Joining the Cirque du Soleil: training with high-flying Kurios performers

In the second half of Kurios, the latest Cirque du Soleil phenomenon to arrive in Australia, a pair of conjoined twins takes to the air. Each gripping a rope in one hand, they split apart to swoop above the "grand chapiteau". The audience gasps as they dive within millimetres of each other, saved from collision by sheer strength and grace.

The duo's incredible chemistry is because they're real-life brothers — though they're not twins, and nor are they identical without their stage make-up. Roman Tomanov is shorter, blue-eyed, and has shed most of his native Russian accent; Vitali is older, brown-eyed and darker-skinned.

Both share the same dense muscles you only get from lifelong training. Moscow-born Roman recalls starting under the instruction of his trapeze artist father when he was five, and Vitali adds the Tomanovs may even produce a third generation of performers: his children, aged eight and 11, are touring with their father and picking up the craft.

The brothers' Kurios high-flying act fuses elements of acrobatics, gymnastics, calisthenics and even ballet, which demands a delicate mix of skills: not just strength and flexibility, but also coordination and a high threshold for discomfort. The Tomanovs are constantly kept active rehearsing, weight-lifting, stretching and working to prevent injuries that could knock them offstage. 

In the five years they've performed in Kurios, since its 2014 premiere, they've fine-tuned their pre-show routine. Roman explains that, before each of their eight weekly performances, the brothers spend 30 minutes doing a "subtle" warm-up that includes push-ups and pull-ups. During the 25-minute intermission they intensively prepare their bodies for their two-man act, and immediately after the show comes yet another workout to build their muscle stamina.

Like athletes who time their food around their competition, the brothers typically eat only lighter meals before showtime. If you guessed the Tomarovs' rippled abs are thanks to super-strict diets, their actual secret may disappoint: Both say they don't follow a particular diet and nor do they restrict what they eat, either than trying to avoid fast food and oversize portions.

A major component of their training is counterbalancing the strain of their performance. Because they play conjoined twins, it means Roman spends more time hanging from his right arm and Vitali from his left — and they can't easily swap over to give their respective arms a break.

"It's hard to switch because you get used to using one arm," says Vitali, explaining he has to spend extra time working on the other side of his body to prevent an imbalance.

The result of all that work is an astonishing, effortless performance.

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But it's not so effortless for mere mortals, as I discover when I join the brothers backstage for a training session the day after opening night in Sydney. Here, they literally show me the ropes: winding them around their arms to hoist themselves upwards, hanging their bodies horizontally like flags.

Then it's my turn. And when you haven't spent decades practising them, these simple-looking moves prove near impossible. Even merely hanging from the rope and gliding in a circle demands a surprisingly fine degree of muscle control to avoid spinning off course.

It's not like this is my first workout, either: I moonlight as a personal trainer and fitness instructor, and I can knock out a series of pull-ups. But it becomes embarrassingly clear that strength in the gym doesn't translate to strength out in the real world. Without Roman and Vitali to spot me, I probably would have popped a joint.

I predicted the session would be hardest on my shoulders or core. Unexpectedly, it's hardest on my wrists — not only the joints but the skin. I sustained nasty carpet burn dangling from the ropes, and both Tomanov brothers proudly show off hard red calluses on their wrists. ("Shake it out!" they remind me each time I slip out of the ropes.)

After an hour with the brothers, I've learned one thing: how little control I actually have over my own body.

"So we'll see you on stage tonight?" jokes Vitali, after I successfully hang upside down without twisting my shoulders from their sockets. Not tonight, but maybe after a few decades' practice.

Kurios is at Sydney's Entertainment Quarter until November 24; followed by Brisbane January 10-February 9; Melbourne March 12-April 13; Adelaide May 29-June 7. cirquedusoleil.com