Health and wellness

How an elite Macau show acrobat keeps in shape: workouts, diet, and his toughest and most important exercise

The House of Dancing Water demands incredible physicality of its acrobats, and they require intensive training before and after the daily shows. Ryan Bartlett, 20, lets us in on the secrets to performing safely 17 metres in the air

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 February, 2018, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 9:19pm

On a recent Thursday afternoon at The House of Dancing Water theatre at the City of Dreams in Macau, several cast members are practising the most dangerous scene of the show known as the Russian Swing.

The HK$2 billion production is the water-based, acrobatic and stunt-filled spectacle envisioned by the chairman and CEO of Melco Resorts and Entertainment, Lawrence Ho, and directed by Franco Dragone. The show, in the seventh year of its run, requires 300 cast and crew and has been watched by more than five million spectators.

A trio of performers are perched on a swing and build momentum on the platform. On reaching a certain height, an acrobat flies off, showcasing his or her aerial prowess, before diving into the water with athletic grace.

“If you don’t have the right technique, you can fall off and land badly and the swing can come back and hit you and kill you, as the swing is so heavy – especially when it has a lot of people on it,” says house troupe performer Ryan Bartlett.

Incredible physicality is on display in The House of Dancing Water scene after scene. Most of the talented performers on show are former athletes, including Olympians. Among the performers is Bartlett, an elite gymnast for 10 years, a London native who joined this production in 2016.

This is the best place for me to start, at age 20, at the best show in the world
Ryan Bartlett

Highlights of his career include winning three bronze medals at the European Games in Baku in 2015 for senior mixed pairs in gymnastics, and performing at the 2012 London Olympics’ closing ceremony. After his last acrobatic competition at the 2015 European Championships (where he won two silver medals), he got an invitation to join the show. Three gruelling months of training later, Bartlett secured his childhood dream, to perform in a circus.

“This is the best place for me to start, at age 20, at the best show in the world. I’m really happy,” he beams. His mum had taken him to a gymnastics class when he was a child, “and I was told I was talented; they asked my parents if I could increase my hours”.

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Content-wise, the training is completely different, but the 20 hours of physical work he does every week is not much of a leap from his 22-hour gymnastics training days.

His most physically demanding scene? A boat sequence featuring around 20 pirates that emerge from underwater and climb up a ship to perform diving stunts. Another is an aerial routine on a chandelier.

“It’s a real mental [challenge], it takes a lot of trust with your partner where you do handstands and throw your flyer,” he said, adding that it’s all good fun.

There are some gravity-defying aerial choreography in the boat and Russian Swing scenes; how do you prepare for those routines and avoid injury?

We have training, a good physiotherapy team and coaching team and they taught us to do them safely. We have yoga and other classes to stabilise our shoulders. If they don’t think we can do it, they tell us. They train us up to it to do these things.

For the high dives [in the boat scene], you start on the boat and jump off at nine metres (30ft), then at 14 metres, then at 16, then 17 metres, so there’s a stepping [training system].

What’s your workout regimen like?

We do 12pm to 3pm training, then perform the 5pm and 8pm shows. We have our own training programme given to us by a personal trainer. I go to the gym after the second show for about an hour and a half. When I wake up, I also go to gym before shows.

What do your gym workouts entail?

I do 10 minutes of cardio to warm up, then hit the weights to get my body ready for the next hours of training.

After the two shows, I head to the gym. If I go to the gym before a show, I can’t work out 100 per cent because you don’t want to get sore and feel like you can’t do your acts. Whereas after shows, I can go at it at 100 per cent.

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What exercises are most important to you?

One of the things I try to do every day is a five-minute handstand against a wall. Mentally, this is a fight for me. Physically I can do it but it’s the thought of holding a handstand for five minutes that I struggle with, but I feel good afterwards.

How does your handstand exercise help in, say, the chandelier scene?

When we push [each other] we have to be tight and strong. For me, that’s the exercise I did every Saturday when I was a gymnast because it makes you physically and mentally strong. It was the worst for me during training but I know if I do it, I’m stronger and able to hold a handstand and hold someone in a one-armed handstand.

What is your recovery routine like?

A lot of cool downs … lots of stretching and mobilising.

If you don’t have the right technique, you can fall off and land badly and the swing can come back and hit you and kill you
Ryan Bartlett

How do you improve mobility?

All your little muscles have to be strong and healthy, if you’ve got a bit of pain you go to physiotherapy for acupuncture or cupping. I don’t do them a lot, but I really like it. It’s a bit freaky seeing all these needles on my shoulder and back.

I love cupping. It makes you feel much better, the pain is not there any more in my back. I get it on my quads and legs, they feel more released and good after.

Do you get massages after shows?

If you have certain back pain, they can message it out. They show us exercises to make us stronger and better, like Pilates. I do Pilates to make sure my back and core are really strong, especially for the chandelier scene.

How many calories do you eat daily? What is your diet like?

I don’t know the number – but it’s a lot, and I eat lots of protein. We have lots of protein shakes in-between shows.

I had a cereal this morning, then I’ll eat whatever’s served at the canteen. For dinner I’d have mashed potatoes, sausages, steak, chicken and pasta, or whatever I want to make. I can burn it all off easily because I’m so active. I eat what I want, really.