Matthew Richardson’s journey has followed a circuitous path. For the former Cirque du Soleil performer, you might even say literally, having mastered the art of spinning on the Cyr wheel in everything from a voluminous red dress and heels to nothing but a pair of form fitting oh-so-short shorts and a lot of body glitter during his final performance on the 14th season of America’s Got Talent. Beyond his work with Cirque du Soleil and AGT, Richardson has been creating video projects under his X Circus Series banner which have gone viral in the best possible sense.
So, what is a Cyr wheel, you ask. First, it is pronounced “sear” as in searing a steak. Its shape is like a hula-hoop, but it is big enough for an adult to grasp with two hands while counterbalancing with one’s legs fully extended to spin in a dizzying display of acrobatic prowess. This is not something the average person should attempt without proper supervision. It requires tremendous core strength, balance, agility, and years of training, preferably at an accredited circus school. This is the course Richardson followed when he walked away from his conventional job as a graphic designer at an advertising agency in his native Savannah, Georgia to follow his dream.
What was it that prompted you to leave the routine and security of a conventional job for a career as a circus performer? Was that a difficult decision at the time?
Yeah, it was probably the scariest thing I’d ever done because you have this path that you think you’re supposed to be on and the safe thing to do. And at that point also, my mom was serious about my needing a job and health insurance… So, quitting your job to go be a circus artist was a big leap (no pun intended.) But for me, I just got really bored with the routine and at 26 I knew that if I wanted to try it, my time was running out.
After five years of training at the Circus Center in San Francisco, Richardson found himself at the age of 31 performing in the very show that inspired him as a 17-year-old. “It was an amazing full circle moment.” The Cirque du Soleil show titled Varekai was based on the Icarus myth about a boy whose ambition gets the best of him when he flies too close to the sun. Which could have served as a cautionary tale for Richardson had it not been for his talent, hard work and determination. But after three years as a contract player for Cirque du Soleil and a splashy stint on America’s Got Talent, Richardson was inspired to take another leap of faith to go solo, conceiving and producing projects which channeled his skills to spread a wider message of tolerance, diversity and social justice.
The first of these was a video called “The Arrow” which he filmed with his then-boyfriend Francis, a native of Quebec who also happened to be an extremely fit, good-looking gay man who knew his way around a Cyr wheel. “The Arrow” features the two shirtless acrobats and the progression of their relationship as they take turns on the Cyr wheel and then perform as one. The result is an unapologetic intimate expression of love between two men, a mesmerizing display of physicality and sensuous passion.
The video projects started as sort of a side hobby. The first one I did because my boyfriend at the time did the same apparatus as me, so we were trying to make an act together. The whole time we were training, we were censoring ourselves to not look too gay. And after a while, it started to just feel very frustrating. So, we figured, okay, let’s just do the opposite. Let’s do exactly what we want and tell our own story.
Filming “The Arrow” was delayed several times due to injuries and scheduling conflicts. But as fate would have it, filming coincided with the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. Richardson recalls being devastated by the news and how that infused their performance with a whole new level of relevance. He dedicated the video to the victims of the shooting. Richardson had high hopes but was stunned by the response which has by now garnered 1.8 million views.
I was having news outlets from all over the world writing me to ask permission to use it. I didn’t realize how much you can inspire people from something like this and how much it can give. The number of messages after “The Arrow” was so overwhelming that I knew I should really do more of that any way I can.
“Hallelujah” took on organized religion and LGBTQ Rights.
Richardson is probably best known for his 2nd video which featured two scantily clad, attractive male dancer/acrobats (who also happen to be boyfriends) in Montreal’s historic Church of St. Pierre Apôtre. The five-and-a-half-minute video titled “Hallelujah” set to the song by the same name by Jeff Buckley premiered in May 2019. Matthew met the two dancers, Guillaume and Arthur, through the circus community. While the dance itself was exquisitely choreographed and performed, it was the setting in a historic Montreal church in the heart of Montreal’s gay village which amplified its message of tolerance as a way of disarming those who would use religion as a weapon against the LGBTQ community. The striking juxtaposition of this intimate expression of love between two men against a backdrop of the grandeur and beauty of the church had a profound impact. “Hallelujah” evoked extreme reactions from those lavishing overwhelming praise to religious zealots who sought to brand it sacrilege while ironically continuing to share it to show their brethren just how dangerous this provocative work of art was.
Our interview coming so closely on the heels of the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I was reminded of a clip played on the news of RBG addressing Stanford law school graduates, explaining the difference between a successful career and a meaningful life. RBG told them that to have a meaningful life, you must go outside yourself and find a way to contribute to your community. Does that resonate for you?
Yeah, for sure. I still work as a graphic designer. And I would say that is my ‘job’ job. And while designing web site stuff is fine in that I have income; it doesn’t have meaning beyond that at the end of the day. It does not give anything back. But doing these video projects does. The reason I like doing them is because I think they are meaningful, and they have purpose. When I released that video [Hallelujah], I was nervous to share it. I put about a year of work into it and I was self-conscious. I did not know if people were going to find it as interesting [as the first one]. As it turned out, I found that it had an even deeper meaning because it touched on a lot of pain that the gay community feels based on religion and one’s upbringing and how that can affect our self-image.
Richardson’s videos are also memorable for his use of colored pigment to lend his pieces a touch of magic, or fairy dust if you will. From a practical standpoint, it also allows him to convey a message to underscore the message he is trying to convey visually.
It’s just cornstarch, but it’s colored. It is made for events, like powdered fun runs and stuff like that. But I also knew I wanted to paint a message. I had been using pigment a lot in my own personal acts, in my own solo creations for my own inspiration.
I heard you mention that despite his own religious beliefs, your father was completely accepting of you and really gave you that affirmation. What time in your life did you come out to him? How old were you at the time?
I was 17 when I had the conversation with my dad. But I had talked to my mom a bit about it when I was 14 or 15. So he had some time to sort of digest the situation. By the time I spoke to him about it, he was really ready and really wonderful about how accepted he made me feel.
What was it like growing up gay in Savannah? Did you experience any harassment?
Yeah, I was definitely harassed quite a bit. South Georgia is not a very gay-friendly place. I do not know what the normal amount of harassment is for a gay kid growing up, but yeah, I was teased, and I was picked on. But luckily in high school, we moved north, closer to Atlanta, and that school was a lot more into the arts and more of a friendly environment.
America’s Got Talent: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Tell us about your experience on America’s Got Talent.
Overall, it was very bittersweet. I had a great time, but at some point, you get eliminated and it can be harsh and a bit cruel. So, I would tell anyone that’s going for it, just go for the adventure, go have fun, but know that you will get eliminated at some point and that part won’t be great.
These reality competition shows are known for having segments where the contestants talk about their personal lives. Did you talk about your journey as a gay man?
I don’t think I ever mentioned on the show that I was gay, although I really wanted to. I wanted to share my duo act with my partner Francis. That was my main goal for going on the show. But they never let me. So, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk about that stuff really at all.
I had to ask Matthew about his final AGT performance, the one with him wearing nothing but a pair of black micro shorts with water cascading down his body as he performed on the Cyr Wheel. It was a spectacular performance, which made it more of a head-scratcher when Simon Cowell had the audacity to give his masterful performance the dreaded buzzer. Julianne Hough’s reaction spoke for the rest of America who were mesmerized and riveted. I couldn’t help wondering if Simon giving you the buzzer said more about him and his knee-jerk homophobia to seeing an incredibly fit, good-looking guy performing incredible feats wearing nothing but some body paint, glitter and a tiny pair of short shorts. In fact, the two straight men (Howie and Simon) were both in agreement.
Yes, yes… for sure. One hundred percent yes. Of course, they are not going to love it. I wish the producers had let me wear pants. They did not want me in pants. They wanted me to be in the shorts. My last performance was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done. But you can’t see that. You can’t see how hard it is to hold onto, how much my feet are slipping. Everything is slipping in water, so yeah, I think it is probably my hardest achievement as a performer. I had less than a week to prepare the act just to the point where I could figure out what I was doing.
So how does it work? I know it is filmed in front of a live audience. But if you had slipped or fallen, do they reshoot it or is that it?
AGT would not have let me redo it if I messed up. In some cases, they really like it when mistakes are made because it gives the judges a chance to talk about it and see the reaction from the contestant. So, it was definitely a one-shot-only type of experience.
I also notice that you did a drag character for Cirque du Soleil. The character’s name was L’Amour. How did that come about?
That was another crazy story. While I was touring with Cirque during my first job, I did drag a couple times just for fun, like on the plane, at a Christmas party. It was just a fun thing to do, so I did a little flight attendant number just to be silly. When this director at Cirque was looking for a drag queen, she was asking people, “Hey, do you know any circus artists who do drag?” And somebody mentioned my name and they reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you want to be considered for this drag role?” And I was like, “Holy… oh my god, of course!” My actual act was not so tough, skill-wise. But doing it with heels and a dress made it hard. I had this huge dress that is like a train. It’s like this huge fabric and I would get my heels stuck in it all the time.
Matthew spoke a bit about several new projects he has in the works.
One is about addressing gender identity and what we say is alright for boys versus girls. And the next one I am filming is about racism and the current situation with police brutality and all the protests for George Floyd. It is really to address the hurt within the black community and to express the opinions and feelings of four black artists I have contracted with, one of whom happens to be gay. We will do an interview for each dancer to talk about what they are saying in their piece. It will live as a visual piece by itself with movement and dance and then as a separate video like I have done before where we will do interviews and talk with each artist about the issues. One of them will talk about his experience being a gay black male and how hard that has been because that alone comes with a lot of other challenges besides the obvious.
Armed with plenty of ideas, Richardson explains that the biggest challenge from a practical standpoint is financing these projects.
It’s challenging because these projects are super expensive. And I realize more and more that I cannot continue doing these larger budget productions without making it generate some revenue. So at the moment, I’m trying to find a way to create them in a cheaper way that’s still interesting but can also bring in some kind of revenue or donation, because otherwise I can’t keep doing it.
For more information on Matthew Richardson’s upcoming video projects, you can go to his website HERE.
Last modified: December 11, 2020