(Trying to) Learn to hope with Cirque du Soleil

I tried to ignore the pounding in my head and focus on the encouraging words of Oyun-Erdene Senge, the world-class contortionist holding me by the legs in an effort to teach me a headstand.

As I fought to press my forearms into the floor and engage my core like she’d told me, she sing-songed, “Too easy! Let’s try a handstand.” Dubiously — it didn’t feel too easy, but who was I to argue with a professional? — I prepared to struggle through another pose that Senge can do with her eyes closed. Or, in a more literal sense, balanced on tiny platforms called canes as she twists her body into positions that look utterly impossible.

Last week at Northwest Portland’s The Circus Project, Cirque du Soleil artists Yan “Joann” Zhuang and Oyun-Erdene Senge taught a workshop where they revealed a few of the tricks that stun audiences in “Alegría.” The show continues at Portland’s Expo Center through July 17.

The workshop participants — a 50/50 split of Circus Project troupe members and media people like me — learned how to contort their bodies, hula hoop, and move just a little bit more like a real Cirque performer.

The hour began with demonstrations by each of the artists. Senge challenged the laws of both physics and human anatomy, pretzeling herself as we looked on in amazement. Zhuang’s smile, sometimes triumphant and sometimes coy, belied her intense concentration as she twirled six hoops in a stunning arabesque.

Then it was time for us to try.

Senge led the group in a warm-up, where it became evident that the skill level in the room varied widely. The Circus Project folks moved nimbly into splits while some of us struggled to touch our toes.

But there was something for everyone: Senge gave personalized instruction based on what each person wanted to try. She joined the Circus Project contortion duo in an astonishing three-person pose, then taught a few of us some slightly more elementary acrobatics.

Oyun-Erdene Senge helps me with my handstand.

Then Zhuang took over to train us in the language of the hula hoop. She shared her own “very secret trick”: contrary to popular belief, moving the hips in a circle is improper hooping form. Instead, engage the core and move the body slightly forward and back. Having been on hula hoop hiatus since I was about hula hoop-height, I was struggling to keep the hoop off the ground at all. Zhuang’s expert advice was a game-changer.

Then, Zhuang taught the group some choreography — with mixed results. As we tried to mimic her dexterous movements, hoops clattered to the ground, rolled across the room and flew through the air.

“Five push-ups if the hoop falls,” Zhuang said. A few people laughed (Zhuang clarified that yes, she was joking). Others did the pushups anyway.

Zhuang and Senge provided more one-on-one advice while we practiced our new and/or improved skills. And all too soon, the hour was over. I posed for a photo with Zhuang, who told me her extravagant makeup took two-and-a-half hours the first time, but now takes just one.

With hopes of continuing my practice, I grabbed a free hula hoop before embarking on the two-mile trek home (too lovely a day for the bus). My skills may never be on par with those of Zhuang and Senge. So why try?

Like I told everyone who stopped me along the street to ask what was up with the hoop: I don’t know — but it’s really fun.

“Alegría: In a New Light” continues through July 17; Portland Expo Center, 2060 N. Marine Dr.; tickets from $39; https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/alegria.

• Tickets and VIP package options are also available for the month-long show run, starting at around only $75 a seat. You can also buy tickets now from Stub Hub, Vivid Seats, or from Ticketmaster.

— Zella Hanson, zhanson@oregonian.com

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