Ashley Skivington has seen her life come full circle. The 35-year-old performer first saw the Cirque du Soleil show "Mystere" as a teenage gymnast. She's now been with the show nearly a third of her life — 12 years.
"I remember walking out just in awe and wondering how something like that was made," Skivington recalled. "I was thinking, 'I want to do that someday,' and here I am."
The schedule is rigorous — Skivington performs in up to 10 shows a week, or 470 shows per year on bungees and Chinese poles. But each performance still has an element of fun.
"Cirque allows us to do what we are basically born to do," Skivington said of herself and her fellow performers. "It provides a great environment to really be yourself, and the response you get from the audience every night is just unbelievable."
Those like Skivington who want to join the ranks of the entertainment industry will see increased opportunities in the next decade, as it's poised to grow by about 6 percent, creating 46,000 new jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cirque du Soleil will be part of that expansion, looking to expand its ranks for new and existing shows. The Montreal-based circus currently employs more than 1,300 artists in 19 shows, and two to eight projects in development at any given time. Annually, the circus will bring on 450 new artists —100 will participate in new creations, and the remaining come on board to replace other artists in existing shows, according to casting director Pavel Kotov.
There are also different formats for Cirque's shows — some are resident shows, like "Mystere" in Las Vegas, while others are traveling big top or arena shows like "Kurios," which is currently in New York, giving performers the opportunity to see the world on the job. In U.S.-based shows, Kotov said the company is focusing on hiring American performers.
"Generally, we are looking for extraordinary talent," Kotov said. "We are looking for people who can do something that you do not see in the real life. Many roles now are going into more of what we call a generalist profile — multitalented, multidisciplinary. On Broadway, they call it a 'triple-threat.'"
Social networks have made it easier than ever to market one's talents online, Kotov said. But that also makes it harder to stand out and catch the attention of one of Cirque's casting directors, who scour the world looking for the right fit. Yves Sheriff, Cirque's senior artistic scout, said that out of every 100 applications, only about 2 to 4 performers will make it into the company's talent database to one day receive a coveted contract.
"It's projection, precision and presence," Sheriff told CNBC at a New York City audition. "Presence is very subjective — some have presence, some don't. Precision and projection is something they learn in school. Casting is based on their capacity to project in front of 2,000 people."
While Cirque du Soleil declined to offer specifics on salaries, pay can vary widely in the industry. The company said performers do receive benefits, but the are dependent on the "nature and length of their contracts."
Serenity Smith Forchion, executive director of the New England Center for Circus Arts, said she has seen wide ranging compensation. She said she has seen an "offer of $50 per night for long hours of aerial dancing at a nightclub, under an independent contractor status without health insurance or unemployment benefits, to $3,000 for a single appearance at a birthday party for a princess in Dubai, with a bonus at the end of the show and all expenses paid."
"An award-winning artist with multiple acts they can perform in a variety of settings with a long-range tour contract might earn in the low six-figures with benefits," said Smith Forchion, who toured internationally for many years as a performer. The circus school is based in Vermont, and Smith Forchion's students are employed across the industry.
Skivington, who has a young son, said adjusting to the hours and the physical stamina needed for performing were among the initial biggest challenges. She runs often and trains with a strength coach several times a week — the stronger she feels, the easier each performance is. Like many physical performers, Skivington also knows her career likely won't last as long as most do into traditional retirement. She's still figuring out what life after Cirque might look like.
"I love it, and I would like to do it for as long as I can," she said. "The hard part once you are in is taking care of yourself — you have to make sure you stay in shape to avoid stuff that can possibly happen. And then once you're in, it's finding something else, too. Not many people have to find two passions or careers in life — the hardest part is finding out what is next."