Stage alchemy 

Acrobatic performance. Acting. Art forms from around the world. Imaginary worlds. Dance. Daring. Dexterity. Grace.

Cirque du Soleil's website lists these eight characteristics in defining what the Quebec-based entertainment company is "all about."

But one characteristic is missing from that list. One element that artists and crew refer to over and over again backstage. A piece that may be tied more to the all-encompassing mystique of their performances than any other.


In Cirque's Dralion, coming to the World Arena from Feb. 22 through 26, that means attention is paid to each of the 52 artists, as well as the crew of 40-plus, in ensuring they're happy and healthy while pushed to challenge themselves personally and professionally.

And it pays off on stage.

Clown drama

Argentinian Facundo Gimenez is one of three clowns in this arena show. He's a young-looking 27, who's been performing in some form — clowning, dancing, trapeze — since he was 7. With Cirque, he's taken part in Dralion and the former Madison Square Garden show Wintuk. His wide smile and alert hazel eyes betray his enthusiasm even before he opens his mouth.

"Most of the time I love what I do, and I love this," he says, with a sweeping glance around Loveland's Budweiser Events Center before Dralion's 400th show earlier this month. (Disclosure: Cirque paid the way for two Independent employees to stay in Loveland for interviews and to see the show.)

"You know, I am a lucky guy," he adds, "because not many people can do what they love, and with money, and, you know. I have the choice. I choose this company because I like it. I choose to be a clown because I like it."

Gimenez and his two companions aren't your typical slapstick, American circus entertainers, "with a red nose and a colored costume," shoving themselves into a miniature car. Instead they play European-style clowns, helping to transition acts in Dralion, using what he says is "visual comedy," and speaking made-up theater "gibberish" that has "Italian soul."

"We are free to explore, and we are free to improvise. If [a] lady [is] eating popcorn, I will sit on [her] legs and start eating popcorn with the lady.

"It's a good thing that this show gives free space to the clowns to enjoy the most possible, and keep fresh the acting moments."

What did you say?

Freshness aside, someone's got to make sure the show comes together, and holds together. Those tasks fall to artistic director Sean McKeown and artistic assistant director James Santos. They're the "keepers of the vision" for Dralion — a vision, Santos says, that takes "the ancient Chinese acrobatic tradition and [mixes] it with the avant-garde of Cirque du Soleil."

Of course, doing that first means getting your words across. And with the Chinese emphasis of Dralion (25 of the current 52 artists are part of the Chinese Performing Agency, from Shendong, China) there are some special language issues. None of the CPA members speak English.

But it's just part of doing business the way Cirque does. Members come to the company from all over the world — in Dralion's case, 16 different countries — so even though English is the primary language on tour, translators are brought in to assist.

"Sometimes we'll be giving directions in Chinese and then we'll turn around and talk to somebody in Russian," Santos says, "or we'll talk to everybody in different languages all at once. ... Those of us who don't know other languages, we try to learn as much as we can, too. And 'please' and 'thank you' go a long way in every language."

Those things, and snowballs. After the show in Loveland, when a few CPA performers walk between the events center and the hotel through a couple inches of freshly fallen snow, it's not long before they're lobbing packed balls at one another and audience members, grinning and laughing like grade-schoolers.

"We're like this little United Nations working here and travelling," Santos says. "And we have built good relationships, so it's nice. ... We speak with the artists daily [about] what their condition is, how we can help them get to the next level or encourage them."

Making sure each member of that family can perform at 100 percent every day is part of the reason Cirque travels with company physical therapists, coaches and even caterers. Five days a week, for at least two meals a day, company members have access to nutritious food — "We're not talkin' deli and cheese trays. We're talking nice meals," Santos says — a full salad bar, a fresh juice bar, fancy desserts. Dinnertime in Loveland includes all of this plus that evening's feature, a stir-fry bar. As company members choose veggies and proteins from some 25 choices, two chefs toss and sauce and talk shop while they wait.

Cirque takes pride in providing the best, which often includes culturally specific and/or locally sourced items. "Our caterers definitely go into using local food," Santos says. "The spinach looks a little different depending on where we are."

Made to fit

Smells of varnish waft backstage as props technician Kevin Chang re-coats the handle of a musical saw to a pristine shine. One of the clowns will use it in Dralion to serenade another, and Chang wants it to shimmer under the lights.

At 27, Chang has been with Cirque for three years, having left his home in Hong Kong to travel with Dralion. He's responsible for two trucks of props, ensuring they get from place to place safely, and are prepped and ready to be used each night. He shows off a hairpiece made to fit a clown's head perfectly, and his face lights up as he describes how it's constructed and what the clown will do with it in the show.

Thirty yards away, one of Cirque's cobblers (or "shoe technicians") is repairing one of the approximately 180 pairs of shoes used by the performers in each show. Stacy Teague, originally from Maryland but now of Belfast, says all of Cirque's footwear is custom-made — from the bright red, tall laced boots worn by Yao, god of fire, to Gimenez' black-and-white high-tops, to the form-fitting athletic shoes the trampoline acrobats don that help them parkour off a 26-foot wall.

Over in wardrobe, department head and Londoner Melody Tatania Wood explains how performers go through lengthy measurement processes in Montreal for everything they'll wear. Costumes are not stock-purchased; they're cut and sewn to fit each individual's body.

Similarly, Wood says, performers go through involved make-up training. She shows off drawer after drawer of brightly hued Mac, Ben Nye and Make Up For Ever cosmetics as she explains how the artists meet with a make-up professional who selects products and designs a look specifically to fit each person's facial features. As she describes it, we want to "make them look as beautiful as they can."

Fanning the flame

Dralion's storyline, loosely, deals with man versus nature. Each act is represented by an element: earth, fire, water or air. Costume colors are vivid blues and reds and greens, designed intentionally to portray specific ideas on stage. Wood describes one pant style, worn by those representing the god of fire, as not only mimicking the 20-foot tall bamboo poles they play with, but also as looking like "the licking of the flame."

As the show moves from act to act — acrobatic juggling, aerial hoop, wall trampoline, group jump rope, etc. — one performer floats in and out. Jonathan Morin, as the character Kala, rolls about the stage in two large metal rings. Morin designed this "crossed wheel" contraption, which represents the circle of life, and his body arches and bends with it as though the two are one.

In Cirque, the artists move with the grace of their own bodies. Yes, they follow a vision, a script and a live musical guide (which in Dralion ranges from Chinese to African to Native American to a very odd Southern country hoe-down) but within that, Cirque allows for a leniency that lends an individual charm.

It's like magic.

Gimenez, the clown, smiles at the end of his interview.

"For us, too."



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