Cirque du Soleil is like watching one of your dreams happen as a spectator. The performers are a combination of acrobats, gymnasts and athletes who somehow are also excellent actors. Classic clown-like circus acts meet children’s fairy tales in the latest Cirque installment, titled Varekai. Varekai was in Ottawa over the weekend, but will continue on the road for the upcoming year. When it concludes, over 8 million people will have seen this production.
The production alone can be mind boggling. Contortionists and jugglers warm up backstage, demonstrating only 56 performers of the 125 person production. Approximately 170 people travel with the show, and Cirque itself employs over 5,000 people. The production takes over two years of planning before coming to fruition, and then tours for years to come.
The wardrobe department is extensive, with 400 employees in it alone at the headquarters specializing in things like wig making and shoe design. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of materials, wigs and machines are used as every piece of a costume is custom made. 33,000 hours of work goes into making the wardrobe for the show, and because of the nature of Varekai’s tumbles and falls, they are constantly in need of repair. It takes 250 hours a week to maintain the impeccable appearance of the costumes, and 6 people travel with he production to repair and restore them.
The acrobats onstage during rehearsal don harnesses with pullys and cranks attached. “In the show, they’ll probably do a double. In the training, they’ll do a triple with the belt on.” Art director, Michael Smith, told me, “They need to be able to do more than what we’re asking them to do in order for them to deliver it.” It’s a good thing for it, because the acrobatics are pretty dangerous. Some are suspended high above the stage on wrist straps and aerial hoops, or supported by a strap behind their neck alone. Some of the costumes need to be flame resistant.
The performers include trapeze acrobats, strongmen and contortionists making the magical cast hard to look away from. Two singers accompany them onstage, and a mini-orchestra of musicians play string instruments to score the show. Combined with lights and ever changing landscape of the stage, the performance is delightfully overwhelming for all of the senses. Every age group was well served, with cheap slapstick entertainment for the kids and some more tongue-in-cheek humour for the adults thrown in for good measure.
The show isn’t in English; instead it relies on animalistic sounds from the performers in order to move the storyline along. The reason for this is likely to do with the fact that the production tours worldwide, and the cast itself is made up of people from almost every continent. While Cirque’s headquarters is close-by in Montreal, it’s employs over 25 different nationalities and have 9 common languages amongst them.
The lack of words make it a bit hard to follow at first, but luckily it doesn’t exactly have a thick plot. A man (Icarus) falls from the sky in a loose adaptation of the Greek myth. The magical forest he falls into has a colourful assortment of characters that dance around him as he searches for the object of his affection he met shortly after his fall. Georgian dancers, trapeze artists and clowns make up the filling acts, rounding out the experience so there are no lulls.
Russian Swings are incorporated for a dangerous and exhilarating effect. “Going from swing to swing is not very common, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it anywhere.” Smith says, “But we’re Cirque du Soleil, so we have to reinvent something.” The acrobats swing from one swing and leap through the air onto the other, a moving platform like the one they left. This is infinitely harder that simply leaping off of the first, as the spot you’re trying to hit is moving.
All in all, both behind the scenes and the show itself was mind blowing. The amount of detail and expertise put into planning the production is astounding, and its clear to see why the Cirque is so well known. After Ottawa, the tour has moved into the states and will return to Canada later this year to hit Toronto.