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From an island in the Atlantic to a water show in the desert

in Featured/Stray Puffins/Travel by

I moved to Las Vegas around four and a half years ago to become a singer in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” (which you can also check out on Facebook right here) at the Bellagio hotel. I grew up in St. John’s and went to Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador to get a degree in Music. Later I attended the Music Theater program at Sheridan College, and, using Toronto as a base, performed for the next eight years throughout Canada and aboard cruiseships. I had always been intrigued with Cirque du Soleil, and when one contract ended and I was looking for the next gig, decided it was time to send them a demo. Luckily for me, the timing was perfect. The original singer from “O” was leaving, and they were looking for her replacement. After three demo auditions and a final live audition in Las Vegas in the “O” theater, I was cast.

Cirque du Soleil has come to be synonymous with “entertainment” here in Vegas, as the taste of audiences has shifted over many decades from lounge acts and showgirls to high intensity, highly skilled (and high budget) production shows, involving artists from around the world who specialize in a myriad of areas. In my show alone, there are more than 20 countries represented; among them are aerialists, gymnasts, clowns, contortionists, fire performance artists, musicians, trapeze artists, singers, synchronized swimmers, divers, dancers, and character actors. The show has 85 performers and 135 technicians, and we perform to an audience of 1800 people twice a night, five nights a week.

But the most impressive thing about working for Cirque du Soleil truly are the wonderful people…the uniquely talented artists I have the privilege of sharing the stage with.

To say that it is an unusual work environment would probably be an understatement, and in many ways it is for me an ideal work place. Never (ever!) having been a morning person, it thrills me that I am not expected anywhere before 6:15 pm. By 11:45, the shows are done and I am leaving the Bellagio hotel. Also, as a performer, it is wonderful to have job security, especially through what has been an extremely difficult recession here in the U.S. But the most impressive thing about working for Cirque du Soleil truly are the wonderful people, the positivity and professionalism embodied by my co-workers, and the amazing friends I’ve made here. Even now I am still humbled and awed by the uniquely talented artists I have the privilege of sharing the stage with.

On the flip side, it can sometimes be challenging to find inspiration in the same show night after night, month after month, for nearly five years (there are quite a few cast members who have been with the show since its creation 13 years ago!). But part of being a good artist is being able to turn on the power source inside and give every audience a performance worth remembering. For me, it requires an approach to life where I get plenty of sleep, eat well, and take very good care of my voice.

More to Vegas than the parties

Now for the understatement of the year: Las Vegas isn’t exactly known for promoting a healthy lifestyle (I cringe as I write this), so it could easily be assumed that most people who come here end up falling into a pit of excessive partying and gambling. While this does happen to some, there are many more of us who only go to the Strip to work, and who have embraced the other offerings of Las Vegas which are mostly unknown to tourists. Nevada is, for example, renowned for its rock climbing and hiking trails, many of which can be found just on the outskirts of the city. We are a short drive from beautiful scenic and historic places: not just the more obvious ones like the Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam, Death Valley, and the Grand Canyon, but also Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and tons of amazing ghost towns (two of my favorites are Rhyolite, Nevada, and Bodie, California).

There has also been a surge of interest in local farming here, and many friends have started their own vegetable and herb gardens in their backyards (I have had great success growing zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, herbs, and lettuce). Gilcrease Orchard, a lovely u-pick vegetable and fruit farm, is a five minute drive from my house. The offerings change with the season, and include squash, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, potatoes, pears, apples, plums, nectarines, and lettuce. In addition, there are many local farmers’ markets, including one run by chef Mario Batali.

But part of being a good artist is being able to turn on the power source inside and give every audience a performance worth remembering.

There is a growing cultural scene as well, with art galleries (like the Trifecta Gallery) and specialty restaurants (my new personal favorite is Ko-Mex, a Korean/Mexican fusion hole-in-the-wall) which cater to a local crowd. The old downtown area in Vegas, cut in half by the pedestrian walkway Freemont Street, includes a Beauty Bar, the Downtown Cocktail Lounge, and Insert Coins, all of which host local indie bands and dj’s. Most bars, shows, and restaurants here offer discounts to local residents, which make eating out and entertainment very affordable. Plus, being part of a large artistic community through Cirque (there are seven resident shows here now, with an eighth on the way in 2012), I can honestly say that I have never felt lonely here, and have many friends who are like a second family to me.

The beauty of a desert

But Vegas still has its struggles. In education, Nevada ranks among the worst in the country for overall quality of the public education system, and the University of Las Vegas, Nevada (which I attended to complete a Masters program in Music) was subjected to devastating budget cuts last year put in place by governor Brian Sandoval. When it became clear that the cuts threatened the very existence of the university, thousands of students (including myself) took to the streets in protest. Nevada has also been especially burdened by the recession, and is among the hardest hit states in terms of home foreclosures and unemployment.

Despite these hard facts, things here do seem to be turning around. Most people who work in the tourism industry believe that things are getting better, even if it may be happening more slowly than people would like. It has been hard to watch many of my friends and acquaintances lose their homes to short sale and foreclosure, but I am also amazed at how positive those same people remain through personal crisis, keeping an “it’s just money” attitude, no matter how difficult that may be.

…the stark isolation of cactus silhouetted against an orange sunset, or the magic of a hidden hot spring on the shore of the winding Colorado river.

As I booked my flight to St. John’s a few weeks ago, I felt a new sensation arise in me. I felt like Las Vegas was becoming home. Not in the way that Newfoundland is home; nowhere will ever influence the essence of who I am in the profound way that growing up in St. John’s did, but there is something about the desert that I can relate to. The desert is very beautiful in its own way: the stark isolation of cactus silhouetted against an orange sunset, or the magic of a hidden hot spring on the shore of the winding Colorado river. I have to admit, I miss the ocean daily. And I miss all the things that make Newfoundland the most beautiful and soulful place in the world. But something surprising has emerged from being here: living in Nevada has forced me to re-evaluate my own prejudices about Las Vegas and the desert. In this phase of my life, I find I am constantly being challenged to look at things in a new light, and perhaps alter my ideas about the world around me. If there is one message I can share with my friends abroad, it is to challenge your own beliefs about Nevada. If you come to Las Vegas, explore the desert away from the beaten path. Rent a car and discover the amazing world which exists off the Strip, and can so easily be enjoyed.

You will be glad that you did.

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