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Dr. Madeleine Hallé works with circus performers on such issues as overcoming fear and the pressure of preparing for performances. (credit: Christine Muschi)

As senior performance psychologist for Cirque du Soleil, Hallé helps the company's 1,300-plus artists perform nearly impossible feats at about two dozen different shows around the world. She began working with Cirque du Soleil on an as-needed basis in 1998, then came on full time when the company integrated performance psychology into its training program.

Transformations

One of Hallé's main responsibilities is helping trainees adjust to their new identities as performers. They come from the elite ranks of gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming and other sports, but once they walk through Cirque du Soleil's doors, they are seen as artists. It's a major transition, says Hallé. "Here everybody is at the same level, even if they have Olympic medals," she says, explaining that former athletes can also have trouble becoming beginners again. Adapting to the chaos of the creative process is another challenge. In contrast to the regimented routine of an elite athlete working toward a gold medal, the process of creating a show is fluid and nonlinear. "They don't know how to cope with the fact that we go in one direction one day, and the day after it's the complete opposite," says Hallé.

Juggling Tasks

Along with the other staff psychologist, Hallé spends her days working in small groups or one-on-one with performers on such issues as overcoming fear, recovering from fatigue or injury and coping with the pressure of preparing for a show. Performers have more mundane concerns, too. Drawn from around the world, they often miss their families, for example. Although Hallé is based at Cirque du Soleil's headquarters in Montreal, she can find herself in Macao, Tokyo or other far-flung destinations if there's trouble at one of the shows. She spends about a month on the road every year, helping staff and artists communicate better or overcome disputes about workload or other issues. She also flies to shows worldwide to provide assistance when there's a crisis, whether it's a serious injury or a disaster such as the Japanese earthquake.

Performance Anxiety

Helping performers stay confident isn't just a matter of mental health, it also reduces their chances of injury, according to research by Hallé published this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. To figure out why some performers are injury-prone, Hallé and a co-author examined the answers would-be performers gave in health questionnaires they filled out when they arrived at Cirque du Soleil try-out camp and then looked to see who suffered injuries in the months of training that followed. They found that trainees with low self-efficacy — general confidence in one's ability to face challenges — were nearly twice as likely to be injured as those with high self-efficacy scores. And that wasn't because trainees with low self-efficacy actually lacked the skills they needed to perform safely, Hallé adds. Some simply had an inaccurate view of their abilities, suggesting that what they needed to avoid injury was not further physical training but confidence-boosting. "Low self-efficacy brings doubts and anxiety and decreases the full concentraton that's absolutely necessary," says Hallé.

Running the Show

Hallé earned a coaching-oriented master's degree in sport sciences, followed by a doctorate in sport psychology from the Université du Montréal in 1989. An amateur gymnast, Hallé became the head coach at a gymnastics club, helping to prepare future Olympians and others before joining Cirque du Soleil. "I didn't have the body to become a gymnast of the first quality," she says, explaining that she lacked the talent and petite frame required of female gymnasts. "I did marathons instead, just because it better fits my morphology." Today, though, she's content with lunchtime runs on the 5-kilometer running path at Cirque du Soleil's headquarters. "It's a fantastic environment to work in," she says. "I'm really lucky to be able to work here."


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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