15 years: ‘O by Cirque du Soleil’s’ love story extends off stage

Their’s is a love story set on one of the most unique stages in the world. Leah and John Maxson, who have been part of “O by Cirque du Soleil” since before it opened 15 years ago, fell in love behind the scenes of Cirque’s Las Vegas masterpiece.

“O is performed on a magical, ever-changing aquatic stage, seamlessly transforming from a deep pool to dry stage in minutes as acrobats, synchronized swimmers, divers, clowns and other performers create a colorful fantasy world. “O” is a play on the French word, “eau,” meaning water.

The couple met on Leah’s third day on the job, when she was returning a headpiece to John’s dressing room.

He was on the last page of a book he was reading, relaxing between shows.
“She wouldn’t stop talking,” he said.

Jokingly, she replied, “He was being a jerk,” of his lack of response to her chattiness.

But one day, John noticed Leah sitting alone in the cafeteria and joined her for dinner.

“We started out as friends, and from there, our relationship developed,” Leah said. Three years later, they would marry. Their children, who have grown up in the O Theatre, will often attend the show, pointing and exclaiming, “There’s Dad!” when John leaps from the Russian swing or dives into the narrow body of water beneath him.

Not many of their colleagues know John and Leah are married, and sometimes they’ll joke that they are roommates to unsuspecting coworkers, despite their 12 years of marriage and two children.

“We like to keep it professional,” Leah said of their relationship at work.

But for the last 15 years, Cirque has been the center of their world, specifically the O Theatre at the Bellagio, where Leah works on the 85 performers’ many costumes and John performs the high dive, Barge and Russian swing acts, in addition to being a coach to many of the show’s performance artists.

“This is our home,” Leah said, who left the show temporarily to work on Cirque’s now-shuttered “Viva Elvis” show. “I couldn’t stay away. This is where we belong.”

John started out as a high diver before joining “O” at 25, performing at attractions, including the now-demolished theme park near MGM Grand. In 1996, he won a silver medal in the Cliff Diving World Championships.

Several of “O'”s performers have even taken part in the Olympics; gold medalists are among the cast.
Today, when John dives off “O'”s 60-foot platform, it’s into 17 feet of water, he said, a relative luxury, given that he’s dived into as little as eight feet of water.

Leah chides him for stunts he pulls in training, such as hanging upside down before dropping into the water.
“It’s fun,” he laughs.

“Maybe for you!” she replies.

Before joining “O” at age 22 as the show prepared to open, Leah worked in small theater productions. John was part of “O” from the very beginning, during conception and training in Montreal, Canada.

John said that as the show was being conceived, Director Franco Dragone would have the artists try different dance moves to decide what he wanted in the show.

“You, over there, keep doing that,” he would say to an artist on the stage. “Now, go train 12 others to do that.”

He would then review the choreographed dance and decide if it would make the show. John came up with a few moves that are still a part of the show, including a funky, wobbly one.

“I got the dance from how people dance at a wedding,” John said of one of the dances performed in “O.”

Most of the performance is still the same from when “O” opened on Oct. 15, 1998, with some tweaking as artists come and go, a natural evolution of resident stage performances.

As for costuming, Leah and the other costume designers and seamstresses would labor over the costumes, trying different fabrics that would not only look good on stage and fit the acrobats, dancers and other performing artists, but only last mere weeks before falling apart from the chlorinated water.

Sometimes, after laboring days over a costume, it would be axed from the show, causing frustration among the designers and seamstresses working 12-16 hour day, six days a week.

Even 15 years later, new fabrics are being tested. Costumes only last about three months, before the water destroys them, Leah said.

Constantly replacing the show’s costumes is no small order. About 1,200 costumes and headpieces are used in every performance. “O” took more than three years to develop, including 12 months of intensive rehearsals.

“We were here from the beginning,” John said. “There’s a piece of us in the show.”

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Fun facts:

  • All 150 stage hands and 85 cast members have scuba certification; 14 technicians work underwater during every performance
  • The pool/stage takes 1.5 million gallons of water and is cleaned three times a day. It takes 12 hours to fill
  • The water is kept at 88 degrees Fahrenheit
  • The distance from the high grid to the stage is 110 feet
  • The wardrobe department does more than 60 loads of laundry every day
  • The stage has seven lifts that move independently of each other
  • Each artist does their own makeup, taking them 20 to 90 minutes each

“O by Cirque du Soleil” performs at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday in the O Theatre at the Bellagio.