Ringmistress of Cirque Du Soleil

By Gesmer, Daniel | Dance Magazine, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Ringmistress of Cirque Du Soleil


Gesmer, Daniel, Dance Magazine


CANADIAN CHOREOGRAPHER DEBRA BROWN BRINGS ORDER AND FANTASY TO MONTREAL'S ACROBATIC SPECTACULAR, CIRQUE DU SOLEIL.

Choreographer Debra Brown can claim that more people have seen live performances of her work than have seen that of most better-known choreographers. Brown has worked on every production of the acclaimed Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil since joining the globe-trotting troupe in 1987. Although most of the performers she works with are formally trained as acrobats rather than as dancers (she prefers to call them simply "movers"), the Cirque is almost certainly one of the world's most widely seen touring theatrical productions that feature dance. As many as 2,500,000 people may see its ninth production, Quidam (pronounced "key-dahm"), during its current North American tour.

The rapidly growing Cirque du Soleil entertainment empire might be described as "Ballets Russes for the end of the century." Its innovative combination of New Age-inspired theatricality, avant-garde set design and costuming, intricate lighting effects, live instrumental and vocal music, award-winning choreography, and spectacular physical display must astonish and enchant audiences in much the same way that Diaghilev's company did at the beginning of the century. Cirque can be said to have truly invented the medium of acrobatic dance-theater.

Other individuals create the themes of the various productions and select the assortment of acts, but Brown is responsible for choreographing the awesome physical feats that are the heart of Cirque's appeal. Currently three different shows are being presented on two continents, and by the end of 1998 six productions will be shown on three continents. Each Cirque performance bears Brown's touch in every handstand, somersault, swing, twirl, and gesture.

Brown was born in Brantford, Ontario (near Toronto). Drawn by a compulsion to spring about on her strong legs, she began studying gymnastics at age nine, eventually becoming Brantford city champion and one of the top university-level competitors in Ontario. Her attraction to dance began at an equally tender age. She says that as a young child she choreographed dances to perform for her classmates or at small neighborhood parades. In high school she choreographed the floor exercise routines of virtually all her fellow gymnasts. (Fortuitously, floor exercise and vault were her favorite events.)

Brown's formal dance education began in earnest with Donna Peterson at the University of Western Ontario in 1973, where she was competing as a gymnast, and continued at York University in 1976, where she majored in dance. There she studied Cunningham technique with Sandra Neels, Graham technique with Norrey Drummond, and ballet with Earl Kraul, Grant Strate, and other teachers from National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. Brown remains grateful to Neels and Drummond for spending extra time helping her body shift from gymnastics to dance.

After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from York in 1978, she moved to Vancouver, where she choreographed, continued her ballet studies with Chiat Goh, and performed with independent groups, such as Experimental Dance and Music. In 1978 she also began an eight-year association with Vancouver's Flicka Gymnastics Club, spending twenty-five hours a week developing a unique blend of dance and gymnastics with a group of eight- to ten-year-old girls. The Flicka group gained international recognition in the world of competitive gymnastics, particularly after two of its members represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics. They also presented innovative performances of expressive gymnastics in an artistic context--good preparation for Brown's current metier.

In 1985 some of Brown's friends suggested that she see the fledgling Cirque du Soleil, which had been founded in Montreal the previous year by an itinerant group of misfit street performers and stilt walkers. When Cirque came to Vancouver for Expo '86 and the Children's Festival, Brown, in classic storybook fashion, literally sneaked under the big top at intermission to watch. …

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