We’re Off and Running, Part 12:
Dralion, Part 1 (1999-2001)

A few months ago, as I was flipping through a few classic Cirque du Soleil programme books (as is my wont), I was happily caught off-guard by a brief history of the company that it had written about itself in Saltimbanco’s original European Tour programme, published sometime in 1996. Not because the historia was in English, French, and Spanish, but rather I found the wording a bit more colorful… haughty… than what you’d find from the company today. Something about its whimsical and heady nature spoke to the way Cirque du Soleil saw itself then, containing a youthful verve and arrogance that is simply no longer present. When did Cirque lose this dynamic sense of self, this liveliness, and vivacity about its past, present, and future? Unfortunately, not long after. Thereafter the speak becomes less joie de vivre and more lié aux affaires, and Cirque du Soleil turns from a rag-tag band of street performers into a bona fide corporate entity right before our very eyes. This is not a new revelation – far from it in fact – but this re-discovery struck a chord of curiosity within…

How did others see Cirque du Soleil during this period?

Think about it: as Cirque’s multitude of shows travel around the globe in either arenas or under the big top, at each stop, in each city, there is a write-up in the local press. Sometimes the coverage is just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there’s a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times it’s an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. But the reviews we see today are too current, discussing these shows through a contemporary lens; shows that have/had 15 to 20 years touring the globe, shows we would refer to as “classic” or “signature”. What I’d become interested in knowing was what some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of these shows were as they took their first steps across North America. How did the press see Le Cirque du Soleil in 1998, 1994, 1990, 1987?

It was time to peck through the archives.

What I found was extraordinary, and more than I expected. And I’m sharing these discoveries here in Fascination through a series of collections, beginning with the 1987 tournée of Le Cirque du Soleil (better known today as Le Cirque Réinventé), and continuing on from there. This month we continue on with 1999’s reviews of Dralion.

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By: Reed Johnson | L.A. Daily News
September 22, 1999

After 15 years of creating shows with more allegorical layers and surreal visual effects than a Fellini film festival, Cirque du Soleil is getting back to some big-top basics.

Cute kids. Exotic creatures. Breathtaking feats of hand and, um, feet. Clowns that actually make you laugh, instead of making you feel you’ve stumbled into one of those German expressionist paintings where something bad is about to happen.

Since Cirque du Soleil’s 1984 inception, the French-Canadian ensemble has been internationally praised for expunging many of the corny conventions that clung to mainstream circuses like the smell of old popcorn.

But, having gained a worldwide reputation for its high-concept spectacles, the fanciful troupe whose name translates as “Sunshine Circus” wants to bring its act down to earth a bit.

When Cirque unveils “Dralion,” its 13th full production, Thursday under the blue-and-yellow Big Top next to the Santa Monica Pier, its creators say audiences can expect a show that’s closer in mood to Barnum & Bailey than Ingmar Bergman.

“Cirque du Soleil, they said at the beginning that we reinvent the circus. We don’t reinvent nothing. We’re just using what was there and all the other circuses never used. Because, I’m sorry, we are a circus! We present circus acts,” says “Dralion” director Guy Caron, speaking in his guttural Quebecois accent.

By now, tens of thousands of Southern Californians are as familiar with Cirque’s signature mix of acrobats, clowns, contortionists and aerial artists as they are with Mickey and Goofy. (Thursday’s opening will mark Cirque’s eighth L.A.-area visit in the past dozen years.)

And with companies performing from Biloxi to Berlin and Hong Kong, Cirque is busily assembling a global marketing empire to rival Disney’s.

After starting out as a gaggle of Montreal street jugglers and stilt-walkers nearly 20 years ago, Cirque today has a $30 million Montreal headquarters housing 350 permanent employees, plus regional headquarters in Asia, Europe and Las Vegas.

What apparently keeps customers coming back is Cirque’s ability to fuse simple, emotionally resonant story lines and art-crowd production values with family-friendly entertainment – a strategy that other circuses have been scrambling to imitate. Cirque offers avant-garde theater for the masses in a hip but non-threatening package.

“What we’re using from theater is the way to present one act,” Caron says, “because (the) circus is a lot of acts. It’s not a story. It’s a little story, a story line, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t have words. The words are the movement. But what we do, to try to link all that stuff, is to create in each act, in each performance, something with a dramatic orientation, to start and to finish it. And this is the way you can link a show. It’s totally confused if you see just a jumping-board act, a hand-stand act, a clown. You know, it’s not (logical). The only way that you can link it altogether is with your costumes, the music, the set, all that stuff, to try to create a show.”

With an environmental set designed by Stephane Roy, a rising star in Canada’s dance, film and theater worlds, “Dralion” is set in the kind of sensuous, metaphor-laden dreamscape that is Cirque’s trademark. But its centerpiece is a muscular troupe of 35 elite acrobats from the People’s Republic of China, nearly half of them children. Caron says he wanted “Dralion” to emphasize above all the technical marvels of the human body by serving as a showcase for the acrobats’ preternatural grace and quicksilver athleticism.

“It was our old dream, and the dream come true,” says Caron, who was Cirque’s first artistic director and is directing his first show with the company since 1987. In recent years, he has served as general manager of Le Centre National Des Arts Du Cirque in France and has directed circus shows in Europe and the 20th-anniversary production of the Big Apple Circus.

“What is the dream?” Caron continues. “The dream was to try to take a troupe of 35 Chinese acrobats – I don’t say acrobat-actors, because the (Chinese), they are just acrobats, OK, in the way they present their thing – and try to integrate it to the world of the Cirque du Soleil and the imaginative world of the Cirque du Soleil. And this is why we are coming back more to the basic(s) of the circus, because the Chinese are more acrobat than they are actor or stage performer.”

The idea for “Dralion” had been bouncing around in Cirque’s collective unconscious for a dozen years or so, Caron says, before he and Cirque’s current artistic director, Guy Laliberte, began fleshing out the concept about two years ago. Its name comes from fusing the words “dragon” and “lion,” two beasts that symbolize, respectively, China and France and, by extension, East and West.

At first, Caron and Laliberte conceived “Dralion” as a piece dealing with the interplay between Oriental and Occidental sensibilities. That idea has since been scrapped in favor of a story line about the blending together of four different color-coded families, each representing one of the four primeval elements: earth, air, fire and water. As the show evolves, the four families exchange members and gradually fuse together.

“The impression you get at the end of the show is, we start with four families, and at the end it’s one family – and that’s the story of the world,” says designer Roy.

The harmonious mood of “Dralion” contrasts sharply with the ominous tone of “Quidam,” which visited Los Angeles in 1996. In “Quidam,” a young girl escapes from her oblivious parents into an eerie world of headless, bowler-hatted men, chilly techno music and spooky blue-green lighting.

The more spiritually uptempo “Dralion” utilizes world-beat music and large, rotating wheels to represent the orbit of the sun and the passage of time. Other design elements suggest analogies both with the human body and the body of a giant animal, the mythical Dralion.

A massive cable running inside the Big Top suggests the beast’s central nervous system. The Dralion’s eye and claw are represented by an enormous overhead projector connected to huge, cantilevered steel-and-aluminum hooks, nicknamed the Grip. The Grip scoops up the performers while the projector-eye simultaneously observes them with its anthropomorphic beam.

The child acrobats encounter the Dralion and begin to play with it, just as children would play with a pet or a new toy, Caron says.

“We decided to create a show on the bonheur, the happiness of life,” Caron explains. “And what is really the happiness of life is (a) child, hmm? What is child? Child is the future. For me, it was so important. And they are there to preserve their world, their imaginations. And it’s why we have 17, not (children), but kids (performers) on this show, out of 35 artists.”

Roy says his design was inspired in part by see-through contemporary Japanese architecture, in which a building’s mechanical guts are exposed, revealing what he calls “the melodic structure.”

“With Japanese architecture, you walk in and … you see the elevators, the cables, you see everything, the air conditioning, the tubes, everything,” Roy says. “It’s like taking off the skin of an arm, and you see everything – how it works, why. It looks high-tech, but in fact the response is low-tech. It’s human all the way.”

The challenge with “Dralion,” Roy says, was creating something fantastic and mysterious while letting audiences glimpse the reality behind the illusion. “The art of the circus is to see,” he stresses, “and it’s something fantastic to see how it’s being done. It’s not a magical trick inside a theater where you don’t see anything, you don’t know how that person flies. It’s the magic of knowing at the same time – being surprised, but knowing how it’s being done.”

While “Dralion” marks a homecoming of sorts for Caron, it also provides Cirque du Soleil with a chance to take stock artistically of its first 15 years. Like the rest of the planet, Cirque spent part of the late 1990s anxiously pondering the coming millennium. When “Quidam” opened three years ago, its director, Franco Dragone, said that the show “casts light on our frailty and angst at the dawn of a new century.”

For now, frailty and angst are, as Caron might say, passe.

“At the beginning of this new millennium, everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, with this new millennium, what’s going to happen?’ ” Caron says. “For me, the world’s going to turn like it’s turned for I don’t know how many years. The people are waiting for something. Me, I say, `No way! We are alive! And the world never stop. The world will turn and don’t stop. Why don’t we create a show to just be happy and have fun?’ ”

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By: Don Shirley | LA Times
September 27, 1999

Cirque du Soleil may have shown most of us how to enjoy circuses without animals, but a few holdouts still like to see four-footed performers too. The Montreal wizards who run the Cirque apparently realized this.


Entrancing as ever in the U.S. debut of its latest extravaganza at Santa Monica Pier, the Canadian circus created its own cage-free, food-free faux animals. By attaching the head of a dragon to the body of a lion–in a style Americans will associate with Chinese New Year parades–and then implanting nimble (human) tumblers inside these “dralions,” the Cirque added a playful new dimension to this year’s show.

The fact that these dralions aren’t actual animals may still disappoint a few picky purists. But for the rest of us, the dralions offer the primary appeal of the big animal acts–seeing supposedly unwieldy beasts performing surprisingly graceful routines–without any morning-after animal-rights regrets of the sort that send celebrities to congressional hearings.

The dralions’ star-making moment is in the second half, when they briefly venture into the audience and then join other tumblers in performing stunts atop rolling balls. In the grand finale, accompanied by incongruous but jaunty music reminiscent of a hoedown, a dralion rides a ball across a teeterboard.

Of course, most of the performers in “Dralion” aren’t wearing animal costumes–this is not “The Dralion King.” As usual with the Cirque, this edition is full of clearly identifiable human beings performing seemingly superhuman feats–many of them involving giant ascending and descending rings poised over center stage. At the back of the stage we sometimes glimpse a massive wall to which acrobats cling, as if they’re in the process of scaling it. A few clowns periodically bring everyone back down to earth.

What’s most unusual about this show, other than the title creatures themselves, is a remarkable bit of self-parody. The Cirque has long been ripe for spoofing. For example, this show is structured around four symbol-laden performers who keep hovering at the periphery of other artists’ acts; we’re told they represent water, earth, fire and air. Or just look at the language with which director Guy Caron begins his program note: “Cyberspace, market globalization and the modernization and acceleration of communications mean that more than ever, our way of life spans the planet.”

Too bad no one in the show makes fun of Caron’s verbiage. But late in the second act, the clowns do perform pointed burlesque versions of some of the acts we’ve just witnessed, including most of the four living symbols. This ability to laugh at oneself is the mark of a truly self-confident organization.

Self-confidence goes with the territory. Peng Rui, the 12-year-old whose hand-balancing begins the featured acts, is exhibit A; her supporting arm never wavers despite a variety of contortions that turn the rest of her body into Silly Putty. Fiery-haired Viktor Kee does a juggling act that is as notable for the display of every contour of his splendid physique as it is for his actual juggling. Juliana Neves and Ivo Guoerguiev perform an aerial pas de deux that is memorably erotic, to the strains of Violaine Corradi’s haunting music.

The clowns include a nerdy fellow who frequently emits amusing gasps and chuckles over a megaphone, when he isn’t balancing on a string bass or ripping into a set of drums; and a young woman with a mop-top hairdo and a short guy who make mischief with a purported audience “volunteer.”

A delegation from the Xinan troupe of China makes up the heart of the acrobatic chorus. Bamboo poles, teeterboards, a double trapeze, hoops and jump ropes are among the favored props. In one number described in press materials as “being presented for the first time in the world,” five young women dance on pointe and form human towers–atop a garden of light bulbs. Each number from the Chinese troupe bursts with animation and energy, and on opening night the precision was impeccable–until the grand finale of the hoop-jumping, when two attempts to leap through the highest hoop yet, without making the hoops fall, were unsuccessful.

This small imperfection was a useful reminder that the spectacle is live, not canned, and that the excitement of the here and now–not cyberspace and market globalization–are why people keep flocking to the Cirque du Soleil.

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By: Steven Oxman | Variety
September 27, 1999

No longer the little Canadian circus that could, Cirque du Soleil, now a brand name, runs seven different productions simultaneously throughout the world. Several are anchored for long-term runs. To keep topping itself, to continue finding new talent and ideas, it must search everywhere for inspiration, so it makes perfect sense for Cirque du Soleil to look East for its newest show, “Dralion,” which borrows heavily from Chinese traditions and melds them into an eclectic celebration of the global melting pot at the turn of the millennium. If it’s not as surprisingly inventive and awe-inspiring as previous Cirque shows at the Santa Monica Pier, it’s still just as spectacular, exuberant, and downright delightful.

The slow-moving, spare images that provided such striking dreamscapes in “Quidam” and “Mystere” give way in “Dralion” to a kind of foot-stomping, multicultural carnival. The colorful Chinese dragons appearing throughout, each performed by two humans working in wonderful unison, seem for a while to be purely atmospheric in function. But soon they’re performing acrobatic stunts of their own — to music that resembles nothing so much as the sounds of a country hoedown. This kind of cultural juxtaposition is repeated many times, with, for example, an African dancer conjuring an act of young Asian acrobats diving through hoops as Gaelic-inspired music keeps the rhythm.

The show revels in its inconsistency of time as well as place. The back wall of the stage provides a futuristic, golden grid, and at times performers climb all over it as if they were spiders preparing a web. At other moments, the show seems to take the audience back in time, using imagery more classical in nature. What does remain consistent is the sense of festivity.

The most remarkable of the acrobatics come from 13-year-old Peng Rui of China, who contorts her body while balancing herself on one hand for a shocking length of time. Some of the other acts, however, are a bit underwhelming, although that could be because the show is still early in its run. There are definitely some rough edges to be worked out in the double trapeze act and in the hoop diving, both of which, especially the latter, could eventually become crowd favorites. The teeterboard, where the acrobats are propelled up onto one another’s shoulders, is performed here entirely by women. Another group of five Asian women also perform a ballet on light bulbs, an act that is beautiful to watch but seems intended to come across more impressively than it does.

That the pageantry, rather than the acrobatics, is more the focus here points out both the strengths and potential weaknesses of Cirque du Soleil.

“Dralion” is actually the company’s third new show to premiere in the last year, and it’s questionable whether it can keep up its very high standards at this pace. Already, the focus seems to have shifted somewhat from group to individual acts. Will the always-amusing clowning, the gorgeous design work and the grandeur be enough to attract the audiences if the acrobatics themselves are no longer as awesome? Or will Gilles Ste-Croix, the troupe’s new director of creation, render the question moot by finding the next new human wonders of the world?

For now, at least, there’s a party to go to. “Dralion” celebrates life on Earth, including beasts both big and small, flying and crawling, past and present. If the images don’t stay in one’s head as long as those from “Quidam,” the pleasant feeling still lingers long after leaving the big top.

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By: Allison Cohen | LA Times
November 30, 1999

Cirque du Soleil’s blue and yellow striped big-top is back in Orange County and underneath it is a feast for the eyes with its new non-circus circus, “Dralion.”

“Dralion” marries East (the dragon) with West (the lion) in a cacophony of images that blend the traditional acrobatics of a Chinese circus with the avant-garde theatricality that has become Cirque’s trademark. Don’t worry if you don’t get “Dralion’s” theme celebrating air, water, fire and earth, narrated by two masters of ceremonies that sing in Cirque’s own made-up language. “Dralion” is an aesthetic adventure open to individual interpretation.

“We don’t try to make sense,” says creative director Gilles Ste-Croix. “Like an artist that picks color to make a painting, we . . . are making an impression of something.”

Critiqued as modest in comparison to recent Cirque spectacles–like the aquatic themed “O” now playing at Las Vegas’ Bellagio hotel–“Dralion” is a pure mix of breathtakingly beautiful modern dance with nail-bitting acrobatic circus intensity–and some belly laughs thrown in for good measure.

More than 18 million people worldwide have seen a Cirque du Soleil performance since its founding in Quebec in 1984. “Dralion”–which runs 2 1/2 hours including intermission–marks the troupe’s 13th production.


* A 13-year-old performer contorts her body in so many different ways that you almost lose sight of what her body looks like to begin with. And she does this while balancing on one hand on a cane. “I’m always astonished that some artists can do such perfect things,” says Ste-Croix. “It’s like [the human body as] art form.”

* The second act opens with an enormous white lantern illuminated from within–a technical marvel borrowed from the Chinese. “We’ve tried to bridge West and East,” Ste-Croix said, adding, “There’s never been a lantern that size before.” Performers, suspended from the big top ceiling on trapezes, fly by in slow, gliding, swooping motions or swim through the air as if it were liquid–it’s a magically spinning shadow-dance.

* Five ballerinas dance on pointe atop a stage of lightbulbs in a first-of-its-kind performance. “The lightbulbs were very new,” says choreographer Julie Lachance of the act first developed in China. “We pushed it,” she said. “The [Chinese artists] are open to trying new things.”

* A man and a woman erotically wrap their limbs in long sheets of blue cloth suspended from the big top ceiling and then flirt above the crowd in an aerial pas de deux. Astonishingly sensual and heightened by the audience’s awareness that the performers are sans safety net, harness and belts, it’s a roaring crowd favorite.

* The trickiest of acts is the “Double Trapeze”: Two couples perform acrobatic feats in unison. The act seems so effortless that audiences may not fully comprehend its complexity; the mirror images are seamlessly lyrical. “It’s mind-blowing that they can do such a trick,” Ste-Croix says.

* Audience members should not be surprised if they find themselves hapless stooges, drawn into the pre-show antics of a trio of hilarious clowns: a goofy woman with a spout of fuzzy hair and a bothersome short skirt that keeps riding up her candy-cane colored stockings; a nerdy fellow with a megaphone; and a nervous Nellie of a man in a trench coat.

* Everyone’s smiling during a finale that showcases the simple and joyous children’s game of jump rope–Cirque du Soleil style. The children flip and make pyramids and three-person-high columns–while hopping and jumping in and out of skipping ropes.


For this production, Cirque’s creative team selected 54 international performers, including seven musicians and Xunan Circus, a troupe of 35 acrobats from Kumming, China.

The set was designed specifically for this show. Performers disappear down trapdoors, and they float out of sight, at times, to the top of the tent. There are three huge concentric rings used for different purposes: to hang lights or projectors; as a catwalk for performers waiting to make entrances; and as a transport to move performers from one part of the stage to another. And there’s a metallic wall at the back of the stage that performers rappel from throughout the performance.

Costumes were months in the making, sewn of horsehair, hardware, emu feathers–even window screens.

The lively music is a mix of African drums, Hindu melodies, rock riffs and instrumental pieces from Andalusia, Africa and Central Europe.

Santa Monica audiences–where the show just finished a two-month run–gave “Dralion” standing ovations and multiple encores. “That’s what we aim for,” Ste-Croix said. “We’re always working to get that response.”

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Paul Iorio | San Francisco Chronicle
January 30, 2000

There are some things that can probably be seen nowhere else in the Western World except at “Dralion,” the new Cirque du Soleil show that opens Thursday in San Francisco. Where else can one see a man play the cello while climbing up the instrument? Or a woman catapulted by seesaw to a chair balanced on five women standing on top of one another? Or nine people simultaneously skipping rope, with five of them on the others’ backs?

The two-hour circus showcase of dance, acrobatics and comedy is playing to sold-out crowds across North America. The show, the sixth of the Cirque’s more than a dozen productions to play in the Bay Area since 1988, sets up its tent this week next to Pacific Bell Park. Despite the shows it keeps mounting and spinning around the world like so many plates on sticks, the Cirque tries to make each production seem entirely new, without losing the company’s signature style.

Like its predecessors, “Dralion” — the word means a mythical Chinese creature that is part dragon, part lion — has no central narrative, except some vague stuff about the four elements that maintain the natural order: air, water, fire and earth. Rather, the show is about visual spectacle, choreography of the improbable and the near impossible.

If Dralion is different from other Cirque shows it’s probably because of a new team of directors. The show also marks the return after a 10-year absence of director Guy Caron, 50, a former circus school founder who was involved in the early years of Cirque and went on to lead circuses throughout Europe..

Inventing “Dralion” was something of an adventure. Caron and his associates searched remote parts of the globe to find troupes that were performing unusual and extraordinary acts. In southeast China, for example, he found performers who could walk on a ball the size of a boulder and ride it for a distance; they soon became part of the show.

How did he find such acts? Simple, Caron says: “We arrived in China and we said, ‘Can we see this troupe and this troupe?’ And we (saw) seven troupes and we decided (which one) was . . . artistically best for us to create something with them. We see something around the world and we say, ‘Oh, we can integrate this in the act.’ “We (often) work with acts that (have already been) created,” Caron continues. “For us, we have two possibilities: We create a script and we try to find the act to go on the script, or we (find) an act and we look at it and we try to create the show around the act.”

The use of outside players in “Dralion” is another departure for the Cirque. “This is the first time ever that Cirque hired a whole troupe — from China or from anywhere — to be the house troupe,” says Roch Jertis, artistic coordinator for the show. After collecting performers from all over the world, Caron began what he calls “the big brainstorm” sessions that created “Dralion.” Sitting down with his various specialists — the costume designer, set designer, musical director and others — Caron and company tried to unify the elements of the show.

“They sat at a table for hours and wrote down ideas,” says Jertis. “And they wrote down anything. Anything goes. Maybe Guy Caron thinks about a woman coming down from somewhere. And the guy who is in charge of creating all these mechanics will say, ‘I think it’s possible.’ And it all comes together.” Caron adds, “Everyone comes with his own idea, all the creators, and we came around a table for two or three days and discussed (ideas).”

In some instances — as in the case of a Chinese troupe who catapulted performers to high places — Caron modified the act to suit the production. “We transformed a lot of things — like the jumping board act. We decided to introduce a performer on stilts to the act. And we transformed everything: costume, light, choreography. But the basic of it was there.”

With other performers, such as the juggler, he presents the performance as it is, more or less. “The act of the juggler — I see how I can introduce it and how I can change the light a little bit, but I don’t really change his act,” he says. “Dralion” continues to evolve, at least around the edges. Although most of the show is full of fixed and precise routines, there are wild cards that make for an edgy and spontaneous experience for the audience — particularly the segments involving the four clowns who appear throughout the show with their street-style comedy. “The only numbers that are really changing are the clown numbers because they are not restricted with a certain discipline like all the others,” says costume designer Francois Barbeau. “The other acts are quite difficult to change; it’s so much precision.” The clowns are clearly audience favorites. “They love the clowns,” Jertis says. “Sometimes I walk around in the audience with no identification, just to get the feel, and (I hear): ‘Those clowns are fantastic, they’re incredible.’ “It’s always a sense of freshness with the clowns. Every time they go out onstage you almost feel that it’s a new thing they’re doing. You can go see the show from one week to another and there’ll always be something a little new with the clowns.” The audience also seems to like the aerial pas de deux, Caron’s own favorite part of the show (“It’s a full creation of mine and I’m very happy about it”) and the juggling act, in which a woman on the ceiling hands balls to the juggler on a rising stage.

In “Dralion,” one can still see remnants of the Cirque’s early street-theater spirit, even though it’s apparent that the company has evolved into something much grander. One element has remained the same through time. “When you see a Cirque show,” Jertis says, “you always have a surprise.”

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By: Matthew Gurewitsch | New York Times
March 19, 2000

The music hall and the circus are not the places devotees of dance hang out looking for revelations, which as a rule probably saves them disappointment, but every so often a revelation comes along. A case in point: the 29-year-old Ukrainian juggler Viktor Kee (born Kiktev), currently in San Francisco through next Sunday with Cirque du Soleil’s extravaganza, “Dralion.” (The show moves to San Jose on April 6 and to Denver on June 6.) His act involves seven solid plastic balls, hand-molded by the artist himself, which he not only sends flying in arcs that amaze the eye but somehow also catches — no hands — on a shoulder, on a knee, on the back of his neck. At one point, planted on his knees, he lines up five balls straight down his undulating spine.

If the balls stuck in place, you would suspect Velcro or maybe magnets, but no. Mr. Kee releases them back to the pull of gravity, and they roll off to swirl once more. At the same time, he dances a solo, both sinuous and angular, that climbs steadily to the ecstatic. Somewhere on his family tree there must be a serpent, maybe the one that tempted Eve. Mr. Kee worked the moves out with the help of his former wife, Galina, a jazz dancer with an act of her own involving swinging bowling pins. Currently she is appearing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

A reviewer who caught Mr. Kee in a gala of gastronomy and variete called “Pomp, Duck and Circumstance,” which played New York and Atlanta a while back, was moved to wonder in print, “What if Diaghilev had choreographed for a juggler?” — momentarily forgetting that the founding impresario of the Ballets Russes hired choreographers rather than making dances himself. Still, the question conjured up the right associations, if Nijinsky had been a juggler.

Built on the lines of an Art Deco diver, he stands 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 155 pounds, with no waist to speak of (his jeans are size 28) but broad, square shoulders and robust thighs to match. He warms up for each show with two hours of practice and gymnastics. Asked what is hardest about his act, he knocks off a list: “Concentration. Cardiovascular fitness. Being able to juggle while doing the choreography.”

What is the worst thing that can happen? “The timing can go wrong,” he says. “The tricks are timed to the music. If you lose your timing, it’s hard to get back. You can’t be tense. If you’re tense, you can’t juggle.” His fresh, open face and easy smile in the arena reflect no tension at all. Juggling seven balls looks like the easiest thing in the world.

Like Nijinsky, the self-styled clown of God, Mr. Kee radiates something spiritual; bravura, in the end, is not the message. In earlier versions of his solo, he began by hatching from a transparent egg. In “Dralion,” he springs from within a spiderlike monstrosity, but the meaning is the same. “I jump out,” Mr. Kee explains simply. “I’m naked, afraid.”

Not literally naked, although the effect of the costume he designed for “Dralion,” flesh-colored with a few splashes of color, is purposely more revealing than the flashy finery he has worn at pleasure domes like the Moulin Rouge and the Lido in Paris and the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin. “I had many costumes,” he recalls. “One was a Versace tricot. It had a beautiful line. But wearing something like that, you represent a character, not yourself. I want to be nice, not just show a nice costume.” What matters for Mr. Kee’s act of discovery is the sense of awakening life.

His first prop is a heart he produces mysteriously from inside his almost invisible costume. An aerial sprite appears high in the tent, discovers him, glides low for a closer encounter, receives the heart and ascends. From the heights, she drops a white ball, which Mr. Kee catches.

At once, things start to change. “I think, ‘Maybe this thing belongs to me,’ ” Mr. Kee explains. “I start to play.” Another white ball drops, and another and another, a half dozen in all. From poised but tentative beginnings, the juggling gains greater and greater virtuosity. The last of the seven balls is red, like the heart. From a final explosion that scatters balls every which way, Mr. Kee magically picks the red one, which he tosses to the airborne spirit: the gift of his art sealing the prior gift of his heart.

Unlike the typical dancer, whose body is the instrument for many dances, Mr. Kee encapsulates all he has to say in a single seven-minute number. It makes him a nice living, but has taken him far from his roots. While working in Paris, he found an apartment near the Pont Alexandre III, a showpiece of czarist gilt and ornament that Russia built as a gift to France. It was a nostalgic reminder of home. Occasionally, Mr. Kee branches out. Once, he slogged through a blizzard-locked Manhattan to juggle telephones behind James Earl Jones in a commercial for Bell South.

“I don’t like two pages of biography,” Mr. Kee remarks. “Who cares?” The immediate subject is his Web site, www.viktorkee.com, which skims lightly indeed over his history, personal and professional: he first performed at 6 in Ukraine, trained at the Professional Circus School in Kiev, scored a special prize at the Cirque de Demain festival in Paris in 1994.

NO doubt the gallery of color photographs at the site attracts closer scrutiny. Subdivided into “artistic,” “posters” and “show” sections, it gives heavy play to glitz, skin and muscle. One magic image in “show” catches Mr. Kee tossing seven balls, like the seven stars of the Big Dipper. More magical by leagues, though, is the blurry black-and-white snap Mr. Kee saves for last in the “backstage” area (arrived at from the home page via the icon marked “fun”). Shot at a rehearsal in Ukraine, with the artist in practice clothes, it goes beyond the controlled environment of performance into the realm of pure quest. Just for the divinity of the thing, Mr. Kee is floating a zigzag constellation not of seven balls but of nine.

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By: Sandra C. Dillard | Denver Post
June 4, 2000

Cirque du Soleil, with its mind-blowing acrobatics, otherworldly costumes, world beat music and sly sense of humor, burst onto the entertainment scene in 1984, and show biz hasn’t been the same since.
There’s simply nothing else like this unique, theatrical, animal-free circus that travels the world to find athletes with amazing physical abilities and transforms them into artists.

The latest offering from Cirque, that now has eight shows traveling internationally, is “Dralion.” The name is a combination of “dragon” and “lion,” and boasts a fusion of ancient Chinese acrobatic tradition and Cirque’s avant garde approach to clowning, tumbling, acrobatics, high-flying trapeze work and how-do-they-do-that physical contortions.

“Dralion,” which arrived in Denver with 41 trucks and 720 tons of sets, props, costumes and equipment, opens Tuesday in Cirque’s trademark Blueand-Yellow Big Top tent in the Pepsi Center parking lot, where it will play through July 16.

Each Cirque show has a different theme. For example, the acclaimed “O” is a water show presented in a specially built theater at Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas. “Quidam,” which sold out in Denver in 1997, is tied together by a headless giant carrying an umbrella. “Dralion” – featuring 54 artists from eight different countries, including a troupe of 35 Chinese acrobats – is themed around the four elements: water fire, air and earth.

“It’s a celebration of life, a celebration of fun,” said Guy Caron, whose insouciant personality reflects the fun-loving clown he used to be. Today his credits include founding Montreal’s National Circus School, and joining Cirque du Soleil in 1984 as artistic director, creator and actor. “You are going to laugh. You are not going to smile, you are going to laugh. And the roots of the circus, the acrobatic stuff, you’ll never think from beginning to end to eat a piece of popcorn,” he said. “Nobody in the world has the facility to create what we do,” Caron said. “Cirque gives me all the tools to do my artistic vision. I’ll say, ‘I have this idea, but it’s expensive.’ They say, ‘Don’t think about the money.’ They have no limits.”

A recent Denver Post visit to The Studio (Cirque’s world headquarters in Montreal) bore out Caron’s statement.
The Studio, where the planning, rehearsals and preparation for all Cirque shows takes place, is a huge mod-industrial metal and glass building that sits on several acres of what was a former waste dump about 20 minutes from the center of Montreal.

The multi-story edifice includes offices, rehearsal rooms, and a high-ceiling gymnasium filled at the time with leaping, tumbling Chinese acrobats who are the replacements for the current troupe, whose last performances will be in Denver. There’s also a light, airy two-story costume shop the size of a small city, and a cafeteria headed by a chef to a former prime minister. There are more than 500 employees (250 in the costume shop alone), whose hiring provided a definite economic boost to Montreal, Canada’s largest and poorest city.

But the magical shows are the main consideration. “Every one is different, but similar in sense,” said Serge Roy, artistic director of “Dralion,” which features performers from Bulgaria, Brazil, China, Ukraine, the Ivory Coast, France, the U.S. and Canada. “All of the designers come with their own taste, and their own touch of what the show should be. We’re not trying to write down a story line, but creating images. ‘Dralion’ is rhythms, smiles, colors, clang, clang.”

The sets and costumes – red for fire, blue for air, green for water, and ochre for earth – are a major component of the show’s image, and award-winning costume designer Francois Barbeau was given a free hand.

Invited to design for “Dralion,” Barbeau shopped around the globe from the finest fabric emporiums to “dollar” stores, to realize his vision. That vision includes wedding horse-hair, raffia, metal, window screen, feathers, crystal, Styrofoam, fun fur, springs, telephone antennas, and even Christmas ornaments to costumes created from more than 5,000 yards of silk, lycra, velvet, leather, moleskin and cotton blend.

“Dralion” is the latest in the 16-year line of Cirque shows, and just as in the others, said Lyn Heyward, vice president of creation, “You know you’re always going to be surprised. ‘Cirque’ has a very unique sort of creative process. We decide when we need to do a show, and my rule is to decide that when they do get together to do a show, that they have all resources available to them. Casting is getting the right performers, dancers, singers, acrobats and gymnasts. Some are more circus, some are more sport, some are more artistic. We have to bring together all these elements. What we try to offer the (show’s) creator is a buffet table, with so many good choices that you have to choose. The director is responsible for filling his plate with the most appealing choices.”

Casting director Murielle Cantin summed up: “Casting is not one size fits all. Yes, the acrobats are young (10-35), but there are roles for older performers. When you are a clown, you are a character, and a clown is only as old as their heart.” Cantin said there are two different ways of casting. “When you’re replacing ongoing shows, such as “Dralion,’ you have to respect the concept (i.e., a troupe of Chinese acrobats to replace another troupe of Chinese acrobats). For new shows, you can keep the concept open. The most challenging show to cast was ‘O,’ because of the water element. It was not just about finding synchronized swimmers and divers; it was finding acrobats who were comfortable in the water. For ‘Dralion,’ the challenge was 35 people who come from another country, who have been trained differently, and have been studying since the age of 6. Finally, we find that sometimes with the (fame) of Cirque du Soleil, artists will be shy, thinking we’re much too high a caliber. But we are also looking for good potential. If we see them, and believe in them, we will persist and try to find the right route for them in one of our shows. Because we have several shows, it’s even possible for artists to change shows. And in later years, a former acrobat could become a coach, a coordinator, an artistic director. And with all our artists, when we see them in a show, and we feel the enthusiasm and the response of the audience, we say, ‘This is what it is all about.”‘

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By: Sandra C. Dillard | Denver Post
June 8, 2000

“Dralion,” the latest offering from the ever-inventive Cirque du Soleil, soars on the wings of sight, sound and sensation.

Exploding with seemingly impossible physical feats, other-worldly costumes and haunting music, the fantasy circus transports audiences from open-mouthed awe at the acrobatic tumbling and trapeze feats to sidesplitting laughter at the antics of the clowns.

Performed in a blue and yellow circus tent, “Dralion,” presented through July 16 in the Pepsi Center parking lot, is a combination of dragon and lion, with the theme “east meets west.” A celebration of life and the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – it’s the kind of show where every member of the audience will have a favorite act.

In an entertainment filled with highlights, some performances in particular stand out. A special joy is the balletic “Pas de Deux,” performed by Julia Neves and Ivo Guoerguiev, who appear as graceful as butterflies as they float and whirl high in the air, supported only by descending lengths of blue fabric.

Flame-haired Viktor Kee astounds as he juggles balls not only with his hands and body, but even manages to line them up along his spine.

Central to the show is a troupe of astoundingly agile Chinese acrobats. Young men and women whose slimness belies their great strength, fling themselves through the air as if completely weightless in a double trapeze act. Young men in vibrant African-inspired attire, complete with spiky headdresses, dive and tumble through a vertical stack of golden hoops. Pretty young women in yellow/green leotard and tights propel themselves one by one on a teeterboard until they form a tower of five.

A tiny girl (Peng Rui) in green rivets the audience as she balances on only one hand, and artfully arranges her body in a series of howdoes-she-do-that contortions.

In “Ballet on Lights,” young women clad in intense shades of blue and navy dance on point, balancing on the tips of their toes on the tops of rows of lightbulbs surrounded by light-tipped laser rods, for a particularly lovely effect.

The action – tied together by two singers in amazing caped costumes with towering headdresses, several romping “dralions” with gigantic heads and furry bodies, and capering clowns – is nonstop.

Some feats work better than others: A couple of tricks in a sequence involving young men rolling and leaping on a series of multicolored wooden balls required more than one attempt. Rather than take away from the fun, it led to even greater applause when the feat was accomplished.

As for the clowns, their carryings-on make the show’s first act feel a little padded, but they more than redeem themselves in the second act, in which their sendup of the “Dralion” entertainment brings screaming laughter.

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By: Tony Nguyen | Asia Express
July 20, 2000

Guy Caron is the founder of Montreal’s National Circus School and has worked with a number of circuses around the world. In 1984, he joined forces with Cirque du Soleil as artistic director, creator and actor in the productions of Le Grand Tour, Le Cirque du Soleil, La Magie continue and We Reinvent the Circus.

Since 1991, he has directed many circus shows in Europe and has acted as artistic consultant on many more, including Crescendo in Paris, and Cirque du Soleil’s Pomp Duck and Circumstance in Germany.

Dralion features 54 artists from 8 different countries (Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, France, Ivory Coast, Ukraine and the United States), including a house troupe of 35 Chinese acrobats. The multi-talented performers present a variety of high-calibre acts: ballet on lights, hoop diving, bamboo poles, juggling, teeterboard, double trapeze and skipping ropes.

AsiaXpress had the honors of interviewing Mr. Caron on his thoughts about the Asian influence on Dralion.

His dream of Dralion started two years ago when he envisioned combination of a Chinese dragon and lion dance. His goal was to change an artist’s relationship between a Chinese show and a Cirque du Soleil show. Dralion created a separate animal but the basis of the lion dance is there such as jumping balls and 3 lions on a ball.

Q: What influence does Asian music have on Dralion?

We don’t use it. We don’t want to make any kind of reference on the costume and in the music. We don’t want to make an Asian show, it’s Cirque du Soleil totally from beginning to end. What we see on stage is the acrobat’s techniques that we transform to the show. If you come to see a Chinese show, this is not it. But you will feel the experience, artistically, of where a Chinese troup can go with us. This is different from a normal Chinese show, the music is not there but you’re going to have some reference in the costumes that they wear or the makeup. China is currently growing at a rapid pace. In the last five years, I’ve been there six to seven times and each year I go there I feel the difference. Right now, the western culture has had a great influence [in China] including fashion, technology, style, and music. Everybody has [an] Armani, Christian Dior, [or] the latest gadgets in technology, the new fashion trends. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the system but the people have changed, in that why we have to represent a new image of China and to me, the new image of China is woman in the front. The soul of China’s people on stage without the tradition and you’ll see that that’s very powerful.

Q: Were there any opposition to your ideas of breaking down China’s tradition and culture?

The director of the Chinese troup is a woman and they are an army troup so they are very obedient. I am the boss and “you tell me what to do”. It was different for the older men to understand my concept but there were no opposition. For example, in an act that might take the older men ten minutes to learn, it only takes 30 seconds for a young kid to figure out.

Q: Does the show change from city to city?

The show stays the same. maybe when someone gets hurt you might change a little.

Q: Did you have the certain acts in mind then went to pick the troup or choose the troup and built the show around it?

The act was there, the troup was there with the act. We choose the act and we’re going to change the act. I say, we want a lion dance and she says sure we have a lion dance. I say, we want a bamboo act, she says we normally use bamboo so we have to create a new act but with the creativeness of the Chinese artists. They have a diving act, but we transformed the entire choreographic of the act in which to present. It’s why I choose a troup with some act and we choose the acts that we wanted from that troup and we build the show around it. We have only one act that we created for Cirque that they didn’t have. We have two people flying in the air with silk ribbons.

Q: What is the intriguing aspect about blending the traditional chinese culture with your concept of this show?

It was a dream at first. I love this culture. I love the people, I love everything they did in the past. Everything that I see in China is wonderful. What I want to [do is] go further with this … to change the way they move on the stage. To put their soul on the stage. You don’t have to be just an acrobat but to be like an acrobat , actor on a circus. It was the thing that I tried to work so hard. You’re going to see a lot of computer equipment wherever you sit but it’s not where I really want to go. The show you’re going to see , there’s no problem. They’ve made the show for 14 months now but when I started it was so hard to arrive there. For me, the most important thing is to take these people and say give me the real soul that you have on your body and put it on stage.

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By: Pamela Sommers | Washington Post
October 14, 2000

Cirque du Soleil is not quite the anti-circus, as some traditionalists would have you believe. Yet since its founding 16 years ago in Quebec, its creators have truly redefined what “circus” means.

A Cirque spectacular is resolutely devoid of animal acts. It is as much about movement and mime and color and music as it is about tumbling and trapezes and juggling and clowns. There’s an otherworldly, New Age, multicultural, alternately androgynous and erotic feeling to the enterprise. One is confronted by a society of beings whose style of dress, locomotion, communicating and gaze is alien and fascinating.

“Dralion,” one of Cirque du Soleil’s half-dozen spectacles currently touring the globe, had its area premiere Wednesday evening in a tent next to Tysons Galleria. The production conjures a world that fetchingly and fantastically blends Asian, African and Western cultural elements. There’s no plot, just a succession of dreamlike figures entering and exiting from the ceiling, from trapdoors and out of clouds of dry ice.

A tiny girl balances on one superhuman arm for minutes on end. Creatures in diaphanous fabric swing and somersault from a gigantic aluminum ring suspended high above the stage. Still more creatures in shiny bodysuits cling to the huge grid of a backdrop like flies caught in a spider web. A team of tumblers heave themselves, bladelike, through a succession of hoops. A man in a Marie Antoinette-style gilt frock warbles from an airborne pedestal.

Dancers in toeshoes balance on an amazing platform of light bulbs.

Giant “dralions”–shaggy mergers of Chinese dragons and lion figures–gambol about as young boys leap onto their haunches and backs. A fellow with pink hair and an extremely chiseled physique simultaneously undulates and juggles, the balls rolling liquidly off his ripples in a most provocative manner.

The warmest, most accessible moments are those involving the clowns. Joe DePaul is squat and rubbery- limbed and loves to plop himself, babylike, into people’s arms. Then there is the comedy team of Johnny Filion and Soizick Hebert; one is a nerd, the other a persnickety Olive Oyl. The nerd plays a mean set of drums and also the bass; Olive juggles scarves and serves as a mock-belligerent audience revver-upper.

Then comes perhaps the funniest and most telling sequence in the entire show: The clowns impersonate the ever-so-esoteric acts that have come before. The Cirque has a laugh with us at its own artistic pretensions.

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By: Jack Zink | Sun-Sentinel
February 17, 2001

If you’ve seen one novelty act, you have not seen them all. Cirque du Soleil keeps revealing infinite variations on the circus formula and consistently proves that a really good gymnastic routine can never be a cliche.

Since the company reinvented the circus in the mid-1980s, Cirque du Soleil has vacuumed up the planet’s best veteran and budding acrobats, aerialists, tumblers and gymnasts for a series of ever-more-gloriously overproduced shows. Thousands of buskers and 13 florid productions later, the concept is the same but audiences’ wonderment is newborn with every performance.

Cirque’s latest American touring production, Dralion, arrived at Bicentennial Park at midweek with a youthful brigade of amazing gymnasts, many of whom probably weren’t even born when the Cirque last played Miami 12 years ago.

Dralion prices start at $26.75 for kids and go up to $60 for adults. Cirque always has been pricey — We Reinvent The Circus topped out at $29.50 when it kicked off its 1989 national tour in Miami. Really elaborate garishness doesn’t come cheap, and what would a circus be without that?

But Dralion stops far short of bombast and is refreshingly charming at its heart. That’s because of the young acrobats, billed simply as the House Troupe. The large group of Asian teens and preteens is the core of this Chinese-themed production. They use the teeterboard to launch themselves atop one anothers’ shoulders. They dance three- and four-high on a bed of light bulbs, and give new meaning to the games of skipping rope and hoop diving.

One of the youngest, Zhao Yashi, opened Dralion’s month-plus run with a one-handed balancing act. Upside down atop a pole at centerstage, Yashi angled and contorted her petite frame into an incredible variety of positions, her wrist and forearm struggling with the effort all the while.

She and the others in the acrobatic troupe account for more than half of the specialty acts, and most of its excitement. Their most colorful moment is a semi-comic romp by furry dragons — “dralions,” the show’s namesake.

The Cirque’s trademark aerial pas de deux wrapped in lycra is given prime 11th-hour treatment, featuring Juliana Ives and Ivo Guoerguiev. Trapeze artists Han Yan, Li Qin, Wang Dongguo and Zhang Hongwei perform a series of double and triple flips and sideways turns. Viktor Kee does a juggling act, and there’s an interesting balancing act with tall bamboo poles. Sprinkled between the acts are mime routines by a clown quartet, which cleverly spoofs the acrobatics just before the finale.

All of this is packaged in Cirque du Soleil’s glossy, gaudy staging, from a huge bronze wheel high above the stage to a panoramic back wall. Both are used for a series of background gymnastic exercises by a chorus that could be the main attraction at some circuses. And of course, there is a New Age wall-of-sound musical score, as lush, billowy and ephemeral as the clouds of artificial fog that occasionally creep across the stage.

Cirque’s 1989 effort was more modestly produced and sat about 800 people under the big top. Dralion holds 2,500 under its modern techno-top. The acts may be great feats of physical prowess, but the fancy wrapping obviously is enticing.

# # #

That’s all for in this issue, but there’s still a little bit more!

• Issue #172, MAY 2018 – Dralion, Part 2 (2001-2003)
• Issue #173, JUN 2018 – Varekai, Part 1 (2002)
• Issue #174, JUL 2018 – Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)
• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)