"O" has a cast of 85 characters, and includes acrobats, synchronised swimmers and divers
By Katia Moskvitch
When Nastya Dobrinina joined Cirque du Soleil at the age of 16, she already held a number of gold medals.
But even as she got off the plane in Montreal to go to the Cirque's headquarters, the young highboard diving champion still was not sure what her talent had to do with the circus.
After all, back home in Moscow, the circus was mostly about dancing elephants, acrobats and trained horses - definitely not about swimming pools.
"I didn't know where I was going to be diving from, but I was so young that it didn't matter much. What mattered was that I was going to have a stable job to feed my entire family back in Russia," remembers Ms Dobrinina, now 29.
"My coach saw a different future for me. He wanted me to go to the 1996 Olympics, but I had surgery and wasn't able to recover quickly enough to get in shape. And then I found out about Cirque du Soleil."
So, for the past 11 years, Ms Dobrinina has been a part of the multinational crew of the Las Vegas water show, "O".
Wearing a white costume, she dives from a swing into a swimming pool that magically appears from under the stage at the Bellagio hotel.
Recipe for success
Nastya is not the only Russian to have been hired by this famous Canadian circus, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Altogether, more than 300 of Cirque du Soleil's artists - about a third of the whole troupe - are from Russia and the former Soviet republics.
The circus owes a debt to those countries' tradition of excellence in gymnastics, athletics and the pool. Many of its artists are former Olympic, World or European medal winners.
Cirque's de Soleil is one of the world's most successful travelling shows
The circus's head coach Boris Verkhovsky, a former member of Russia's national acrobatics team, says: "When Cirque du Soleil decided to produce new circus acts using what we call 'elite sportsmen', we knew right away where these sportsmen were going to come from," he explains.
"Gymnasts, acrobats, highboard divers, trampoline jumpers... the biggest number of these sportsmen was in the Soviet Union."
The company has looked after its Russian artists, placing those who, like Nastya, joined Cirque du Soleil as children, into Russian host families.
And those performers have helped Cirque de Soleil become one of the most successful travelling shows in the world, playing to more than 40 million people in more than 130 cities in four continents over the past 25 years.
There are currently eight touring and nine permanent shows, including "O" in Las Vegas.
The loss of so many of its best performers has caused alarm in Russia, and Vadim Gurovich of the Moscow State Circus says is is determined to reverse the drain of talent.
"When so many of the best artists left in the 1990s, it had an effect on the overall quality of the acts that stayed in Russia," he says.
"They were leaving because of a poor financial situation at that time and because Cirque du Soleil was able to offer them more money.
"But now Russian circuses are able to offer even better salaries than abroad, and that's why now people prefer to stay at home."
Nearly a dozen performers from "O" have taken part in the Olympic Games
It is a claim disputed at Cirque du Soleil, where the casting department is still confident it can easily hire the best of the best from any country, including Russia.
And most of the Russian artists I spoke to are happy to be part of Cirque's troupe, made up of 4,400 employees from 66 countries.
"Sometimes I think: 'Hey, maybe I should go back?'" says Ms Dobrinina. "But usually only for a second."
"Cirque du Soleil has helped me see the world, and I don't regret a bit being a part of it."