Montreal Gazette: “Crystal puts Cirque du Soleil on ice”

In discussions a few weeks back with the cast and crew of Crystal at the Sears Centre in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, every single person connected with the new Cirque du Soleil show very quickly got to the topic of ice. Crystal, which is set to be performed at the Bell Centre from Dec. 20 to 31, has many familiar elements from the Cirque catalogue, including juggling, swinging trapeze, pole numbers and eye-catching aerial numbers. But there’s no escaping the main difference between Crystal and every other Cirque show: this one takes place on an NHL-sized rink.

The Cirque took Crystal on the road to secondary markets in the U.S. in the fall to get ready for its Quebec première, with performances in Lafayette, La.; San Antonio, Texas; Little Rock, Ark.; St. Charles, Mo.; Minneapolis and Hoffman Estates. It premièred in la belle province Wednesday, at Centre Vidéotron in Quebec City.

“I think the challenge for us was to tame the element of the ice,” said Fabrice Lemire, Crystal’s artistic director, sitting in the stands of the Sears Centre just hours before a performance of the show there. “Understanding what kind of discipline we can bring into this element.

“We also had to find acrobats who are willing to learn about the ice — to not only learn to be comfortable in their own discipline, but also to learn how to skate. Because all the performers in the show will at one point be on skates. It doesn’t mean they’ll do the entire show on skates, but the acrobats are required to learn skating skills.”

How different is Crystal? Well, even the clown, who does some juggling, is on skates. Eighteen of the 40 performers are professional skaters, and the other 22 are acrobats. Lemire figures about 10 of the acrobats had some kind of skating skills before joining the show. The Cirque brought in some high-powered talent to help with on-ice technique, including four-time Canadian figure-skating champ Kurt Browning.

Emma Stones, one of the acrobats in Crystal, hails from Whitby, Ont., so perhaps unsurprisingly she already had some skating skills. But the École nationale de cirque graduate said working on the ice for Crystal was a whole new ball game. She does her swinging trapeze number wearing skates.

“It was a huge challenge at first because it changes a lot about weight and timing,” said Stones. “You’re used to your own body and feeling how your own body moves. Having the skates on, it adds this other weight that you’re not used to. Also, the fact that there’s a blade, it changes the way you balance on a trapeze, the way you feel on a trapeze. We’re used to using our feet and feeling everything. So in the first weeks and months of training, it was really a whole new adaptation.

“I found it fun, because we’re used to doing the same tricks over and over again. The fact that we added a new element was a new challenge. It was like learning a new way to do what I’ve done for so long. … I’ve never had ice as an element in the performance world, and so just the fact that our stage is ice changes everything for us. We’re so used to using the ground. Having the skates on for trapeze, it completely changes the way we do trapeze.”

Perhaps it could be dangerous to perform high-wire acrobatics with sharp blades on the bottom of your feet.

“A lot of people ask me that, but knock on wood, so far our feet tend to stay away from our face,” replied Stones. “So far, so good.”

When I first talked to Crystal co-directors Sébastien Soldevila and Shana Carroll in September, at a media preview of the show at the JC Perreault sports complex in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan in the Lanaudière region, they were a little taken aback when I told them grumblers were already dissing the show on social media. The Twitter complainers were comparing it to Disney on Ice and suggesting the Cirque was making a desperate attempt to grab a piece of the lucrative kids’ ice-show business.

At the Sears Centre, Carroll said their hope is that Crystal will be very different from those Disney-style shows. She said they’re innovating and trying to revolutionize ice shows the way the Cirque revolutionized traditional circus when it started wowing audiences in the mid-’80s.

“There are people doing innovative ice shows,” said Carroll. “But more often there’s an ice-show format — there’s a formula. The point of this show is to not fall into any formula and create a whole new form. One of our goals was, people who love skating would love the show but people who don’t like skating would love the show. We wanted to transcend any of the expectations.”

There is a story to Crystal, as much as any Cirque du Soleil production has a story. It focuses on a young woman named Crystal who feels alone and misunderstood. One day, while strolling on a frozen pond, she falls through the ice and ends up in an imaginary parallel world, where she meets a reflection of herself. Need I tell you that she ends up learning some important lessons about trusting her inner creativity? In short, it’s a long way from Disney on Ice.

“I believe the story has a depth and a relate-ability for both adults and children. Whereas Disney on Ice, I brought my child there and she loved it, but I felt more like accompanying my child but I wasn’t myself having a great cultural experience,” said Carroll.

“I think this works on both levels. On the one hand, there’s something the children might respond to, and on the other hand, it’s a very artsy, beautiful show that adults respond to.”

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Finding the right footwear was a challenge for Crystal’s team

Julie O’Brien, head of wardrobe for the Cirque du Soleil ice show Crystal, notes that her department takes care of everything from wigs to costumes to shoes. In the case of Crystal, the footwear includes skates.

In the show, the performers wear figure skates, ice-dance skates and hockey skates. Each artist has three or four costumes, and there are lots of quick changes throughout the show. All costumes come with full-length zips that run from ankle to ankle, which allows the performers to change out of them without taking off their skates.

Shoes were a challenge for the wardrobe department, because they had to be suited to walking on ice. The Cirque produces its own shoes, churning out some 1,200 pairs in its Montreal workshop every year, and they are adapted to each show.

The dilemma was the shoes had to have something metallic on the soles to dig into the ice, but the performers often land on one another’s hands, so they had to come up with something that wouldn’t cause injuries.

“I’ve done shoes before, but it’s very difficult with ice,” said O’Brien, who has worked in the London theatre scene for 20 years. “I really had to think outside the box. It’s completely different. With Cirque, our No. 1 priority is safety. They need to be stable, but we also need the performers not to be stabbed. It was a big challenge to figure out how to do it. We don’t want anyone to be hurt.”

The performers also have gloves with a piece of Velcro across the palm, and a plastic plate that has crampons attached so that they can put their hands right on the ice and breakdance.

{ SOURCE: Brendan Kelly, Montreal Gazette | }