TORONTO - Montreal acrobatic choreographer Debra Brown has made people fly with Cirque du Soleil for nearly 25 years, but when she had to do the same for Madonna, she felt like a student again.
"Madonna's impressive," said Brown, who choreographs the Cirque touring show "Quidam" that runs at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum Dec. 20-30.
"Her discipline and her talent — I learned a lot."
The Brantford, Ont., native made the Material Girl soar on her "Drowned World Tour."
She's also moved many other stars, including Celine Dion, Shakira, Wyclef Jean and Aerosmith, with whom she worked on their "Jaded" video and the 2001 American Music Awards. Brown has also choreographed several films, including "Catwoman" and "Van Helsing."
"Aerosmith was a lot of fun. ... Steven Tyler is very funny," Brown, 55, recalled with a laugh in a recent telephone interview from Montreal.
"He has a sense of humour — very spontaneous humour."
Brown has over a dozen Cirque shows under her belt, including "Saltimbanco," "Alegria," "Mystere," "O" and "Michael Jackson the Immortal World Tour."
In 2002, she won an Emmy Award for choreographing a Cirque act for the Academy Awards. She'll next craft two new acts for Cirque's "Viva Elvis" show in Las Vegas.
"I love the challenge of trying to make art with acrobats," said Brown, who got the Innovative Choreography Award at the 1997 Bob Fosse Awards in Los Angeles.
"I've worked with a guitarist and put him on the trampoline, so he's the only trampoline-flipping guitarist in the world. I like to work with music in a physical way."
A trained gymnast who also learned to dance, Brown fell for Montreal-based Cirque in 1986 when she snuck under the big top of a show in Vancouver at intermission.
As she soaked in her first Cirque experience, she said to herself: "'Oh my goodness, they need a choreographer.' That's what I so arrogantly thought," Brown said with a chuckle.
"Then I saw the individual performers the next day at Canada Place so I approached them."
Eventually artistic director Guy Caron added Brown to the creative team.
"I was in the right place at the right time because I had been involved in the men's and women's national gymnastics team, who were friends with Guy, and I knew a clown," she said, noting Cirque was more organic and had just one show back then.
"Everybody was making it up as we go along," she said of Cirque back then. "As the company gains success and expands, like any company, it becomes more corporate because it has to become more organized, for sure.
"It's completely different now but I try to stick to what I believe is really important in creation and that is you have to follow your intuition."
In her early Cirque days, intuition was vital to Brown's job as she didn't speak French and couldn't easily converse with the creative team or with Italian-Belgian director Franco Dragone.
"For most shows he would give me one word and off I would go," she said.
"The word for 'Quidam' was 'simplicity.'"
In "Quidam," which launched in '96, a bored young girl escapes into an imaginary world of free-spirited characters.
Brown said she and Dragone created one of "Quidam"'s acts with Russian artists in Montreal.
She didn't speak Russian and most of them didn't speak English but somehow they made it work.
"Visual was our sense of communication," she said.
"We found a key (emotion) that we could all feel together and thus the movement came about and what transcribed was a piece that had a lot of depth."
"Quidam" will play Oshawa from Jan. 4-8. Other Canadian stops in 2012 include Windsor, Ont., Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton and several dates in British Columbia.