. Simultaneously craving the comfort of home and the rush of exploration, he embraces both the new and familiar in his worldwide adventures with Cirque du Soleil’s “OVO.

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James Johnson. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Driven by a laser-like focus, he devoted himself to the sport of gymnastics 10 years ago. This week, he returns to the place where he began as the Cirque du Soleil troupe calls the Chaifetz Arena home for five days (Aug. 3-7). Welcomed and cheered on by the people who supported him from the beginning, Johnson anticipates his time in St. Louis with excitement.

When did you decide to pursue gymnastics? I was life guarding at a local pool. A couple of the girls I worked with did gymnastics at the local gym and invited me to come with them. I jumped around on the trampoline for a while and really enjoyed it. From that point on, I kept coming back. I started training with my coach, Scott Poole, and he really pushed me to take my gymnastics to the next level. I decided to start competing at high levels and fell in love with the challenges and artistry of the sport even more.

How did gymnastics lead you to a career with Cirque du Soleil? I started doing solo gymnastic performances and took lots of video. After awhile, I decided to try sending some footage to Cirque du Soleil. Eventually they contacted me with a temporary offer to join their tour. The temporary role turned into a permanent position in the cast and now I get to tour for a living!

Describe your experience with Cirque du Soleil: Cirque du Soleil is a really unique, collaborative community. Musicians on the tour learn to do backflips and I get inspiration for my own acting when I watch other cast members performing on stage.

We come from different backgrounds so we all learn from each other. Depending on my mood and energy level, I can create a different personality for my character every night. I play a cricket, so some nights I might be really enthusiastic and jump all over the stage. During performances when I’m a little down, I can be more mopey and lethargic. We all get to channel real emotions in our performance and are equally fueled by the energy of our fellow performers.

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Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

What is your favorite part of touring with Cirque du Soleil? I love the bonds formed with fellow cast members and the opportunity to tell a story bigger than myself. I get to play an important role in a larger picture and it feels good to create a world for our audience every night. When I walk offstage I have to remember, “Oh yeah! I just did that in front of 2,000 people.” It’s pretty surreal.

Backstage with the cast is its own unique world. I have grown so close to people from different places and have explored and learned with them. Creating, rehearsing, and growing together leads to a really special bond.

How would you convince someone who has never seen Cirque du Soleil to come to a performance? I know Cirque du Soleil can seem a little weird to people at first, especially if they’ve never seen it before. If you want to check it out and aren’t really sure what to expect, bring a friend who feels the same way. Come with an open mind and expect and transformative experience.

You will be transported to a different world as you experience the sound, motion, and incredible set. There really is something for everyone in this show. The story is relatable and exciting. Bring the whole family and experience something you’ll never forget.

For more information about “OVO,” visit cirquedusoleil.com

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