Like many children, Devin and Marta Henderson grew up mimicking their older siblings — learning to walk, talk and tumble, and eventually landing unconventional careers as circus performers.
“From age five, this has always been a passion,” said Devin, the older of the two siblings. “It’s never been something I didn’t want to do.”
“There’s a dangerous component,” said Marta, “But I feel what we do on stage is very controlled danger.”
This week (Nov. 17) the duo will help to open the US premier of Luzia, a Cirque du Soleil show that is artistically and ambiguously described as “a waking dream of Mexico.” The title comes from a combination of the Spanish word “luz” meaning “light” and “lluvia” meaning rain, both of which play prominent roles in the production. The Hendersons join a diverse cast of 44 members drawn from over 15 different countries who gather together with the common goal of wowing an audience while creating an authentic Hispanic ambience under the big top. The show is comprised of 14 movements including diving hummingbirds, underwater acrobatics, and a seven piece band, and will remain stationed outside AT&T park until January 29, when they pack up their 65 semis and trek down to San Jose for another six weeks of performances (Feb. 9 – March 29).
During a backstage chat in the warm-up tent, I follow the Hendersons through rainbow racks of costumes and big bins of marigolds, and past ropes, poles and other assorted rigging. A giant leopard rolls by mid-way through the conversation and is parked up alongside a stack of alligator heads and a life-sized silver stallion. The Hendersons hardly notice, as though they’re used to the constant movement of bodies and props.
“As a part of the SF Youth Circus, we’ve been doing shows ever since we were little,” said Marta. “During the show I think a lot about the people in the audience. When I’m up there I try to find someone I can play with. You try to find ways to make it fun for yourself.”
Second generation of San Franciscans, the Hendersons grew up in Noe Valley and the Mission and trained at the San Francisco Youth Circus under the skillful coaching of Master Lu Yi. A legend in his own right, Yi was a star performer and director of China’s celebrated Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe, before he transplanted to the U.S. in 1990, bringing the centuries-old art of Chinese acrobatics with him, including the skills he taught the Hendersons.
“Mr. Yi, that was very dedicated,” said Devin. “He pushed us to the limit.
“We also pushed each other,” said Marta. “It was a friendly competition.”
The Hendersons specialize in Hoop Diving and Chinese Pole, neither of which are traditional to Western circus performance.
“Those were Yi’s specialties,” said Marta. “We learned a bunch of different things, but those were what he taught best, so a lot of us from SF do that.”
“Yi is 77 now, and he can still hold a handstand,” said Devin. “He’s pretty special.”
“He’s probably the reason for most people’s success who come out of circus in San Francisco,” added Marta. “Hands down.”
Devin’s first experience of seeing a cirque show is a large part of what drew him to pursuing acrobatics as a career.
“I saw Alegria when I was really young,” he said. “I remember the fast track act — they had white costumes and were flipping double backs in the air. The image in my head is still really clear. That was the first act that I saw that made me think ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do!’”
Both Devin and Marta went on to study at Montreal National Circus School, performing with various troupes before cooperatively joining the cast for Luzia in 2015. The show’s San Francisco run is not only its premier, but is also the first time the Hendersons have performed in the Bay Area since they were children.
“We’ve done little performances with our siblings when we’ve come home, but nothing like this,” said Marta. “The last time our friends saw us was probably at a high school talent show.”
“[Being back in SF] is a good balance of being a little bit stressed, but also super excited,” said Devin.
It’s rare that one gets to play with their siblings even as adults, both for fun and also professionally.
“I couldn’t really picture it any other way,” said Marta. “We grew up so close all the time, sharing rooms, etc. So to be able to be back together again just feels like normal, like being kids again.”
“All of these people that we perform with are really family to us,” said Devin, “But to have immediate family, makes it easier. Choosing this lifestyle you’re choosing to be far from family when you’re performing. When it happens that you end up on the same show it’s like magic. I think that’s what I’ll strive for in the future.”
In the wake of recent political upsets and in light of conversations about fear and disunity, the Hendersons are hopeful that Luzia will open people up to the beauty of a shared experience.
“Coming from SF and growing up in the Mission, this show being about Mexico is really special,” said Devin. “We went to a Spanish immersion school and grew up surrounded by that culture, so having a little of that Mexican flavor is totally cool.”
“Seeing the diverse cast and feeling this dream of Mexico I’m hoping is going to open people up to togetherness and seeing that we can get through this stuff. The more people we can get on that side of it, the better.
“It almost makes me more proud to perform it,” added Marta.
Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico, Nov. 17 – Jan. 29, 2017; at AT&T Park; 74 Mission Rock St., cirquedusoleil.com/luzia.