Something spectacular under the sun

In April, Cirque Du Soleil performed in St. Petersburg and is scheduled to come to Israel in July.

Cirque Du Soleil (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cirque Du Soleil
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While it has long been said that there is nothing new under the sun, creative minds are constantly striving to counter that claim. In the realm of entertainment, Cirque du Soleil outdoes itself year after year, putting an extraordinary, ever-novel spin on performance art.
The company, whose name is French for “circus of the sun,” is the largest theatrical producer in the world. A deftly choreographed combination of spellbinding dance, theater, gymnastics, aerial artistry, colorful costumes and dramatic lighting effects, enhanced by original music played live on stage, every Cirque du Soleil production is a scintillating experience of exquisite fantasy. With 1,200 highly skilled performers from 23 countries, the traveling company has been wowing audiences worldwide since its inception as a small Canadian troupe in 1984.
And it is coming to Israel in July.
Ahead of Cirque du Soleil’s arrival for its July 2-16 performances at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena, a small group of Israeli journalists recently traveled to Russia, where the company was performing, to talk to the cast and crew, take a look behind the scenes and see their show Quidam at the 4,000-seat Ice Palace sports and concert complex in St. Petersburg.
Cirque du Soleil has 20 productions under its belt, with intriguing names such as Alegria, Kooza, Varekai, Dralion, Ovo, Amaluna and Zarkana. Every show has a theme and a story line, which unfolds amid a stunning array of spectacular sequences of artistic derring-do, set to haunting music. Using a wide range of equipment such as ropes, rings, trapezes and hoops, and contorting their bodies into positions that don’t seem physically possible, the performers whirl and twirl, spin and swirl and veritably fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Even a simple skipping rope becomes a source of awe in the hands of these skilled acrobatic artists.
In Israel, Cirque du Soleil will present Quidam, the story of a lonely young girl named Zoe who finds meaning and fulfillment through a series of fascinating strangers. The Latin word quidam means “anonymous passerby,” and the word zoe means “life” in Greek, so an underlying message is that our lives can be enriched by encountering the seemingly faceless people we see in a crowd – and that each of us is a quidam with the capacity to encourage and inspire others.
“Quidam is my favorite show,” says British-born artistic director Michael Smith, who has been with Cirque du Soleil since 2005. “It has all the magic of Cirque du Soleil, but this show has more – it is based on human experience: What you give out, you receive. There is a whole other world going on, and you see different layers every time. I have seen the show many times, and each time I see something different. Everything has a metaphor or a symbol to it, whether you recognize it or not.”
Quidam is about the tragedy of being in a relationship that is not fulfilling, he elaborates.
“Zoe goes to her mother and father but doesn’t get the attention she wants.
Quidam gives her a look into her own universe.
Quidam is the exploration of what she sees and how it impacts on her. We’re all connected. Everything is there for the taking if you’re open to it,” he says.
On stage – as in life – no matter where the main attention is focused, there are many other things going on at the same time. You may be looking at Zoe or the juggler or the children skipping, but there are also other performers on the high wire or dancing around in the background.
As the various quidams perform spine-tingling aerial acts without a net or safety mats, one wonders about the risk factor in this and all other Cirque du Soleil shows.
“That’s what people come to see,” says Smith. “The key to minimizing risk is education and training. We always have an emergency medical team on hand, and physios travel with us.
But in our 20 shows, it is very rare that any accidents have occurred.”
The biggest problem the company has, he adds, is audience members using flash cameras.
“The ushers must go over to stop them,” he says. “People are tempted to take a photo of a static act, such as a dramatic number like Silk.”
Smith is referring to the Aerial Contortion in Silk, created and performed by 25-year-old Julie Cameron from Scotland. Using two long parallel strips of red silk fabric suspended from the ceiling, the former championship gymnast twists and gyrates in the air, wrapping herself in the strips and maneuvering her body into dozens of intricate, graceful positions.
“I saw my first Cirque show when I was 14,” Cameron recounts. “I joined the company at 17 and have been with them for eight years.”
Cameron, a wisp of a girl, says she does all the choreography for Silk herself.
“You have to be flexible and strong,” she explains. “It burns in the back and the thighs, so I use resin and a little water, which dries the perspiration.”
A consummate professional, she says she feels no fear while entwining herself in the fabric in mid-air. In fact, she says, “Sometimes I feel safer upside- down [on the silk strands] than crossing the street.”
Cameron participates in two additional acts in Quidam – the Pyramid and Aerial Hoops.
Another one of the many acts is that of Toto the clown. Needless to say, he is not your standard circus clown with a fuzzy wig and red nose. Classically trained in clowning and comedy in Paris, the Buenos Aires-born Guillermo Castineiras joined Quidam in 2004. In his act, he regales the crowd by bringing out the inherent humor in others.
Selecting four audience members at random, he takes them on stage and wordlessly directs them in a melodramatic scene that elicits gales of laughter, as well as applause, from the audience.
But, he explains, the selection is not as random as it looks.
“I pick people from their vibe,” he says. “I have learned how to ‘get’ a person. I know if he or she will be shy or silly or good. I feel it from the vibe and the look in the eyes. The biggest thing I learned here is getting the sense of a person.”
On a larger scale, he also “gets” his audiences as a whole.
“People are always different. It makes you pay attention,” he says.
“Audiences are different not only from country to country but also from city to city. Big cities are harder to work. Large cities are more dynamic, and the audience expects more. Small cities play better. And [audiences at] matinées are different from night shows.”
As for the art of being a clown, “You have to be very present in the moment on stage. You have time to think about things the rest of the time. The more you are yourself, the better. There are clowns that are really stupid. I hate clowns,” he says.
THE TRAVELING troupe performs a minimum of 300 shows a year.
“We have 19 trucks on the road filled with equipment and wardrobe trunks, 22 full-time technicians and 80 local stagehands,” says Montreal-born publicist Jessica Leboeuf.
The company has 5,000 employees and 1,200 performers worldwide.
With a cast and crew from 23 countries, the language of communication is English “and a lot of hand gesturing,” she adds.
Cirque du Soleil has been performing Quidam for the past 20 years.
“Each artist brings a little of themselves,” Leboeuf explains.
“And the musicians and singers can riff a little on their own. Sometimes a singer will add in the name of a friend or family member who is in the audience. It [these added elements] keeps the show fresh for the audience and the performers.”
Not only is the music original in all the Cirque du Soleil shows, but the songs are written in an invented language, which sounds just familiar enough to be recognizable – but not quite.
Although the company travels the globe with its shows, its headquarters is in Montreal. The immense facility in St. Michel houses the administration offices, accounting department and human resources. There are also three training studios that are so large, “a whole show can fit in there,” says Leboeuf. That is where the performers train and learn new acts, and where shows are remounted.
An entire floor of the facility is dedicated to creating the dramatic costumes for the shows, right down to the shoes and socks. In Quidam there are 2,500 costume pieces, and every item is handmade for each performer, Leboeuf explains. There are 200 different looks, and each character can have as many as seven looks.
“The only things we buy are running shoes,” she says.
IN ST. PETERSBURG, all was well that ended well, both on stage and in the packed stadium. Zoe ultimately reconciles with her parents, and the audience – highly cultured and used to seeing topnotch performances from around the world – responded to the show with thunderous applause and resounding cheers of “Bravo!” Words like “extraordinary,” “scintillating” and “exhilarating” do not suffice to describe the spectacle that is Cirque du Soleil. You really do have to see it to believe it.
The writer was a guest of Cirque du Soleil.
Cirque du Soleil will perform at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv from July 2 to 16. For tickets and information: *9066 or