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Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Crystal’ brings figure skater Shawn Sawyer full circle

Cirque du Soleil’s “Crystal” find the acclaimed circus troupe exploring new territory - the ice. (Matt Beard)
Cirque du Soleil’s “Crystal” find the acclaimed circus troupe exploring new territory - the ice. (Matt Beard)

Growing up in Canada, Shawn Sawyer said it was practically in his blood to put on a pair of skates as a child.

Sawyer liked skating fast and skating alongside his brother on the hockey team their father coached, but quickly realized that scoring goals and being part of a team didn’t thrill him.

Knowing how much Sawyer liked coming to the ice rink, Sawyer’s dad suggested he give figure skating a shot.

“Being born in a very small, East Coast province, New Brunswick, I didn’t even think that was an option,” he said. “I didn’t think that boys figure skated. I literally thought boys did hockey, girls did figure skating. Obviously I was very content to learn that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, you can just do the sport that you want to do.”

Sawyer has been skating ever since, and represented Team Canada in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. As a professional skater, he has toured with “Stars on Ice” and “Art on Ice.”

The next phase of his career finds him skating in “Crystal,” the first show from company Cirque du Soleil to feature the element of ice.

“Crystal” opens Wednesday at the Spokane Arena and continues through May 6.

The show follows Crystal, a young woman with her head in the clouds who feels out of sync with the world around her and dreams of something more.

After falling through a frozen pond, Crystal is transported to “an underwater world of her own imagination,” as per a news release, where she encounters her reflection, an alter ego of sorts, who shows her a distorted version of her life and tries to show Crystal, a writer, just how creative she is.

Sawyer said Cirque had been tossing the idea of an ice show around for years but that the 33-year-old company wanted to do their research and make sure things were done properly before attempting something like “Crystal.”

Sawyer heard about the show through fellow skater (and four-time world champion) Kurt Browning, who worked as the skating performances senior designer on “Crystal.”

Browning wasn’t allowed to talk about the show initially, but he did drop a few hints for Sawyer: stay in shape, stay current and be available on certain dates for workshops in Montreal.

“It’s a little bit of a dream come true,” Sawyer said about working with Cirque. “When a friend makes it happen for you, it’s even more special because there’s a certain bond and a relationship there to backup a typical job.”

Over the course of his figure skating career, Sawyer has built up a repertoire of jumps and is known for his flexibility and artistry.

Even still, without a background in Cirque-like acrobatic elements (“There wasn’t really much time for me on the side to go to circus school,” Sawyer said), he knew going into rehearsals that he had a lot to learn.

“The mentality I had when I started working on the creation of ‘Crystal’ is to basically think that I’m going to show 10 percent of what I know and the next 90 percent is something that I was going to learn either from the choreographers, from the creators or just from my peers that are also performing here,” he said.

Sawyer doesn’t have a specific role in “Crystal,” but he’s on the ice for the majority of the show, sharing the rink with the other 40 artists.

He said the cast and crew worked hard to fill the ice as much as they could to give the audience the chance to see something no matter where they look.

“They can even just close their eyes and listen to the music,” Sawyer said. “There’s something for everybody.”

Sawyer is the first to admit that his performance in “Crystal” brings him right back to what he worked to avoid as a young skater – hockey skates and team sports.

But he thinks his younger self would be more than thrilled to see where he’s ended up.

“It really has come full circle of me starting skating with hockey skates and not really being a team player and now being on a Cirque du Soleil show sometimes wearing hockey skates and being so proud to be part of this team,” he said. “I would definitely be really proud of where I am now as a performer and as a person.”

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