Standing backstage on the set of the Cirque du Soleil production Love, I’m surrounded by sumptuous props and a cast of chiseled humans who look as if they could warm up on 5.14. Workers maneuver an eight-foot bicycle wheel across the stage between random performers in extravagant outfits. Out of nowhere, a shirtless guy wearing makeup gets right in my face and flexes his chest muscles. He stares directly into my eyes as his pectorals bounce around like two cats fighting in a sack. It’s awkward until Craig Berman introduces us.
“Keith, this is the Walrus,” Berman says.
The Walrus drops the flexing when he sees who I’m with. Berman, his castmate, plays Her Majesty, the Queen of England, in Love, the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil celebration of the Beatles’ music and legacy. Berman has held a lead in Love since it opened two years ago. Love is about to celebrate its 1,000 performance and the cast is psyched.
Berman, climbing since he was 13, cut his teeth at the Shawangunks of New York. After dropping out of high school to focus on climbing, he went on to Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, where he earned an associates in arts. From there Berman transferred to the University of Utah to be close to rock climbing. Here he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in dance. He then attended Columbia University, where he attained a doctor of physical therapy, worked in a dance troupe called Momix and was a puppeteer of a 20-foot-tall doll. Berman says joining Cirque du Soleil—renowned for recruiting and training the world’s very best athletes and acrobats—wasn’t part of the plan. However, the legendary Broadway puppeteer Michael Curry recommended Berman to Cirque. Berman says he approached his audition as if it were a climbing comp: to have a memorable experience and just enjoy himself. He was the only person chosen from his audition.
“For 20 years, I had the dream to climb 5.14, flash 5.13 and boulder V10,” says Berman. “In some ways it’s depressing that the hardest thing I climbed was 15 years ago.” At age 19, he sent his first 5.14a, Terminator, in Kingston Quarry, New York. “But I gave up climbing hard for a number of years so I could focus on dancing.”
Berman now resides in Las Vegas, close to year-round rock, and in the last two years, he has sent a handful of 5.13s, including a flash of Called Beyond Reason (5.13b) in Red Rock. Last year he established an unrepeated V11, also at Red Rock.
“For me, dancing and climbing fulfill many of the same elements. Both are passions based on movement, yet we know there is so much more: traveling to remote places, camaraderie, the success of a solid effort. I don’t regret taking a decade off from climbing to dance. If anything, all my years of dancing have made me a better climber, and I have a lifetime ahead of me to enjoy climbing.”