Those of you who’ve met me know I am a champion for experiencing a new Cirque show amongst the hometown crowd. There’s absolutely no substitute for being in the stands of the Grand Chapiteau with a couple-thousand Québécois, clapping and stomping to the show’s beat, having a marvelous time celebrating the birth of a new spectacle. The energy of the artists and the crowd alike is so high their enthusiasm becomes more than a little infectious. It’s a magical, enlightening sentiment you can’t get anywhere else! It’s a truth I first discovered when I stepped on the cobblestoned streets of the Old Port in 2002 for Varekai’s premiere, and I’ve done everything in my power to make sure I repeated that experience from then on – for Corteo (2005), Koozå (2007), OVO (2009), TOTEM (2010), Amaluna (2012), and KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities (2014) – each becoming a unique, but highly memorable encounter.
For LUZIA, it seemed as if my string of good fortune would be interrupted. Two life-changing events occurred within 30-days of each other – all in the month of April – that precluded contemplating a performance during the run in Montreal: the birth of our first child, and the purchase of our first house. Talk about an upheaval! There was absolutely no way to reach Montreal by summertime, was there? As it turned out… friend and fellow fan José Pérez (The Chapiteau), who had just come off of an amazing experience at TORUK’s premiere at the Bell Centre in Montreal in late December, really wanted to experience a premiere under the big top. And not wanting to miss out on the fun we put our collective heads together and chose a date… It would take some maneuvering on my part to make it happen, but, I managed! And although we would see the show a month after its world premiere, our excitement for being there wasn’t diminished in the slightest.
Despite a few hiccups arriving in Montreal (my flight was delayed out of La Guardia, putting me in Montreal about three hours later than originally planned; forcing us to face rush hour traffic from the airport, almost causing us to miss the show on the first night!), we had a fantastic time in Montreal. Now, allow me to take you through the “waking dream” that is LUZIA by using various Cirque Press Room materials and a bit of my own observations…
From the very moment Cirque du Soleil began teasing this new creation it was obvious we were in for something unique, even more than the steampunk infused aesthetic of KURIOS-CABINET DES CURIOSITÉS. The media ramp-up to KURIOS’s debut was a bit unconventional, releasing its own unique brand of mysterious yet inviting teasers, but LUZIA seemed even more peculiar. What were these visuals featuring a silhouette of a lady/cactus running through a kaleidoscope of colorful images and strange creatures, all set to a house-techno beat? How bizarre! Was Cirque on acid or was someone at marketing embracing their ADHD tendencies? As such many fans were perplexed, unsure what to make of the new concept – me included – which provoked generally mixed-to-negative reactions, at least initially. The purpose of – or at least artistic reasons for – the hummingbirds and fish-headed people eluded us and the fandom immediately began comparing LUZIA to the company’s vast array of classic productions (which were better, as argued), even before we knew anything more than the show was based on the artistic expression and richness of modern Mexico.
In the weeks that followed, as we learned more about the production’s theme, technologies, acrobatics, music, and performers, many fans – again, me included – became ever more excited about the show’s prospects. And when it was announced that a studio album would be available even before the show officially held its debut, well, it brought the fans to fever pitch. But there was a caveat: the album would take Carpentier’s original music written for a live acoustic setting and pass it through the filter of the electro-pop of Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible (real names: Ramón Amezcua and Pepe Mogt), infused with brassy Mexican and Latin American sounds. It would be another inspired by album.
It’s an unprecedented move, but not unexpected. Although it would normally take months for an album to be recorded, mixed, and released after the debut of a new show (touring or otherwise) – naturally because the show is still in creation and its musicians are really busy, it’s neigh impossible to take them out of that environment early for recording session – it all came down to business. Montreal, Toronto, and San Francisco are big markets for Cirque du Soleil… and one of the biggest souvenir sellers wherever they go is – you guessed it – the music album. So, with a mandate to bring product to the people as soon as possible, the only way to get that accomplished was to outsource its creation.
And in that process, they asked themselves: “Why don’t we find some producers that we like who are in Mexico, people who really live their culture?” Slain and Simon agreed that Nortec Collective carried the real sound of their country, very current and also forward-thinking. “They have this spirit and sound in the groove, and in the instruments. [Their music] is modern, it’s surprising, it’s unusual, and all of the colors from the sound of Mexico are there.” And, though we didn’t know it at the time, two of the songs featured in the aforementioned videos were produced by Nortec Collective for the teasers – “Asi es la vida” and “los mosquitos”. And according to Alain Vinet, they did such a good job with those two he asked them to produce the whole album with them. The music on the album is quite different from what you’ll hear in the show, but as Simon Carpentier pointed out in an interview with Billboard Magazine “it’s the same composition, all the melodies are there.” And he is right, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Cirque du Soleil already opened JOYA at the Grand Mayan Resort in the Riviera Maya (with a distinctive Mexican-themed production), and is currently developing a Themed Resort (with attractions) complex in Puerto Vallarta – both in Mexico. Why did Cirque need yet another show based on/in Mexico? Perhaps two things: first, JOYA is a 45 DEGREES produced show (a separate entity, but still under the umbrella of the Group du Soleil), but perhaps more importantly, it was a show that’s been well received. Its success gave the company the idea to go for a bigger show, one that could go on tour. The reasoning makes even more sense when you understand that the Mexican government agreed to invest in and fund LUZIA to the tune of $47 million dollars in a move to promote the country’s culture, history, and music. (Alas, it’s a move many artists in the country are against by the way – a petition sent to the Mexican Government decried this use of money, when it could have been better spent locally on schools and other resources.) So is that all the show is… a plea to get visitors to Mexico, an advertisement paid for by the country’s government? ¡Por supuesto no! (Of course not!)
If you can imagine a Cirque du Soleil show that is creatively and freely inspired by the richness of Mexican culture in all its exhilarating spirit, then you’ve conjured LUZIA-A WAKING DREAM OF MEXICO. Through its set design, costumes, acrobatic performance, and music, LUZIA (loo-zee-ah), fusing the sound of “luz” (light in Spanish) and “lluvia” (rain) – two elements at the core of the show’s creation – becomes a poetic and acrobatic ode to the rich, vibrant culture of a country whose wealth stems from an extraordinary mix of influences and creative collisions – a land that inspires awe with its breathtaking landscapes and architectural wonders, buoyed by the indomitable spirit and mythology of its people – some of which may not seem connected at first glance.
The key is that there is not one, but many Mexico’s. Mexico is an ever-evolving country as complex as it is diversified. It is the result of an extraordinary mix of influences from abroad over the course of many centuries. It’s easy to find images loaded with stories, colors, raw power, spirituality, wisdom, vitality, and beauty. Mexico’s culture is monumental. Its peoples have built cities of stone and great temples like mountains, seeking to replicate here on earth the architecture of the planets and stars. But it’s also the sensuality of a land where music is for dancing, where a simple song can plunge us into emotion and propels us, in tears, into the arms of a friend or loved one. There are other melodies that transport us into parallel worlds, where all of a sudden we are overwhelmed by the sonorous textures of modernity.
Instead of representing Mexico in a realistic fashion, Daniele Finzi Pasca and Julie Hamelin, co-writers of LUZIA, and Brigitte Poupart, Associate Director decided to create an evocation of this monumental country by imagining a dream woven from memories, experiences and encounters, laden with inspirations deeply rooted in the Mexican identity. But even this invented Mexico is complex and multifaceted, hence the idea of a journey – in both the literal and figurative sense – through a series of fragments, all highly meaningful and evocative. It’s a voyage into a world of hallucination, where allusions to contemporary art and age-old traditions lull us for an instant; simple encounters with the fantastical ordinary, with magical realism and with poetic reality, with the faces of men and women who surprised as they strolled through markets and across squares, traveled by bus and strolled along vast beaches from one end of this colorful country to the other.
These details and more guided and led them on a surreal voyage of the imagination. Each scene then is the sublimation of a tiny aspect, an emotive fragment of this country where rain hits every town and village differently, where light is an emotional experience, where cultures overlap and nature is made up of deserts, rain forests, beaches, and mountains. The show is also based on themes such as speed, monumentality, rain in all its manifestations, surreal animal life, and a poetic vision of reality. “There will be red and pink, cobalt blue, water falling as rain, tracing stars charted on the roof of the big top, crocodiles playing the marimba, cardboard waves, bathers covered in mirrors, men swallowed by fish, a parade of percussion chasing away evil spirits; but most of all there will be tenderness, charm, surprise, and, above all, beauty.” Through the language of acrobatics – Cirque’s language of expression – and while seeking to keep their approach light and funny, we invite you to step into this waking dream to an imaginary Mexico, timeless and universal, where light quenches the spirit and rain ignites the soul.
Set Designer Eugenio Caballero had three overriding objectives when he envisioned the LUZIA set. First, he wanted to convey the idea of monumentality and of grandeur commonly associated with Mexico. Second, he wanted to make sure that each spectator would have a great view of all of the acts, regardless of where they are sitting under the Big Top. And third, he set out to create an environment where location and timeline changes would be quick and seamless.
To make the idea of a journey through various geographic locations possible – you’re taken from an old movie set to the ocean to the semi-desert to an undersea world to a cenote to the jungle to a city alleyway to a dance salon, passing smoothly from an urban setting to the natural world, past to present, tradition to modernity – Set Designer Eugenio Caballero needed to create a neutral stage inside the big top, something that could easily be changed as the performance required. He came up with a variation on the black box theater concept (a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space), which he dubbed the “Blue Box” – an environment where location and timeline changes would be quick and seamless but not totally devoid of color. The purpose of the blue in the backdrop curtain and on the stage floor is to enhance the various elements that appear on stage.
It is striking how minimalist it is, but what LUZIA lacks in bits, baubles, and other accoutrements, it more than makes up for in cultural context. Recall that the show’s name is a fusing the sound of “luz” (light) and “lluvia” (rain), and that both are at the heart of this show’s creation. The light manifests itself as the great disk towering above the LUZIA stage (the only item adorning the set), which also pays tribute to some of the most colossal manmade structures in the world. The Teotihuacán archaeological site located 50 kilometers northeast of Mexico City, for example, features some of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids in the pre-Columbian Americas. The Aztecs believed Teotihuacán was the place where gods were born. And some believe Mexico is a portmanteau word that combines the Náhuatl (Aztec) terms for “moon” (Metztli) and “navel,” (Xictli) referring to “the place at the center of the moon.” Thus, the great disk represents in turn the sun, the moon, and the Aztec calendar, conveying the idea of monumentality and of the grandeur commonly associated with Mexico.
The metallic color and texture of the disk is a tribute to the search of pure lines that characterizes Mexican contemporary art as well as the work of architect Luis Barragán and sculptor Mathias Goeritz. The disk is 6.9 meters (22.6 feet) in diameter, weighs about 2,000 kilograms (4,400+ pounds), and is supported by a giant bracket, called the “Cobra,” that functions like a crane. Using the Cobra, the disk can undergo various transformations during the show – it can move forwards and backwards at a distance of 5.5 meters (18 feet), can rotate horizontally 360 degrees in both directions. And by using a giant light box, it can turn into the sun, or the moon, or assume any color as the mood requires.
While it is natural to associate Mexico with a mosaic of bright colors, in order to avoid the pitfalls of turning the stage into a potpourri of hues and pigments, the creators chose to illuminate each scene with its own distinct shade or combination of colors, like the subtle strokes of an artist’s paint brush. In the Adagio tableau, for instance, a flying woman dons a beautiful pink dress in an otherwise monochromatic environment, while the artists in the Cyr Wheel/Trapeze tableau are clad in yellow hues.
The nods to Mexican hues are deliberately subtle. Overall, the show proves to be highly colorful, but iconic colors such as cobalt blue and Mexican pink are not found in their usual contexts. (When Costume Designer Giovanna Buzzi sat down with the co-authors of LUZIA to imagine the costumes, they decided to steer clear of the folkloric aspects of Mexico and Mexican culture and to avoid potential clichés, especially when it comes to the color palette as well – the result is a menagerie of textiles and forms that are pleasing to the eye and relevant.)
As for the rain, well, in Mexico rain has been a topic of conversation since pre-Hispanic times. It is as present in popular culture as it was among the Mayans and Aztecs who named gods in its honor. There are as many types of rain as there are clouds that produce it – from the refreshing showers of Coyoacán, an iconic neighborhood at the heart of Mexico City, to the torrential rains that sweep across Baja California, to the plentiful autumn rains, as violent as they are sudden. In the diversified geography of Mexico, rain is part of the collective consciousness and has a narrative force all its own. Hence the creative team decided to bring the element of water into the overall set design – a first for a Cirque du Soleil Big Top show – through the image of a Cenote, a naturally occurring sinkhole or cistern the Mayan believed was a sacred gateway to the afterlife.
Apart from providing the water element as a form of artistic expression, the show’s rain curtain is a nod to architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez’s circular fountain in Mexico City in honor of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain. Integrating the element of water inside the Big Top represented a huge technical challenge on several fronts. All electrical and mechanical systems had to be waterproofed, and the water needed to go… somewhere! Naturally, they figured it out: with its two revolving rings and central platter, the stage floor has 94,657 holes through which the water drains into a 3,500-liter basin hidden underneath. It is then recycled, disinfected, and kept at a constant 28°C (82°F) for the comfort of the artists. A totally new system was developed for this process, which is so efficient they don’t need to fill the water tanks that often!
While light and water are main elements to LUZIA’s genetic makeup, so too is music. Music came to Mexico by sea and today it’s a collage of miscellaneous styles, genres and cultures. Rhythms of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Latin America blend with tribal sounds that dig the roots all the way to the Mayas and the Aztecs. For LUZIA, Composer Simon Carpentier wrote a hot, lively score steeped in this rich mixture – an amalgam of ancient and modern sounds infused with the brassy notes of tubas and trumpets and the suave melodies of the Spanish guitar, all driven forward by the relentless percussion and drums. The music jumps playfully from style to style, from one rhythm to the next, from emotion to emotion, striding across landscapes as joyfully as across musical boundaries.
“The first big challenge was to make sure that we can translate this amazing culture,” admitted Simon Carpentier. “At the beginning of this process we decided to hire only Mexican musicians for the show, to make sure that we have these performers to give that feeling of authenticity. It’s a huge culture — you’re talking about the Aztecs, the Mayans, the cumbia, all the Latin American music, the influence from Cuba, from everywhere. I wanted to go further, not just scratch the surface and stay there.”
Beyond clichés and stereotypes, there’s the buoyant rhythm of cumbia, a music genre close to salsa dominated by guitars, accordions and percussions, as well as the lively rhythms of bandas, the traditional music of traveling brass bands. Simon also drew inspiration from the rich, tonic rhythms of norteño, a popular genre in Northern Mexico that’s related to polka and corridos – ballads (The accordion and the bajo sexto, a six-bass guitar, are norteño’s most characteristic instruments), as well as from huapango, a flamenco-based music style from the La Huasteca region along the Gulf of Mexico coast. In the realm of Latin American music, the voice is also a powerful instrument – a vector of emotion, flavors and rhythms bolstered by a lively, expressive language. These vocal parts blend tradition with modernity, with hints of opera, to spread the strong Latin American vibe.
The spectator is taken from an old movie set to the ocean to the semi-desert to an undersea world to a cenote to the jungle to a city alleyway to a dance salon, passing smoothly from an urban setting to the natural world, past to present, tradition to modernity. “We needed to find a way to achieve the sound, the romance, the fun, the special humor that Mexican people have,” Carpentier continued. “You feel the spirit of Mexico throughout the show, but it’s not like you just hear a mariachi; that’s not what Cirque does. It’s all about peaks and valleys, and surprises. We experience that through visuals, but through music as well.”
EXPERIENCE (THE SHOW)
After taking a moment to browse through the show’s bazaar (at which you can find Luchador masks, soccer balls, maracas, and even straw hats amongst the programme books, magnets, posters, CD’s, DVD’s t-shirts, and mugs), we excitedly took our seats.
In addition to the huge disk, which is probably the first thing you’ll notice upon entering the Grand Chapiteau, you’ll also find the stage covered in a field of 5,000 flowers in bloom, arranged in neat rows around its central apex, being tended to by two diminutive robots (the bots more than resemble those from C:LAB’s “ROGA” video – a video presented by Steven Openheart as part of the LED talks on a type of yoga he developed specifically to diminish the stress and sense of exclusion robots can feel when exercising) – “achoo!” – and a pair of hummingbirds who do their darndest to pollinate every flower in the field, a flower who’s scent, orange color, and appearance are part of the deepest memories of the Mexican people.
You see the Aztecs gathered and cultivated the plant (Tageteserecta)for medicinal, ceremonial, and decorative purposes; its flower, the cempasúchil– also called the “flor de muertos” (“flower of the dead”) – is now the main element in Day of the Dead altars, although their use in religious and pagan rituals dates back to pre-Hispanic times. In Mexico, Día de Muertos celebrates the joy of life by dressing personalized altars (called ofrendas) to deceased family members and friends. This elaborate, highly significant ritual is designed to bring the mourner into a focused state of mind in which they make a deep connection with their loved one and celebrate not only that person’s life, but also the part of their soul that lives on in their heart. Therefore, the cempasúchil field is not there for purely esthetic reasons; it reflects a desire to share a profoundly meaningful ritual rooted in emotion. Even if the image and setting it evokes is quite tranquil.
But soon this serene, quiet locale is disturbed by the outside world. At the tell-tale sound of a prop plane flying overhead, a man suddenly jumps into view…with a small parachute pack on his back. A tourist out looking for adventure, he unwisely consults his map in free-fall, which naturally flapping in the breeze, gets blown out of his hands. But that’s the least of his worries… when it comes time to deploy his chute it won’t open! Panic ensues as he begins to tumble head over heels, wrestling with the pack when it too flies out of his grasp – ay dios mio! Out of time, and out of luck, our friend reaches for the pack as it twists away, grabbing on to a handle that’s poking out the top… he tugs, but it turns out to be a small umbrella! Undaunted, he opens the umbrella and uses it to gently coast to the ground. And after taking a moment to collect himself, he comes within a hairs breath of being hit over the head by an item that has fallen from the sky – THUD! Wait, it’s his pack – and he’s quite happy to see it! Inside is his water canteen, which he slips out to quench his thirst. But wouldn’t you know it’s bone dry? Before he can complain too loudly about his situation though, he spots a rather interesting looking relic nearby… a monument that looks like a large bronze key. As curiosity wins out over thirst, he saunters over and turns its handle… unwittingly winding up and unlocking the imaginary world of LUZIA.
A young girl and horse make a mad dash through the garden of cempaùchil, as this beautiful environment springs to life like a wind-up curio. Speed, you may recall, is one of the show’s themes, and it’s only natural to associate Mexico with this idea. One needs only to call to mind the uncanny ability of the Tarahumara, a reclusive Native American people hailing from the mountains of northwestern Mexico. Living in widely dispersed settlements, the fleet-footed Tarahumara developed a tradition of long-distance running, covering more than 300 kilometers nonstop across treacherous terrain over a period of two days with minimal footwear. The running girl is the embodiment of these people’s spirit.
Since animals play a prominent role in Mexican lore and mythology, it is no big deal to come across a man with the head of an armadillo, swordfish or iguana, or a crocodile playing the Marimba, or a woman with a hummingbird’s head and wings. Some of the emblematic animals that inhabit the world of LUZIA appear in the form of life-size puppets, such as the aforementioned horse who gallops locomotive behind the running girl. With their extraordinary powers of evocation, these creatures have become mythological figures of Mexican culture. Horses were introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards and adopted by native populations. Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata’s favorite horse, As de Oro (Ace of Diamonds), and the beautiful chestnut stallion named Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues) that belonged to Pancho Villa, are part of the Mexican collective consciousness and have inspired many heroic songs, known as corridos. With their long history as rancheros (ranchers) and vaqueros (cowboys), Mexicans are now recognized as among the best equestrians in the world.
The pair provides a rather low-key, but culturally relevant and beautiful opening to the show. As the Running Girl spreads her wings, she also personifies one of the ties that bind Canada to Mexico – the annual flight of the monarch butterfly. (Each wing is 6 meters long, is made of silk, and requires 40 meters of material.)
Next, bright hummingbirds (complete with head, beak, and wings!) leap through hoops a mere 75 centimeters in diameter in a tribute to fleetness, agility, and yes, speed. In a sequence that calls back to Dralion’s energetic Hoop Diving act, here in LUZIA they kick it up a notch by exploring the combination of this traditional circus discipline from China with two giant treadmills to generate speed and expand the discipline’s acrobatic vocabulary. These hummingbirds are no joke; leaping through the hoops forwards, backwards and sideways, as the treadmills move forward and backward at will, will keep you on the edge of your seat. The two treadmills can operate in the same direction or in oppositedirections. Sometimes artists use the treadmill as alaunching pad to perform daring leaps through the hoops; when placed on the rolling treadmills the hoops suddenlybecome moving targets for the divers. (The two treadmills weigh 3,630 kilograms apiece and are powered independently by 28 automobile-type batteries.)
Besides the pleasing aesthetics, you might wonder: why hummingbirds? In the Aztec psyche, the destination of one’s soul was not left to chance, but hinged on one’s death. Those who died in battle or on the sacrificial stone got to travel for four years alongside the Sun as the bright star made its way across the heavens, after which time they would return as hummingbirds.
Those who were called by Tlaloc – the god of rain, water, and fertility (we’ll see him a bit later) – got to revel in the joys of Tlacopan, the exquisite tropical garden, which you see here represented with the cempaùchil. Accompanying the performance is the song “Así Es La Vida” (“This is the Life”) in a much slower tempo, but equally as enjoyable, illuminating Maya Kesselman, Dominic Cruz, Devin Henderson, Martha Henderson, Michael Hottier, Aurelien Oudot, and Stephane Beauregard’s, enjoyment of the afterlife. (And do they relish it!)
In what appears to be a dance hall (complete with tables and chairs, a piano, band, hanging lights, and more), the Adagio scene quickly unfolds whereby a young girl (who dons a beautiful pink dress) precariously flies through an otherwise monochromatic environment. The word “adagio” is generally defined to mean slow, or slowly. But more common in the Cirque world “adagio” refers more to its Italian meaning: movement. Put the two together and you have an act that presents a slow, beautiful movement of bodies. Shows like Saltimbanco, Varekai, and Corteo have had great Adagio-like performances over their lifespan, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer exhilaration and excitement watching Grezegorz Piotr Ros, Krzysztuf Holowenko, and Anton Glazkov swing, bend, toss, and catch their fourth (either Naomi Zimmermann or Kelly McDonald – the young girl in the pink dress) over and over and over again. I was biting my nails the entire time!
They say the land trembles as an enormous social and cultural movement teeming just below the surface exists in Mexico. Trembling with enthusiasm for new ideas, hope and strength; Trembling with the passion of the younger generations; Trembling with the life of those who dream, those who color the days, and those who barely touch the ground. The song “Tiembla la Tierra” (“The Earth Trembles”) accompanies, and you’ll find no better embodiment of this movement than with the Adagio Quatour performance. With its hauntingly beautiful live rendition, coupled with the amazing athleticism of its performers, this is one of my most favorite acts in LUZIA, it’s simply fantastic!
CYR WHEEL & TRAPEZE
Visitors and residents alike say there is no place on earth like the surreal, picturesque landscapes of Mexican deserts – a land of extremes that’s been the stage of countless journeys of initiation and experimentation for countless generations. As such the desert is a route of escape, transcendence, and exploration – living proof that there are many forms of thirst. Thus, like a mirage, two young women (Rachel Salzman and Angelica Bongiovonni) materialize on stage and dance with majestic rings among the living, breathing cacti and quiotes, the trunk-like stalks of the maguey plant that adorn the stage. They are later joined in the air by a trapeze artist (either Enya White or Emily Tucker) who takes flight above in the soothing rain – the first time we’ve experienced the magnificent rain curtain (keep an eye out for the Running Girl, who comes out to summon the rain) – and the image the scene evokes is nothing short of spectacular. Brava! The element of water enabled the creators to take the Cyr Wheel out of its usual context. Two artists perform on the apparatus on water and in the rain, which is, at first glance, unthinkable. In order to solve the adhesion issue, a bicycle tire was mounted on the wheel rim. The song “Flores en el Desierto” (“Flowers in the Desert”) accompanies the performance and I find it to be a much better rendition live than on the CD.
Our journeyman returns to us then, riding through the countryside on a bicicleta, huffing, puffing, and in need of a drink of water. But when he stops to take a swig from his canteen, he finds it’s just as empty as before. But that doesn’t dissuade him from exploring his surroundings; rather, when he finds a huge ball nearby he decides to have some fun with it (and the audience) by setting up a make-shift game. He tosses the ball into the audience and away it goes. Meanwhile, on stage, the trees are now gone (removed as the stage rotated around to give the impression our clown was riding through the countryside), and specialized equipment has been brought out to dry the surface. But don’t pay any attention to that… play the game!
HAND BALANCING ON CANES
“Ugo, listo? La señorita lista?” “Lista.”
“Todos listos?” “¡Listos!” (Ready!)
The primal lure of the sea resonates in Mexico, a country mostly surrounded by water. So it is no wonder the sea and costal life are so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of its people. The sea is also laden with metaphor and allusion – anytime we head to the sea, are we not, in a sense, going back to where we came from? In a humorous nod to the golden age of Mexican cinema, Ugo Laffolay performs a playful hand-balancing routine among pasteboard waves that evokes the inexpensive and flimsy film sets of the 1940’s and 1950’s. And he’s a riot!
In this film, Ugo is a salvavidas, and not only does he play his starring role in one of these cheeseball movies with glee (swishing his moustache back and forth to flirt with the ladies, and in flexing his pecks in time to the music), he balances on his ever precarious tower of canes (a one-arm handstand in straddle, one-arm handstand straight, side flag in straddle, side flag tuck, and Mexican handstand varieties anyone?) with relative ease. That is until he is forced by his “director” to do a full arm and then leg split between the canes, bowing them out to exaggerated proportions, that you see him huff and puff. But he pulls it off with such grace and charm. (*swish-swish, eyebrow-eyebrow*)
At first this scene appears rather jarring and out of context: the staging comes across as cheap and uninspiring, the costumes are all over the place (Ugo wears a red jumpsuit while the beachgoers wear mirrored one-piece swimsuits), the music (“Pez Volador”) is, well, strange. And to top it all off our journeyman clown wends his way through the scene like a lost puppy, making fun of everything he sees (much to the chagrin of the director – ¡cortar!) But a word of advice: just sit back, relax, and enjoy. You may not like what you see at first (I didn’t, but not because of the performer or his skill – that was never in question), but once you realize the scene is supposed to be tacky and tawdry, I promise you’ll fall in love with it. The music too… I mean, how could you not? It’s fun and flirtatious, and a little bit off its rocker. But that’s what makes it great! (Keep an eye out for the zany beachgoers as they re-create a synchronized water wheel, standing up!)
Pok-ta-pok was a ritual ballgame played for 3,000 years by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mesoamerica, becoming a symbol of Mesoamerican cosmogony.
In fact, the bouncing ball is thought to have represented the sun, while the stone scoring rings may have represented sunrise and sunset, or the equinoxes. The game, which symbolically pitted the lords of the underworld against their earthy adversaries, engaged players in the maintenance of the cosmic order of the universe and the ritual regeneration of life. In LUZIA, the age-old ritual sport of pok-ta-pok meets the contemporary ritual sport of football as a man and a woman (Abou Traore and Laura Biondo) try to outdo each other by deftly manipulating a soccer ball with their feet and head. Later, as the rain comes pouring down, they are joined by more and more players, and a beat-boxer who adds a… new dimension to the celebratory outing. “Pambolero”, the song accompanying this act, may be the most similar to the CD’s version than any other song on it, in my opinion.
CLOWN – CAN I GET A REFILL?
Our journeyman once again returns, this time attempting to fill his empty canteen in the current of the rain’s runoff. But the moment he gets close to the surge, it ceases and dries up. Perplexed, he moves over to where it’s still flowing, but the same occurs. Mystified and bewildered now, he takes up the game and attempts to foil with the rain curtain, with predictable, but hilarious results.
CIERRA LOS OJOS
When our resident clown finally outwits the water and manages to fill up his canteen, he is met by a beautiful, mysterious woman in a white dress adorned in budding florae. She’s Majo Cornejo, our singer extraordinaire, and she’s serenading us with a rousing melody. (Tu llegaras hasta donde nadie se atreverá y mas alla te acercaras a lo que ya tu dejaste atrás, corres mas recio, mas necio, sin lios hasta llegar. No se explicar por donde volveremos cargando secretos de lluvia y luz.) As the rain begins to fall now in earnest, whimsical patterns begin to emerge and then converge into more recognizable symbols of the land; the flowers on her dress magically burst into bloom, turning her dress from white to red.
In order to make this vision a reality, the people at C:LAB (the creative laboratory of Cirque du Soleil) came up with a clever solution: the dress was fitted with 98 white, individually programmed flowers, each one equipped with a small motor. When the flowers open their petals, they reveal their red interior, thus triggering the metamorphosis. The dress weighs a whopping 9 kilograms (20 pounds) and requires it to be quickly lowered onto Majo before she steps on stage. Also, the images and patterns that appear in the rainfall here are generated electronically by a graphical water display screen, interacting with the artists to support the story and mood of the show. There are Otomi patterns, rain drops, flowers as well as various animal figures that are nods to the strange, warm and whimsical creatures of Mexican painter Francisco Toledo.
Now, as Majo reaches a crescendo she is joined by the Running Girl, the galloping horse, and the rest of the cast as a red circular lantern-like structure descends upon the stage, powerfully bringing an end to the first half of the show. (Ya lo descubriste si el cielo llora, no sirve ponerse más triste, nunca nunca Jamáaaaas. jamáaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!)
INTERMISSION – THE PAPEL PICADO
Reminiscent of Dralion’s Lanterne, the intricately patterned red curtain for LUZIA is called a “papel picado”, a decorative craft that involves cutting elaborate designs in sturdy paper or silk. They’re generally displayed for secular or religious occasions and commonly represent birds, floral designs, and skeletons (especially in celebrations surrounding the Day of the Dead.) Mounted on a cylinder, the papel picado measures 11 meters (36 feet) high by 30 meters (98 feet) wide, but is flexible enough to be quickly lowered and raised as required. Set Designer Eugenio Caballero worked with Javier Martínez Pedro, an artist from a small town in Guerrero, to create the images you see within. The keen-eyed observer will notice that the images represent various narrative elements and characters in the show – a horse, a field of flowers, a flock of hummingbirds, a plaza, a cenote, a cave, an underwater world, raindrops, a storm, the sun, a city, and desert cacti. They were all drawn by hand and then created by punching more than 13,000 holes into the curtain’s surface.
The second half of LUZIA opens with the Pole Dance, an amalgamation between traditional Chinese Poles and Pole Dancing. Pole Dancing is a form of performing art, historically associated with strip clubs and night clubs, which combines dance and acrobatics centered on a vertical burlesque pole; however, since the mid 2000’s it has also been promoted as a non-sexual form of performance art. Since proper pole dancing involves athletic moves such as climbs, spins, and body inversions using the limbs to grip, upper body and core strength, flexibility, and endurance are required to attain proficiency, and rigorous training is necessary. It’s even being promoted as a healthy form of exercise!
Although I feel as a performance piece the pole dance needs a little more gestation (not gesticulating), paring it up with a Chinese Pole routine made the combination a little more bearable. Not that I dislike girls on dancing poles, but, without a genuine routine there’s little need for the display. And if you’re not sure which song this particular act is presented by – since it’s probably one of the most different than those represented on the soundtrack – all you have to do is listen to the band… they’ll tell you! During the song they’ll say “los mos qui tos” in one of the weirdest “what were they thinking?” moments from the show. (In retrospect, though, I kind of miss not hearing it on the soundtrack! How is that for irony?)
The Pole Dance immediately segues into the 360-degree swing… which is set up to be some kind of carnival-like side-show piece, complete with a barker and betting whether or not a luchador can take the swing all the way around. It’s probably one of the more out-of-place acts in the show, although it integrates with the pole apparatus perfectly – it’s just… bizarre! It begins and ends rather unceremoniously, almost fading away as the music for the next act begins. But no matter what I may think about this particular presentation artistically, the crowd sure loved it… they really whooped and hollered!
Rain-calling rituals are legion in Mexican lore. One of these rituals is the Yucatec Ch’a’ Cháak ceremony in which four boys representing the four cardinal points croak like frogs in a spirited appeal to Cháak, the Mayan god of rain. In the Aztec religion, Tlaloc was the supreme god of the rain. Many rainmaking rituals were also performed in Tlaloc’s honor in the Yucatán cenotes, naturally occurring sinkholes or cisterns the Mayan believes were sacred gateways to the afterlife.
A cenote is formed by the dissolution of rock and the resulting subsurface limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Cenotes may be fully collapsed creating an open water pool, or partially collapsed with some portion of a rock overhanging above the water. The stereotypical cenotes often resemble small circular ponds, measuring some tens of meters in diameter with sheer drops at the edges. While the best-known cenotes are large open water pools measuring tens of meters in diameter, such as those at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the greatest number are smaller sheltered sites – like the cenote of LUZIA, where Benjamin Courtenay, representing the demigod of rain, descends into the pristine waters where he performs a graceful and powerful aerial straps act, skimming the surface as he whooshes by.
He is accompanied by Bahlam the Jaguar. Jaguar gods are prominent in Mayan and pre-Hispanic mythology, from the Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire and War to the countless demigods, protectors and transformers. In Mesoamerica, the Olmec developed a were-jaguar (half man, half jaguar) motif of sculptures and figurines showing stylized jaguars or humans with jaguar characteristics. The Maya saw the powerful felines as their companions in the spiritual world, and a number of Mayan rulers bore names that incorporated Bahlam, the Mayan word for jaguar.
This is another of my most favorite acts from the show. The mise-en-scene here is fantastic in its simplicity. The stage itself becomes the cenote, with its central apex a pool of water. Hanging from the catwalk above is about a dozen ropes, depicting vines, and, of course, the rain to complete the image. Within is a young man testing his strength as he bares his soul (and muscular arms and chest) to the gods above. Although fans of Cirque du Soleil have witnessed a number of aerial straps routines, I promise you you’ve not seen anything like this in Cirque – Benjamin takes the discipline to new heights in strength and stamina through rapid twists, pikes, presses, spins, hooks, turns, and drops that find him folded up one second, and dangling by his shoulder the next, and then back again before you can blink, over and over and over again.
CLOWN – GO FOR A DIP?
Our resident clown returns donned in a bathing suit ready to take a dip in the pool of water, but just as he’s ready to dive into the cenote, it magically disappears, leaving him high and dry. Now needing support to put his clothes back on, our tourist grabs onto one of the vines… which then falls free when tugged. Undaunted he tries another, but it too falls free after being tugged. And after trying a third, they all fall around him as if to say GET OUT OF HERE! He obliges. As he takes his leave, the hummingbirds storm the stage in a flurry of feathers and feet in a frenzied attempt to dry themselves (and the stage) off. Watching them slip and slide around is hilarious! Although, I’d recommend curtailing the stage jumps… injuries! (Keep an eye out for the playful couple; it’s a beak-tweaking good time!)
As soon as our resident fool is gone, the musicians spin up a jingle… quite literally… as the spotlight turns to a man in a horrible pair of pants (and a shirt to match) in the middle of the audience. This is Rudolf Janecek and he’s quickly juggling three silver clubs… matching the pace of the jingle the band is playing on the marimba. (The marimba, for the uninitiated, is a percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars struck with mallets to produce musical tones. As such it is a type of idiophone, but with a more resonant and lower-pitched tessitura, or range, than a xylophone.) Then he tosses one forward, jumps on stage to catch it, and begins a highly energetic and fast-paced solo juggling routine to a song that, sadly, isn’t on the soundtrack. I say sadly because, although it’s just the musicians on marimbas, they do get a little help from the brass section, the deep and loud “brrrraaaaaaaaaaaam!” from the tuba is simply fabulous and I must have it.
Rudolf Janecek is the only juggler, who combines high speed juggling with acrobatic skills in an outrageous, breathtaking way. Performing up to 8 clubs he also jumps somersaults while throwing 3 clubs in the air. Being part of the new circus generation Rudy presents the classic juggling skills in modern style. The crowd loved him! When Rudolf catches his last club, a cascade of straw hats tumble from the heavens (a.k.a. are tossed on stage) in celebration for not only a job well done, but a performance well received! (It is, however, a weird moment that harkens back to the chickens in Corteo, which… are better left to the past. Especially since the performers then have to run around and collect the hats while the next act sets up.)
Meet Alexey Goloborodko, a contortionist, and at just 21 years of age, perhaps the most flexible human on the planet. Born in Tula, Russia, he is more than he seems. As well as contortion and flexibility, Alexey has trained in classical and modern dance, and Chinese martial arts, which helps to add fluency, grace, and elegance to his performances. And it shows. He is presented to the audience as a serpent upon his perch – in this case a bridge (surrounded on all sides by “lit” candles) – tangled in a ball of limbs. As the lights raise – and the audience gasps – he untangles himself to begin one of the best contortionist routines this side of KOOZA.
Alexey is nothing short of amazing. He is as talented as he is lithe; eliciting a number of gasps from the audience as he contorts his diminutive body into various shapes and holds. My only critique of the presentation comes not with Alexey’s performance, but with the accompanying setting and scene: rather than continue with the various inspirational and dream-like locations of Mexico, the creators chose to mix it up, by wrapping the presentation in flavors from the Indian sub-continent. I find this unfortunate. While singer/character Manesh Vinayakram (who seemingly makes his one and only appearance here) is talented, his presence seems wasted and banal. The mariachi costume he wears doesn’t flatter him in the slightest either. Still, the overall aesthetic is pleasing, and there’s no doubting Alexey’s bendable talent!
CLOWNS – DIVE, DIVE!
Our journeyman has ridden across the land on a bicycle, played in a pick-up game of football, swam in the azure-colored waters off the coast, wrestled with persnickety waterfalls and vines, now in this last bit he enjoys a little time under the waves, snorkeling and scuba-diving into the depths of Mexico’s seas. But he’s not alone! First, in a tribute to jaws, a group of sharks chase him and his companion ever deeper. And later, he mixes in with a group of prickly cactuses who just want to be in his trip photos!
In Mexico, fiestas are joyous, intense rituals during which revelers party on, sometimes for days on end. Mexicans light up the sky with fireworks over plazas and public squares every chance they get. During the nine days of Las Posadas, for instance, hitting piñatas filled with fruit and nut, filling up on tamales and drinking traditional ponches or atoles are all good reasons to celebrate with friends, family… or with complete strangers. But much more than mere blasts of energy, fiestas represent a deep emotional release and a source of renewal that testify to the complex psyche of the Mexican people. To the rhythm of festive music, a fiesta is in full swing as Russian Swing artists leap in the air, their costumes taking on stunning patterns in a majestic, sweeping transformation. The bright patterns are a loving ode to the embroidered textile fabrics created by the Otomi people.
Russian Swing is a discipline originating in Eastern Europe consisting of a large oblong-shaped swing that is propelled using the natural movement of the mechanism and the weight of two or three spotters who push it. The flyer standing at the end of the swing launches into the air and executes acrobatic leaps or vaults as high as 20 meters or more over the stage, returningeither to the ground or to the shoulders of carriers. It appears to be a simple playground-like swing – hence its name – but with Cirque is anything that simple? Having made its first appearance in Saltimbanco (1992) as a single act (where artists jumped from the swing onto mat, later in “O” (1998), it was elevated to an art form as the company brought two of the swings together within the element of water. In Varekai (2002), Cirque upped the ante by not only having two swings on “dry land” with flyers jumping into cloth nets strewn across the stage’s “forest”, but by also having flyers jump between the swings themselves. LUZIA returns the Russian Swing to Cirque du Soleil in a similar form as Varekai’s – with flyers routinely vaulting between the swings in ever more difficult routines – but with less gusto.
It’s only natural to want a rousing, energetic act to close out your show. It brings the audience to their feet, clapping and gasping and generally having a grand old time. The Russian Swings here weren’t as strong as I would have hoped, unfortunately. Yes, it is thrilling to see acrobats vault from swing-to-swing, or even fly high into the air to flip and spin their bodies in an ever-dizzying array of twists, but the energy just wasn’t there. Perhaps it was the choreography. Perhaps it was the music. The music starts, stops, speeds up, gets slower, and then simply ends. It’s a muddled mess of tempos and themes that does not work hard enough to compliment the action on stage. I find this more than a little disappointing because Russian Swings could be – should be – a rip-roaring and inspiring conclusion to your show! But here it simply exists. It’s a good act don’t get me wrong, but it needs a little more oomph. Alas, even the creators had trouble with this one I hear: the piece of music we heard during our performances was at least the third one they’ve tried thus far!
The fiesta continues as everyone gathers around a table, filled with all sorts of delicious foods and drinks. It’s simplicity itself: a coming together in celebration of life. What more do you need? And what better way is there to showcase this concept than gathering around a dinner table? None! Laugher and good times are abundant here as our journeyman joins in the fun. But his attempts at a joyous celebration are cut short when everyone around him freezes in place. As confusion washes across his face, he spots the key from earlier and sighs – the proverbial gig is up. He reluctantly saunters back over to the key and turns it, releasing a torrential rain shower. Only this time the rain parts to allow him safe – dry – passage. He looks up, smirks, and walks on…
I’m sure it goes without saying I had a blast in Montreal, but forgive me for doing so anyway. The weather was warm and inviting – a direct contrast to the cold and rain of my last visit. The company was enjoyable – meeting Jose for the first time was fun; introducing him to crepes and poutine was even more so! Hanging out with Alain Vinet, Director of Cirque Musique, in his studio just shooting the breeze was a highlight of the trip. As was interviewing Devin Henderson (Hoops), Kelly McDonald (Adagio), and Rachel Salzman (Cyr Wheel) backstage, which you’ll see in an upcoming episode of CirqueCast – stay tuned! Although flying through La Guardia almost gave me an aneurism it all worked out in the end… and gave me another interesting travel story to tell. As for LUZIA? I liked it a lot!
Like many, when I first heard about LUZIA I couldn’t help but wonder: why Mexico… again! But now having experienced all the joys and wonders the show has to offer, I no longer feel flummoxed at the concept. I didn’t immediately fall in love with it like I did with KURIOS, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon my experience with LUZIA I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Really! I just want to relive the experience all over again! Yes, there are a number of nit-picky criticisms I have about the show, along the “what were they thinking!?” variety, but you know what? They’re minor. And if Cirque du Soleil can find a way to dry the stage more efficiently, change up the music with Russian Swings (honestly, it needs help), and tweak a few other things here and there… there is absolutely no reason LUZIA cannot ascend into Cirque du Soleil’s pantheon of classic shows. It’s really that good!
LUZIA will be in Montreal until July 17th! From there it will travel on to Toronto (Jul 27th – Oct 16th) and San Francisco (Nov 17th – Jan 29th) in 2016, and San Jose (Feb 9th – Mar 19th), Seattle (Mar 30th – May 21st), Denver (Jun 1st – Jul 9th), Chicago (Jul 21st – Sep 3rd), and Phoenix (Sep 22nd – Oct 22nd) throughout 2017 – with more stops to come!
GO SEE THIS SHOW!