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Chris Jones

Nevadan at Work: If The Job Fits, Do It: Ex-Gymnast Bends Neatly Into Role As 'Ka' Dancer

17 July 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- One could scour the earth and never find someone who is better suited to her work than Sarah Harding Traverso.

The 28-year-old Hawaii native has spent nearly three years developing and performing in "Ka," the Cirque du Soleil production at MGM Grand.

Working as an acrobat/dancer in an Asian-themed show is a perfect fit for Traverso, a former NCAA All-American gymnast at Stanford University who also possesses a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies.

While enrolled at Stanford, Traverso earned a grant to study in Beijing, training with and interviewing numerous Chinese gymnasts and coaches. That experience culminated with an award-winning honors thesis.

Ironically, Traverso's aptitude in the classroom nearly prevented her from starring on the Strip.

Four years ago, Traverso was looking for work while pondering her next big move after college. She applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in hopes of further researching Chinese gymnasts.

Traverso missed out on the scholarship, but while she awaited a decision some new options opened, including a job performing and choreographing a show at SeaWorld in San Diego. That led to work with the Walt Disney Co., and ultimately, employment with Cirque du Soleil.

Traverso also thrives on the fitness competition circuit. She's a two-time champion and reigning Ms. Fitness USA and a three-time runner-up at the larger Ms. Fitness World competition.

Despite a long and winding road to "Ka," Traverso believes those who knew her years ago wouldn't be surprised with her occupation.

"If you asked any of my friends growing up, they'd all would say, 'Cirque du Soleil and Sarah Harding? A perfect match because she loves to perform, create, dance and do gymnastics,'" Traverso said.

Question: Was your heart always set on a performing career?

Answer: I really didn't know quite what I wanted to do after graduation, and I actually thought I'd get involved in media production. So in spring of 2002, I was still working on campus and looking for work in the Bay Area.

I was recruited to work at SeaWorld in San Diego for the summer to perform as an acrobat. That was pretty much the last thing on my mind, but I definitely missed gymnastics, which I'd done from ages 4 to 22. And when I performed at SeaWorld, I suddenly realized that I could perform for a living.

Question: What was your next step?

Answer: I created a demo reel and started auditioning. I friend said I should submit my tape to Cirque. It sounded cool, but a bit idyllic and I wasn't sure if that was a realistic goal. But I submitted the reel and was invited to audition in December 2002.

Question: Did your Cirque career began straightway?

Answer: No. In January 2003 I headed off to Tokyo to perform as the Little Mermaid (at Tokyo DisneySea). I had a seven-month contract so I was committed there until that August. In March 2003, I heard from Cirque du Soleil's casting department that they were working on a brand new project for MGM Grand. They told me they wanted me to be a part of it.

Question: Wasn't that a scheduling conflict?

Answer: A little bit, yeah. I asked if (Cirque) would hold a spot and they said no guarantees, but thankfully in May (2003) they offered me an artists' contract. That meant at least a year of (show) creation, and a two-year performing contract from the start of previews, which in our case was November 2004.

Question: Why was Cirque appealing?

Answer: It's really a culturally diverse environment. Growing up in Hawaii, I saw a lot of Asian influence, a lot of Polynesian influences. I loved that environment, which is one of the reasons I chose to study Mandarin and to focus on (Chinese) history.

When I found out that this secretive 'MGM Project' we were working on would have an Asian theme, and that I'd actually get to practice my Mandarin with the Wushu artists, I thought, "How perfect did this work out?"

Question: What was your role in developing "Ka"?

Answer: The boat scene was my most exciting part of creating this act because we knew none of these pieces had ever been used before. We've got an 1,800-pound boat that must be manually rocked. It's got a round bottom on a regular floor. You think it's operated by something mechanical, but we move it through 12 artists using weight distribution.

If we all rock to the left, the whole boat rotates clockwise. So we have to counter that rock to suddenly make it go straight. That was the most challenging part -- to discover that there was some method to this madness that would let us perform this routine consistently, two shows a night and ten shows per week.

Question: Which on-stage roles do you perform?

Answer: There are five, depending on our rotation. I play a spearman in the beginning who mines the earth for an explosive powder, or I'm a sailor on the boat that gets caught in a tumultuous sea. I climb what we call the "cliff deck," where we slide from pole to pole before making a choreographed fall; and in the next act I play a forest creature, sort of like a firefly.

In the end, I take part in a giant battlefield scene. That's the newest act for me, and it's my favorite. It's challenging and exciting. I feel like I'm in a live video game.

Question: How did you become involved with fitness competitions?

Answer: When I was in Hawaii in high school, there were several adult women I met who were competing in fitness competitions. They asked me to choreograph two of their routines while I was still a high school senior.

My coach told me I'd be great at those competitions, though I couldn't do them until after I finished college or else I would lose my scholarship (due to NCAA regulations that prevent college athletes from competing for cash). Fast-forward to my time after college, and I looked into getting involved myself.

Question: What did you discover?

Answer: That they're actually beauty contests. It's not just fitness routines -- I have to prance around in a heels and a swimsuit. At first I was pretty intimidated. I've always trained to be a functional acrobat; not for the aesthetics. I didn't know anything about this kind of performing.

But I did get excited about the spokesmodel round. I love public speaking, so that's what helped attract me to it. I figured I could get used to the swimsuit round.

Question: How did you fare in your first event?

Answer: In Septmeber 2002, I competed for Ms. Fitness USA and I came in second place and finished third at worlds. I thought, "Gosh, imagine if I knew what I was doing."

Question: What had to change in order for you to win?

Answer: I thought I could capture a title if I trained as hard as I could. But then I went to Japan, so I kind of put fitness events on hold. When I returned from Japan, I had a month off before I had to go to Cirque. In that time I competed again and I came in first at Ms. Fitness USA and third in the world.

Question: How did you continue to balance fitness competition demands with your work in "Ka"?

Answer: I figured I wouldn't compete in 2004 ... but I learned (competing) was good for Cirque du Soleil because if I do well at fitness events, it works out well for Cirque and for me. That year I just competed in worlds, and again I came in third.

For (the September 2005 competition), I decided I needed to have a coach so I used my resources here at Cirque. Thanks to the training facility here and the wonderful artists at "Ka," I was able to win Ms. Fitness USA for the second time.

Question: Your "Ka" contract expires in November. What's next for you?

Answer: I love working for Cirque du Soleil, so I'd like to continue doing that for as long as possible, and to perform as long as my body is healthy. I enjoy "Ka" but I'm excited about the possibility of working for Cirque in other ways, at another resident show or touring. I love public relations, casting, and stage management, so even offstage stuff is interesting to me.