From French, formaldehyde to flying trapeze: Cirque du Soleil performer Neal Courter ’17 reflects on unexpected journey


Like many undergraduate college students, College of William and Mary alumnus Neal Courter ’17 was unaware of what the future had in store for him post-graduation. Double majoring in chemistry and French and Francophone studies, Courter developed linguistic and deductive reasoning skills, while maintaining a passion for self-expression and movement. 

Despite obtaining a plethora of seemingly unrelated skillsets, Courter’s interdisciplinary education mixed with his lifelong dedication to gymnastics, on both the College team and his local team in Louisiana as a child, led to him joining one of the most well-known acrobatic performance groups in the world: Cirque du Soleil.

Every few years the team goes to Vegas for this competition called Winter Cup, and we went out there and we saw another William and Mary gymnastics alum named Josh Fried in ‘Le Rêve’, the show that I would eventually do,” Courter said. “It wasn’t until that moment where I had the inkling that, well, this is something that had really affected me at a deep level. And if I can be part of something that makes people feel those same emotions, that’s something I definitely want to pursue.”

Though “Le Rêve” is not related to Cirque du Soleil, the show opened doors for Courter as he continued his performance career. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Courter left the show and began focusing on learning flying trapeze. Courter then trained with a trapeze group for a year before he sent some of his material to Cirque du Soleil and received an offer to join Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE.” After eight months with “ONE,” Courter is now working on a new Cirque du Soleil show titled “Echo.” 

“I was in Montreal for five months working on the creation of that show,” Courter said. “What I was involved in was creating the acrobatic content for the numbers that would be featured in the production. And since April, we’ve been starting our tour.”

Courter is aware that his career path has been anything but normal, however, he credits his college experiences with handing him the tools to become successful in the circus. 

“It was a really great kind of mixture of things that I was involved in in college. You know, chemistry is a very analytical science that engages that deductive reasoning part of your brain. French and languages is also something that I was really passionate about and still am. And, to a degree, you can use the same science and reasoning linguistically to figure out how sounds are structured and for the phonology of certain languages. And they do follow those patterns. But it’s also a bit more freeing,” Courter said.

Similar to the community he found on the College’s gymnastics team, Courter formed a tight-knit connection with his performance crew while working with Cirque du Soleil. 

“There’s so much love and laughter under that little tent, well, it’s a big tent, but, you know, there’s so much love and laughter going around,” Courter said. “It’s really an environment where people can really thrive. And just the sharing — sharing that experience with other like-minded people has been really great. Trying to make eye contact with every single one of the members of our cast while we’re on stage — it’s just a great time.”

Courter also emphasized the importance of creative freedom in his new role, especially as someone who tended to be more familiar with gymnastics competitions rather than circus performances. 

“On stage you get to embody a character, that is not something that you do in your everyday life. It is acting to a degree. And you have a bit more freedom artistically than in gymnastics. It’s a little more, I don’t want to say stilted, but there is kind of the confines of what elements you have to put in your routines, how you have to present them,” Courter said. 

Performing has given Courter the chance to share art with others, mentioning that interacting with the audience has given him a lot of joy throughout his performance career thus far. 

“After a while you get used to it and it’s, I guess, the snow globe effect, where the audience itself is just one entity and mostly what I’m focusing on is my team members with me on stage,” Courter said. “If you’re having fun and a great time with them, then that will show to the people looking from the outside. But there’s still an interaction that goes on and you want to make as much eye contact with people in the audience, too, because that draws them into the experience that you’re having and you want to share those positive emotions.”

While touring with shows, Courter helps tutor fellow cast members using his French language skills, which are certainly useful working for Cirque du Soleil, a French-Canadian company.

“I’ve been tutoring one of my cast mates in French, which has been really fun since that’s what I used to do in college. And he’s Australian, so, you know, not many Australians you find speak French and he’s really wanting to learn,” Courter said.

Courter also offered advice to young undergraduate students who may not know where their degree will take them. 

“You don’t know until you know,” Courter said. “There is a degree of planning that goes into your life, but you also have to follow the inklings that you do have. And if you are doing something that really makes you feel alive, and that gives you the energy to get up in the morning and be really excited about it, then I think that’s something that you should follow.”


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