Circus + Dance = Cirque Du Soleil

By Berardi, Gigi | Dance Magazine, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Circus + Dance = Cirque Du Soleil


Berardi, Gigi, Dance Magazine


ON A LATE SUMMER DAY IN LAS VEGAS, A NERVOUS NATASHA Chao is learning perhaps her most gravity-defying Feat to date with Cirque du Soleil. Trained in gymnastics with a touch of classical ballet, the 28-year-old performer is the first woman to perform the Red Bird character in Cirque's Mystere. The feat she is learning was in the original choreography for the show and has since been dropped, it is a headfirst free fall of sixty feet, in which she curves her spine upright at the last minute before contact with a salary net.

Chao enjoys performing Red Bird, for, with her flair for the outrageous, she is comfortable with the interpretation and improvisation that Cirque du Soleil encourages. And, like other Cirque artists, she is a performer with impeccable timing and keen spatial awareness, She cannot afford injury, so she must he cautious; there are no understudies.

Cirque du Soleil ("Circus of the Sun" in French) hears the same relationship to a sawdust-and-peanuts circus that a Ferrari has to a pickup truck. There's nil booming-voiced ringmaster, no lion tamer--in fact, no animals at all. Familiar acts are reinvented so that gymnasts with eerie double-laced masks slither up poles; pear-shaped creatures in padded Spandex catapult from teeter-boards and trampolines: and dancing lizards and courtly acrobats in white wigs and breeches somersault over burning candelabras and fly through the air in aggressive aerial ballets. Each show is conceived as a unit, with its own title, look, and theme. Everything from the thunderous Wagnerian music to the performers' skin-tight unitards and birdlike headdresses reinforces the show's sleek, aerial character. Even the transitions are choreographed with military precision.

Yes, choreographed. Most Cirque performers are grounded in gymnastics and athletics, but all take movement classes as well. And then there are the out-and-out dancers--in Mystere (1993), for example, there are Oscar C. Hawkins and Rebecca Prince as Birds of Prey, Ruta Jasiukaitis as La Belle, Annick Moreau as The Black Virgin, and Fabrice Garcia and Phillippa Hayball as Lizards. The dancers appear during and between acts, providing some continuity to its loose, celebration-of-life story line. Another Cirque show, O, features acrobats who perform atop a floating barge with balletic prowess and dancers who grand jete along the rim of the set's mammoth indoor pool of water.

CIRQUE'S CHOREOGRAPHER, Debra Brown--who choreographs the "look" of a show in addition to its formal movement--says she knew from the age of 9 that dance would be her life. After choreographing for dance companies such as Experimental Dance and Music in Vancouver and the Victoria Arts Collective in Victoria, British Columbia, as well as for professional gymnasts, she fell under Cirque's spell in 1986 and joined the company the following year. Her early training in gymnastics, dance training in college (she majored in modern dance at York University in Toronto), and physical education work (in which she received a second baccalaureate degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario) have served her well with Cirque.

"There is certainly something to be learned by cross-referencing, by looking at other art forms and learning different ways to give expression to your passion to move and perform," Brown said in a telephone interview. "One thing all of the Cirque artists share in common is a passion for doing art. Circus performers, who risk their lives, are the most passionate."

A case in point is Chao, a Canadian who joined the cast of Mystere in 1993 and has performed the role of Red Bird (though not the risky fall) since 1999. "For my Cirque audition, we had to do crazy things--improvisation, acting, dance," she recalls. "It was very strange. Now I can't imagine being anywhere else. The work is so theatrical, the way the acts come together--it's like a melting pot. …

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