For three decades, Cirque du Soleil has been delighting audiences and defying conventions of what a circus performance can be and what the human body can accomplish. With its unparalleled blend of artistry and athleticism, the company gives international audiences of all ages a vision of what might otherwise seem impossible.
Those moments of magic that celebrate the human, body and mind, are perhaps more important than ever during times of unrest, sorrow and suspicion. Though Cirque du Soleil creates imaginative worlds that swallow up the viewer, it is not truly escapism. It is uplifting and optimistic, categorically uncynical, but in all their artistic complexity, each production refers to bigger ideas and periods of human history.
The beauty of that was perhaps most evident on the morning I spoke with Bruno Darmagnac, artistic director of Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities, which opened for Seattle audiences at Marymoor Park on January 29. The show opened in Montreal, then traveled to Quebec City, Toronto and San Francisco, breaking all the company’s records for attendance.
He was phoning from San Francisco that morning, but his heart was miles away.
“You must forgive me, you should know I’m not in very good place this morning…” he admitted, his charming and musical voice dampened with sorrow. “You see, I am from Paris and there was a horrible terrorist attack there this morning…”
By an uncanny, but unfortunately not uncommon turn of events, I explained that, I too, had awoken to uncertain circumstances—that in my safe hamlet just north of Seattle, a gunman was loose in camouflage pants…a ghost walking the grounds of my son’s elementary school that morning with a long range rife, amidst the dense fog. All the schools were in lockdown. I had no idea where my son was at that very moment. My husband was in place to receive him when they were released. All I could do was wait. I wondered how I would hold it together for the interview on this frigid and eerie morning.
Across the sea or across the street, it was no different. People were out of control. But neither of us want to give into fear or misanthropy. Instead, we bonded over the uncertainty of the future and the horror that was unfolding, two strangers from opposite sides of the planet. We found comfort in our similarities and cracked a small hole through our ennui and disbelief just long enough to let in a ray of light and some much needed laughter.
Leslie Wheatley: Would you say that Kurios is Cirque’s take on a steampunk-themed show?
Bruno Darmagnac: Yes! It was definitely made in that style, which was wanted by Michele Laprise, the director. Each Cirque du Soleil show is very famous for all of its previous shows, to do some strange creatures, you know? Not really human. This one really wanted to put humans on stage, with a face and with this steampunk look. Lots of people can relate to it and it will not go out of fashion for a long, long time…
LW: Who is the team that conceived of Kurios?
BD: It changes with each show. In the beginning, thirty years ago, it was always roughly the same group of creators. But now, for each show the company brings a different group and a different director who will bring whomever he wants to work with. So it is the director’s choice of who will be the costumer, who will be the composer, and all that according to the theme that he wants, all while using the structure and the standards that have been set down by Cirque du Soleil. The creator is free to present what he wants, but it has to match certain standards. Before the show opens, the chairman [owner] of the company has the final say and can change a few things.
LW: Who designed the costumes for Kurios and are there any special characters we will fall in love with?
BD: I hope so! [Laughs] I hope you will fall in love with them.
LW: I took the online quiz and it says I am Clara!
BD: Clara is lovely—really, really. Clara, the artist who does that, is a mime with a very unique way of moving. You cannot take your eyes off her.
The costume designer is Phillipe Guillotel, a Frenchman who worked a lot in opera. He has done lots of big, big shows and I think his strong point is color. He has the talent to marry colors and it is incredible. And, yes, he has created some fantastic costumes.
There is the accordion man—maybe you will see him on some posters for Kurios—a guy with trousers that look like an accordion! So when he is standing up and bending his knees, it’s like he is playing the accordion. And this costume, Leslie, is a bitch to make! [laughs] It’s all made by hand, hours and hours and hours, and it looks sometimes so nice when you see it, you say [making his voice higher pitched] “Oooh look at that it is so much fun,” but there was so much work that went into it.
There’s another character, a guy who has a huge belly that looks like it is made of iron, and inside of this belly lives a little woman, a real little woman, so in the costume there is a character within a character. It’s fantastic.
LW: I’m so excited to see the show! I hear you have a clown in this show, the first official clown to emerge in many years of Cirque’s productions. Why?
BD: Well, you know…what would a circus be without a clown? Lets not forget we are still a circus, and since the beginning the company made a statement to never ever use any animals in our productions, which is something often expected from a circus. In that sense we went, “NO, we will never do that, but clowns..YES.” And this one is a very special clown. And different. We don’t even call him clown, we call him the comic. He doesn’t have a red nose, you know. He doesn’t have colored hair. He’s not spastic, but he has lots of surprises and every single night he brings the house down without saying a word. He has two numbers in the show. In the first part of the show he presents the invisible circus and he speaks and he has lots of props around him. But in the second part of the act, without using a word and with only a sofa, and choosing someone from the public–a lady–he does a 7- or 8-minute act, and it is hilarious! Everybody understands: the children, the adults, the grandparents, everybody laughs. It is not being insulting. It is just very unusual.
LW: Is there a deeper philosophical meaning to the show besides marveling at the acrobatic feats?
BD: Well, this show is not a show about history, but definitely this show preaches about the industrial time, you know, the end of the nineteenth century, where lots of inventions were created and where lots of things were possible, and the future was bright and people could dream, so it’s about that. It’s about the enthusiasm and the joy that you can feel when things are possible, dreams are possible, and whatever you believe in can happen…
LW: So you are saying the acrobats as performers in the show act as an abstract life force, bringing the mechanical dials, knobs, and pulleys to life…. infusing flesh as art, essentially becoming these mortal coils around clock springs?
BD: Um Hummm, YES, YES, YES!!
LW: [Laughs] We are an arts and culture magazine, so I thought I should slip in a question like this.
BD: [Laughing] I like it, I like it! I want to use this quote. The show is called Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities. The Cabinet of Curiosities is about the early modern age, when people had access to strange objects, and things were new, and they were discovering new inventions. So the story is set in a scientist’s laboratory, and there are lots of strange objects, and each one of them is coming to life, and each curiosity is an acrobatic act.
LW: That is so fabulous. I know many people see the acrobats as almost superhuman or even un-human. How does one grow up and decide to be an acrobat?
BD: A lot are coming from sports, from very high-level sport competitions. And you know, this high level of sport is very demanding and at a certain time you have to stop competing. But you still can do amazing things and we are very lucky to have them, because these guys can present to us incredible tricks. So Cirque du Soleil recruits them a little bit everywhere in the world where there are sports competitions and we bring them to Montreal where the HQ of the company is. This is where we have studios and rehearsal rooms and that’s where we train them to give them an artistic side. All of these incredible things they can already do with their bodies, they can do as well with emotion, and that is what we need in our shows.
LW: Describe a typical day for an acrobat who is on the road with Cirque.
BD: They go to bed late, because we work late. Acrobats are finishing at 10:30 at night, and they are still full of adrenaline. Thankfully, we are sold out every night, and the public loves it so it gives them LOTS of adrenaline. We start our training rehearsal at noon. They arrive on site, depending on the training. Every day they warm up and do the rehearsal [or 2 rehearsals] depending on if we have one or two shows. Then they will go and have dinner and then they will start to get ready at 6:30 pm, doing their makeup and another warmup and then the show is at 8 PM. Once their act is done, they have time to cool down. And then after that they go back to their life. They have to be pretty disciplined, pretty regular, we are a very successful show so they are doing nine or ten performances a week. It’s very demanding. They have to be very conscious of how they live their lives.
LW: Yes, their body is an instrument.
BD: Exactly, and what they do is also potentially dangerous. It is not like a dancer who can still do difficult things, but if they fall they do not fall from very high. These guys… what they do is difficult and dangerous, so the instrument must respond perfectly and their mind has to be sharp and it is live, it is every day live and you cannot cheat. If you fall–and this is what I love about acrobats–you get up and you do it again, in front of 2,500 people. So you have to have quite some humility to be able to do that in front of that large an audience
LW: What is the age range for your acrobats?
BM: The youngest acrobats we have are 21 and the oldest is 37.
LW: You are dancer and performer yourself. [Darmagnac trained at the Conservatoire de Danse Marius Pepita in Paris, working with cabarets like Crazy Horse and Paradis Latin.]
BM: Yes, In the Paradise Latin I was a dancer, but in The Crazy Horse I was not, because that show is just about women, the ladies, so in that I was working on the production side.
LW: As well as being a co-creator of FLIC FLAC, a modern traveling circus [in Germany circa 2008]. My question is: If you were given the job of envisioning and choreographing the next Cirque show, the 36th show in the line, what would you love to create?
BM: OOOOFF!! [delighted, amused] It is true, you are right to mention my dancing background. Of course, naturally, I would mix a lot of dancing and acrobatics and I would try to find people who do both. More and more young artists do that, and are good at many disciplines, so if one day I were to create a show for Cirque, for sure there would be a lot of dancing in it. I would think it would be a great next step to be able to have people who can combine the two mediums.
As we said our farewells, ready to turn back to a world in panic and leave our reverie, Darmagnac returned to a tone of professionalism and grace.
“Thank you very much, Leslie! I’m looking forward to being in Seattle, to discover a city where I’ve never been, and I hope that people will enjoy the show, like many have so far.”
I feel quite sure that Seattle audiences will enjoy this new artistic marvel, and I hope that they will give Darmagnac and company the warm welcome they deserve as they celebrate humanity and all its possibilities, especially when the possibilities that we most consider are the worst of all. We all need a little reminder of the our more beautiful potential, and Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios is ready to provide just that.
Cirque du Soleil presents Kurios — The Cabinet of Curiosities
When: January 29 through March 22
Where: Marymoor Park (6046 West Lake Sammamish Parkway Northeast, Redmond, WA 98052)