We’re Off and Running, Part 13:
Dralion, Part 2 (2001-2003)

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. In this installment, we finish up with Dralion’s early reviews, featuring those from 2001 through 2003.

# # #

By: Robin Pogrebin | New York Times
April 6, 2001

Hard to imagine, perhaps, that there could be drama in the simple raising of a tent.

But as scores of men and women struggled against the chill wind blowing off New York Harbor, using their bodies and breath to heave up 104 metal poles that rose one after another like a cresting wave, and as the blue-and-yellow big top spread across the sky, stealing the expansive view of Lower Manhattan, unmistakable showmanship was in the air. The circus had come to town.

In this case, it was Cirque du Soleil, the legendary Canadian spectacle of avant-garde acrobatics, returning to the New York metropolitan area after a three-year absence. Squeezed out of its previous home in Battery Park City because of real estate development, the circus had settled this time in Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The show, “Dralion,” started in Montreal in 1999 and was most recently in Miami before coming here, where it is now in previews. It will open on Thursday and run through June 3.

Certainly much has changed since 1984, when Cirque du Soleil first left audiences awed and taken aback by its unorthodox approach. Now there seem to be circuses everywhere you turn, many of which emulate this one. In New York City alone last December, three one-ring shows vied for attention: Barnum’s “Kaleidoscape,” the Big Apple Circus and Circus Oz from Australia.

But after observing firsthand the intense seven-day period that Cirque du Soleil spends setting up shop, it is clear that circuses remain compelling, no matter how ubiquitous. They combine the delicate artistry of theater with the gritty brawn of a rock band on the road.

Because Cirque du Soleil tours 52 weeks a year, the people who work on it are a breed all their own, rootless in true Gypsy tradition: operating out of trailers, eating and smoking and sharing apartments together, moving around so much that it isn’t even worth forwarding their mail because it will never catch up.

“It’s an incestuous little dysfunctional family,” said Marc Beaudry, the circus’s logistics director. “We love and hate each other very, very much. I know who did what last night, far more information than I need.”

People traveling with Cirque du Soleil often have to brave the elements; the operation is largely outdoors. The night of the premiere of “Quidam” in Battery Park City three years ago was so stormy that spectators thought the tent might collapse. More recently, the circus braved unexpectedly frigid temperatures in Atlanta; pipes burst, generators broke down. “We brought in tons of heating equipment wherever we could find it,” Mr. Beaudry recalled. “Daily maintenance is no longer a priority when you’ve got winds of 50 miles per hour and you’re making sure the tent stays stuck to the ground.”

At the same time, this is high-end transience. The cast and crew are fed three by-all-accounts delicious meals from Cirque du Soleil’s kitchen, which has five chefs, including one devoted to pastry. (“Everyone gains weight on tour,” Mr. Beaudry said. “We’re all getting a little round.”) They earn decent pay and receive health benefits. And they can learn three languages (French, English and Mandarin) free, since the circus pays Berlitz to go on site.

Nevertheless, touring with the circus can be a trying existence, moving from city to city, performing the same taxing stunts night after night, keeping the costumes clean and the sets safe. They do it, members say, until they no longer love it anymore.

“I used to despise moving with such a passion,” said Mr. Beaudry, who hauls his motorcycle with him in a trailer behind his car. “Now I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Everything fits into its place in about an hour and 15 minutes.”

After 17 years of pitching tents around the world, Cirque du Soleil, created by Guy Laliberté in Montreal, clearly has the system down. It has also become big business, though the company is privately owned and does not release earnings figures. The tent packs them in: more than 2,500 people a performance at ticket prices that, for “Dralion,” range from $63 to $85 for adults and $43.75 to $59.50 for children. A new “Dralion” V.I.P. package for $190 ($130 for children) includes prime seats, a souvenir program, drinks, hors d’oeuvres and outside entertainers in a special tent on site called the Lincoln Suite (Lincoln, the car company, is the presenting sponsor). Even without the V.I.P. seats, the potential weekly gross is about $2 million.

Cirques du Soleil now proliferate around the world. Since March 1999, “Quidam” has been on a four-year European tour; it is about to open in Belgium. “Saltimbanco” continues its Asia-Pacific tour, playing throughout Japan. “Alégria” returned to the big top in January, beginning a tour of New Zealand and Australia. “Mystère” and “O” play permanently in Las Vegas at Treasure Island and Bellagio, respectively, both casino hotels. And since December 1998, “La Nouba” has played at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

After New York, “Dralion” is to move to Chicago, with another year of traveling to go. By the end of its three-year tour, the show will have visited 17 cities across Canada and the United States, including Atlanta; Boston; Denver; Houston; Irvine, Calif.; Minneapolis; and San Francisco.

Although Cirque du Soleil performances have a consistent approach — no animals, extravagant costumes, mind-bending physical feats and pulsating music– each show is created from scratch. “Dralion” features a troupe of 37 Chinese acrobats who perform everything from ballet on light bulbs to hoop-diving to double trapeze. There are 19 more artists from 8 other countries: Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, the Netherlands, the Ivory Coast, Chile, Ukraine and the United States.


Guy Caron, the director of “Dralion,” said he wanted the show to celebrate the four elements that maintain the natural order: air, water, fire and earth. The fifth element, he said, is the soul, represented by two singers.

Mr. Caron, founder of the National Circus School in Montreal, was artistic director of Cirque du Soleil from 1984 to 1988. He came back to do “Dralion.” “For me, this is magic,” he said in a heavy French accent. “For some people, it’s not.”

While casting the show, Mr. Caron said, he flew to China to see eight acrobatic troupes, then chose one. The “Dralion” title was his idea: it combines the Chinese symbol of a dragon with the Western lion.

For inspiration, Mr. Caron keeps a notebook filled with clippings and photographs, striking images he may return to later, ranging from Magritte paintings to comic strips. He gives these to a team he calls his conceptors, who then help bring the ideas to life.

For the music, which is original to Cirque du Soleil, Mr. Caron said he listened to some of his 1,500 CD’s, jotting down pieces that might inspire the show’s composer, Violaine Corradi. For “Dralion,” the result was a fusion of sounds from around the world, including Hindu melodies and instruments from Andalusia, Africa, Central Europe and the West.

“This is my universe,” Mr. Caron said. Yes, there are clowns. This is a circus after all, he said, not conventional theater. And no, it is not fame that attracts him to the job. “You meet me, but you can forget me because it’s Cirque du Soleil,” he said. “Me, I don’t need to be a star.”

Robert MacKenzie, the tour manager, put the show’s budget at about $15 million. Although “Dralion” has several sponsors, Cirque du Soleil provides the budget money.

While Mr. Caron had to work within a budget, he said the circus’s management in Montreal gave him the money to do what he wanted. “I say, ‘Find it; I want to do this,’ and they find it,” he said. “It costs, but that’s why we break the rules. Something happens that never happened before.”

“That’s why I like to work with this company,” he continued. “Because you go through your dreams.”


The big top was raised on March 28, a bright but cold Wednesday morning. Present were Cirque’s regular staff in addition to about 50 local hires. At the coffee break, they clustered separately: the regulars at the danish table, the locals at the doughnuts.

At the peak of the big top — made of heavy-duty industrial vinyl, with a radius of 83 feet — was the so-called cupola, already in place from the day before, suspended from cables in the center of the sagging tent. Slowly, machines started cranking up the tent’s sides. Once the ceiling was raised, the workers went under and in, hoisted poles from a flatbed truck — two people to a pole — and hooked them around the rim of the tent to create the sides.

When it was time to push the poles up, Jan Homan, the tent master, gathered the crew for instructions: go sequentially, like dominoes, he said, and be careful. “Take it easy,” he warned the workers. “Don’t break your legs.”

And then, one by one, with cursing, whooping and grunting, the poles were raised.

Overseeing it all was Larry Clark, the circus’s technical director. In Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, Mr. Clark might as well have been spring skiing. It’s not as if he were a Cirque du Soleil veteran, either; he joined only nine months ago.

Nevertheless, he was confident that all would go smoothly. Of course, there will be mishaps, Mr. Clark said. But he and his crew spend a good deal of their time and energy trying to prevent them.

And once the circus is up and running, every piece of equipment that the artists use is checked daily. Every week, the entire apparatus has a full inspection. All the welds used in the tent have to be certified by a structural engineer or a welding specialist, Mr. Clark said. Sometimes they are even X-rayed.

He said he had decided to join the circus because he was a fan, having seen and loved “Quidam” in Montreal in 1996. He was working for a dance troupe at the time. “When I left, I thought, ‘That’s the competition,’ ” he said.

This circus, he added, is a challenge all its own; you create the space from scratch every time. “If you’re involved in the technical end of the entertainment industry,” he said, “you’re used to doing things that are arena shows: the theatrical structures are already there; you move into them. This show is completely interconnected with the structure itself, even more than previous Cirque productions.”

While most past Cirque du Soleil acts were supported by structures on the ground, the performers here fly from equipment attached to the tent itself, Mr. Clark explained. That means that the tent matters more than ever before. So he and his crew have to take extra care that everything works, “down to the last rope and the last pulley,” he said.

From the cupola are suspended three aluminum rings: one, called the grid, holds the catwalk for performers and a work area for riggers; another is for hanging projectors and an enormous lantern; a third, called the sun, can move up and down and rotate.

In the old days, raising the big top meant “throwing the tent up with elephants,” Mr. Clark said. “If it was standing there and it looked comfortable, that was enough; you could move the show in.”

“We’re pushing the boundaries,” he continued. “We’re making the tent itself work harder. It’s not just a shell anymore.”

“We have the discussion every once in a while, ‘Why don’t we do arenas instead?’ ” he added. “But it’s a circus. The big top is the thing. And I, for one, am glad that Cirque has chosen to maintain the under-the-big-top mystique.”


Choosing a site for Cirque du Soleil begins in Canada with the tour development department, which sends people to scout locations. They evaluate the slope of the terrain, soil conditions, nearby housing, available transportation.

Then the logistics team arrives to evaluate the site in more detail: to make sure that three-foot pegs can be pounded into the ground to secure the tent’s foundation, that no water mains or sewer conduits lurk beneath. In some locations, the circus has to consider tornadoes and hurricanes; in others, earthquakes. Always, the company must be mindful of holding 2,500 people up on bleachers. “We’ve all heard scaffolding horror stories,” Mr. Beaudry said.

Cirque du Soleil works with each city to obtain the necessary permits. For “Dralion,” this was particularly complicated because the site is park land. “It wasn’t an easy thing,” Mr. Beaudry said. “There were concerns on both sides.”

Because the site had been a field and grass is inhospitable to heavy machinery like forklifts, the circus had to put down asphalt at a cost of $500,000, Mr. MacKenzie said. Under its agreement with the Parks Department, the circus will restore the field after it closes.


On site, the work begins with what is called a premark: spray-painting the outline of everything, establishing center points, deciding where trailers will stand. This is also the first tour on which the circus has had washrooms rather than Portosans.

There is about three feet of space under the stage so that performers can enter through trap doors during the show. They move around beneath on dollies, lying on their bellies.

Cirque du Soleil has its own generators, making it electrically autonomous; the only things it needs from the city are water and telephone lines.

Mr. MacKenzie, who has been tour manager for three years, started as lighting director, then became technical director. He is in charge of coordinating the managers of the seven departments: logistics, technical, artistic, production, kitchen, administration and sales. Moving the circus involves about 45 trucks.

“From a human stress point of view, it’s always the set-up and tear-down,” he said. “We have such tight deadlines. We’re moving 1,000 tons of equipment from one city to another.”

The sets were designed by Stéphane Roy, the lighting by Luc Lafortune. The choreography is by Julie Lachance.

Mr. MacKenzie said “Dralion” was a significant artistic departure from past Cirque du Soleil shows. “It’s brighter, happier, more child-friendly,” he explained.

Mr. MacKenzie, who formerly worked on world tours of rock ‘n’ roll shows, added that he liked the circus life. “I have such diverse responsibilities; it’s never dull,” he said. “I enjoy moving from city to city.”

Similarly, Jason Vaughan, the head of wardrobe, or chef des costumes, said he had grown accustomed to the nomadic life of the circus, even though there were more than 1,000 costume pieces to maintain. (“I counted them one day,” he said.) He carries framed art with him and puts it up on the walls of his various apartments to make them feel like home.

Mr. Vaughan said he joined Cirque du Soleil because the shows affected him. “They are so creative, so fresh — things you don’t see live,” he said. “The emotion I felt while watching their shows was incredible.” He checked the circus’s Web site for jobs and sent in his résumé.

These days, he is a little less starry-eyed; maintaining the costumes is hard work. “Dralion” is a huge show, he said. There is intricate detailing — beadwork, trims — all time-consuming to keep in top condition. Most of the performers have two sets of costumes, and still, something always goes awry.

“There are several emergencies every week because there are so many costumes in the show,” he said. Often, his staff has to sew repairs while the performers are wearing the clothes, so that they can quickly make their entrances.

The costume designer, François Barbeau, used more than 16,000 feet of fabric for “Dralion,” including silk, Lycra, velvet and leather. He also used unorthodox materials like horsehair, raffia, window screen, emu feathers, Styrofoam, a Slinky and Christmas decorations. When Mr. Barbeau comes around, Mr. Vaughan said, he brings humor and helping hands. “He’ll work, he’ll sew, he’ll cut,” Mr. Vaughan said. “He’ll do whatever needs to be done.”

Mr. Vaughan has a staff of four: one who covers sewing and makeup, another who focuses on shoes, another on hats, another who is a dresser and handles the laundry.


If an article of clothing touches the body, it is cleaned every day. That makes for a lot of loads. Cirque du Soleil traves with five washers and four dryers. Mr. Vaughan said he spends two days training the laundry person, who washes some pieces by hand. Cleaning the “Dralion” animal costumes alone — each of which is worn by two people — takes 12 hours. Fur is involved, and hundreds of little snaps. “It’s a huge logistical nightmare,” he said.


The day after the tent raising was spent setting up more technical equipment, including the stage (41.67 feet in diameter, larger than any Cirque du Soleil stage before) and the metallic scenery wall (59 feet wide and 26.25 feet high, larger and heavier than ever before). There are no nets in the circus; the performers are attached to cables.

Cirque du Soleil hires 21 technicians for the show, though only 16 are needed to run it; they work in rotation to allow one another days off. There are seven musicians and two singers.

In total, 160 travel with Cirque, and 150 more are hired locally.”We’re operating one of the largest campsites in North America,” said Mr. Clark, the technical director. “And the people who work here find ways to make it work, day after day.”

The other elements requiring construction include restrooms, concession stands, the box office, fences, seats, the V.I.P. tent and the kitchen. This was supposed to continue last Friday, but because of the wind and rain, the site was closed. The tent stood, buffeted and soaked, alone and uninhabited.

“We hadn’t anticipated losing a day,” Mr. Beaudry said. “Having to make the decision to send everyone home was not an easy one.”

Work picked up over the weekend, and Tuesday was spent preparing for a dress rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. Viktor Kee, 30, an expert juggler, was warming up in the artistic tent a couple of hours before the show. He said he appreciated Cirque du Soleil’s mix of dance, circus art and theater. And is it difficult to have a social life on the road? “From the point of a serious relationship?” Mr. Kee asked. “Yes. To have fun? No.”

As show time neared, invited guests began to file in, including suppliers, photographers and some people in a youth-at-risk program. Souvenirs were on sale. Popcorn machines were up and snapping. The show left people cheering.

Despite having been on break from the show for a while, the performers seemed to know exactly how to conjure their particular brand of contorted, gravity-defying magic. And that, say people who work on the circus, is exactly what keeps them going.

“Some days you get tired,” said Mr. Vaughan of wardrobe. “If I’m not feeling the love for the circus today, I will go watch the top of the show.”

“It just is a big recharge,” he continued. “And I think: ‘O.K., this is what this is about. This is why you’re doing this.’ ”

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By: Lola Smallwood | Chicago Tribune
June 20, 2001

For months they have traveled from Montreal to Miami to New York, turning hundreds of performers, more than 1,000 costumes and countless feats of technical wizardry into the theatrical bonanza called “Dralion.”

But ask these two longtime artistic designers with Cirque du Soleil to pinpoint what audiences can expect from the troupe’s latest offering, and perplexed expressions creep across their faces. Could it be just more of the same: funky music, wild acrobatics and cool lighting?

“No!” they say emphatically in heavy French accents, each one sitting up a little straighter in his plush red velvet chair.

“I’ve seen [`Dralion’] so many times, and each time I take something different away from it,” says the show’s artistic director Sylvie Galarneau, who describes the show as a vortex of color and movement.

Lighting designer Luc LaFortune says “Dralion,” which begins a four-week run at the United Center on Friday, is full of youthful purity and a splash of the unexpected.

“Dralion” is a celebration of the artistic contributions of Eastern and Western culture as well as a tribute to the four elements of nature: air, earth, water and fire. Boasting the largest cast of acrobats of any Cirque production, “Dralion” marks the formation of new creative team, which has put a global spin on the production.


“It’s new. It’s change, and it probably will be totally different from the next show that we create,” says Galarneau, who has been with Cirque since 1990. “It’s supposed to be that way. People come to Cirque du Soleil with an expectation that they are not going to get a recipe. All the shows create a kind of emotion and a feeling that is unique to them.”

Built on being different, Cirque has evolved into a household name since being unveiled 17 years ago by creator Guy Laliberte. The dramatic spectacle of outrageous costumes, circus art and street entertainment, magical lighting, and original music first became a hit in Canada and then expanded to other parts of the world, including Chicago, where it debuted in 1989.

Its success hasn’t gone unnoticed, as others have tried to emulate Cirque’s concept of no animals but plenty of theatricals. Last year, “Barnum’s Kaleidoscape,” a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey production, came to Chicago, complete with a one-ring carpeted tent furnished with sofa chairs. The year before, Cirque Ingenieux brought its fusion of Broadway fanfare and European spirit to the Shubert Theatre, where it was dubbed simply as a Cirque du Soleil knockoff.

“It makes us feel good that there are people out there who like what we do enough to copy it,” Galarneau says.


Since the success of its first production, “La Magie” in 1984, Cirque has created a dozen others; “We Reinvent the Circus” was the first U.S. production, in 1987, and made its Chicago debut two years later.

Today, “Quidam,” which came to Chicago in 1994, is midway through a four-year European tour; “Saltimbanco” continues a three-year stint through Asia-Pacific via Japan; and “Alegria,” a 1992 production, was taken out of retirement earlier this year to travel to New Zealand and Australia.

If that isn’t enough, three shows enjoy permanent residency in the U.S., including “La Nouba,” based in Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, and “Mystere” and “O,” both housed at casino hotels in Las Vegas. And in a daring attempt to branch out to the big-big screen, Cirque released an IMAX production called “Journey of Man” in January.

Galarneau and LaFortune say the myriad productions do not dilute the company’s creative juices but rather squeeze invention out of everyone involved with the development of new shows.

“We can’t afford to become routine or to become what people expect from Cirque,” LaFortune says. “If you do what you think people will want or what they expect rather than what pleases you, then [the work] lacks conviction, it lacks intention and truth.”


He says each show begins as an original idea from the show’s creative team, which outlines the concept. That concept is then presented to a second-tier of designers for lighting, acts, costume, sound and casting, where it is honed into an actual show. The project is further tweaked as performers attempt to do what has been put down on paper.

“In a sense it’s never finished. It starts like a funnel with the wide part open for ideas and a year and a half later it narrows down,” LaFortune says. “In some ways, it’s difficult because when you come up with something the director will say `No, you are repeating yourself,’ and then you have to go back and come up with something that is unique.”

They say “Dralion” is a fresh approach. Missing are the gray, dreamlike tableaus and the European pizazz.

With 56 performers from eight countries, including China, Brazil, South Africa and Ukraine, “Dralion” features costuming and choreography that seems to be influenced by East India, West Africa and Aboriginal Australia.

But that does not eclipse stunts like “Ballet on Lights,” in which seven women, on pointe, perform ballet on light bulbs or “Skipping Rope,” involving a 10-man pyramid jumping rope.

“There are no tableaux, just non-stop energy. The show is very much alive,” Galarneau says.

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By: Chris Jones | Chicago Tribune
June 25, 2001

Cirque du Soleil, back in town with a huge new show called “Dralion,” knows all about expectations and danger. Despite various appearances to the contrary, these are, after all, circus people.

When Chicagoans found a weird tent pitched at North Pier in 1992, few knew what to expect from a bunch of obscure Canadians offering a “Nouvelle Experience.” The seats were hard and the tent stuffy, but we still thrilled to the novelty of a revisionist circus that eschewed animals in favor of a signature post-modern blend of dance, performance and circus arts.

It was immediately clear that this could revolutionize the American circus. It did. Imitators multiplied. Even the powerhouse Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had to create a knock-off called “Kaleidoscape,” which came through town a year or so ago. It was a poor imitation.

Even though it now comes to Chicago only every three years, Cirque has reached the point where it has to please a core audience that has probably by this time seen at least one of the troupe’s high-tech permanent installations in either Las Vegas or Orlando. Vegas’ stunning “O” is performed in a huge pool of water. And “Mystere” has hydraulic lifts that can make the entire playing area disappear. It’s tough to follow that in a tent.

Then there are the memories of the previous touring extravaganzas. “Quidam” evoked both Atom Egoyan and Magritte. “Saltimbanco” seduced with bungee chords and unforgettable characters called “Baroques.” And even after a decade, who can forget Vladimir? This beautiful flying man had the power to break up marriages and subsequently landed his own show in Vegas.

By now, the ever more upscale Cirque has raised its own bar — not to mention ticket prices — to such heights that the gravest threat to its franchise is its own successes. More dangerous still, there has also been a changing of the creative guard.

Andrew Watson’s name is gone. Former artistic director Guy Caron, who was absent for Cirque’s big 10 years, returned to direct “Dralion” as part of a new team headed by Gilles Ste-Croix, Cirque’s director of creation.

Fans need not worry — there has been no fall-off in show quality or entertainment value.

More culturally specific, spectacle-driven and overtly Chinese in influence, Caron’s harder-edged “Dralion” lacks the dreamy, surrealiste quality of this company’s earlier work. Former composer Rene Dupere has never been equaled. And the harsher and more frenetic pace of “Dralion” reflects, perhaps, the unfortunate trend in live entertainment toward a sampling culture and a fear of aesthetic reflection.

There are no hauntingly metatheatrical images in this show that stamp the mind quite like its predecessors. That’s a shame.

Having said that, Cirque cannot be faulted for moving with the times or ensuring its appeal to younger audiences (its work is still aimed primarily at adults and teens rather than young children). By necessity, this spectacular show has also grown enormously in technical sophistication and production budget.

Borrowing from lessons learned in Vegas, the razor-sharp “Dralion” benefits from a ring with a basement exit, as in “O.” And fans of “Mystere” will enjoy the numerous and bizarre mechanical creatures who also strut around “Dralion” in the same spectacular fashion as they do at Treasure Island.

The sumptuous visuals of “Dralion” are far and away the most extravagant ever to tour. At least you can see where some of your money has gone. (By the way, avoid the top ticket prices. The seats in the rear are in some ways the better ones).

Overall, you are left with the sense that this show was aimed to compete not with the Big Apple Circus but with Madonna.

In the accepted sense, at least, Madonna doesn’t come with clowns. But the quartet of funnymen in “Dralion” wisely eschew the usual boring abuse of the audience in favor of a slew of accessible, inventive and fabulously funny routines that deftly parody Cirque’s own signature conventions. Clowning at the Cirque often has been a weak spot in the past, and these warm guys are this troupe’s best ever.

But the real highlight of “Dralion” is its feast of Chinese acrobats. In all previous shows, what Cirque likes to call its “house troupe” have played a supporting role and showed up in between the big circus acts to shift sets and stare meaningfully. Technology can now do that. So Ste-Croix and Caron nixed that component and cast a crackerjack troupe of frenetic, friendly and youthful Chinese performers who jump through hoops, create impossible human pyramids and generally dominate the show.

We love them more and more because each time they return to the ring they seem to get better and better.

Despite its state-of-the-art techno-tent, corporate sponsors, Yuppie ambiance and gourmet hors-d’oeuvres, the Cirque knows it still needs to connect with an audience’s inner child. That’s what brings in the money.

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By: Unknown | Globe & Mail
December 15, 2001

They’ve come a long way since their first performance in an 800-person tent in Gaspé, and the Cirque du Soleil’s tradition of flamboyant theatricality continues to amaze with a new television special, Dralion.

Back when it started in 1984, Cirque’s first claim to being different was its performer-driven show that made no use of lions or tigers or elephants. With magical costumes and an innovative approach, Cirque took recognizable big-top acts and made them unrecognizable, revolutionizing circus arts and making it cool again. Sure there are jugglers, acrobats and trapeze artists, but always with a twist. Dralion is no different.

The premise of the 90-minute show is the marriage of cultures, with a particular focus on Chinese circus arts, since Cirque directors Guy Laliberte and Guy Caron had long wanted to pay tribute to the culture’s expertise.

“Dralion is kind of a East-meets-West deal,” says Luc Lafortune, part of the creative team behind Cirque and who designed the lighting for Dralion. “There is a very strong Chinese presence, in excess of 40 performers, but we didn’t want to put them in Chinese costumes set to Chinese music and do their Chinese performance. So what we did is take them out of their context and gave them costumes that were probably more neutral in that sense and much more evocative on a broader level without being specific to a culture.”

Even the name of the show is suggestive of a hybrid, says Lafortune, combining the words dragon and lion to create a show that seems mythical, powerful and symbolic.

And this hybridization is not only thematic. Fifty-six highly skilled artists from eight countries were retrained to learn special choreography for Dralion resulting in a cosmopolitan fusion of techniques. Put them in luminescent costumes making use of materials as odd as Christmas decorations and horsehair, add a New Age soundtrack, and you have the future of circus.

At first, Dralion seems like an allegorical narrative: a young boy appears with an hourglass. He is soon followed by a burst of four characters, each of whom represents one of the four elements, but also stands for four of the major regions on the planet: Africa, India, South-East Asia and Europe. Then the fun begins.

Teeterboard artists, brightly clad in green, launch each other into the air, serpentine jugglers use every body part to keep the balls from falling, acrobats madly tumble across the stage and dive through rings, Chinese dragons turn somersaults and a beautiful pas de deux is performed in mid-air.

In case this sounds a little too serious, Cirque lightens the tone with its own brand of clowns (after all, it wouldn’t be a circus without clowns). But don’t expect any flowers squirting water, and there are no little cars in sight.

Skeptics might call it a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And surely if you’ve seen one, one-hand balancing act, you’ve seen them all. But Lafortune says the purpose of the show is to defy easy definition. He is reluctant to assign a particular story to Cirque’s shows, because he feels it limits the audience’s interpretations of and reactions to the performances.

“It’s like going to an art gallery. When you look at the paintings, some move you and some don’t, and the paintings that do move you, you don’t necessarily know why. And you don’t begin to decipher the meaning and try to understand the reasoning why there is such a character in such a context – it’s not a necessary part of the process.

“Every act is a different painting and you go from one to the next, you’re being transported.”

Lafortune started with Cirque in 1984 immediately after he graduated from Montreal’s Concordia University with a degree in fine arts specializing in theatre arts. Back then Cirque du Soleil was strictly a Canadian concoction, with headquarters in Montreal, mostly Quebecois performers and funding from the Quebec provincial government.

“I remember when we first headed out, we rented a minivan and left St. Therese in Montreal, and drove 14 hours straight to Gaspé. That’s where we had the world premiere of Cirque du Soleil – in a tent that wasn’t ours because we had some problems with ours – it was kind of ad hoc,” he says laughing. “When we first headed out, there were 65 of us. Now there’s 2,500.”

At first it took him a while to understand how to design the lighting for the shows since the performers had special and sometimes bizarre-sounding requirements for the acts.

“If you’re doing a tightrope or hand-balancing act, there are certain things that need consideration and take precedence over the aesthetic of the design,’ he says. “When they were doing hand balancing or when they had to do somersaults they told me they needed light on the ceiling. And I couldn’t understand why they needed light on the ceiling when they had light on the floor. What I eventually understood, is that they need to see the floor and ceiling because they need more than one record as to where they’re at in space.

“Probably the biggest challenge any time that you’re lighting an acrobat performance in the context of Cirque du Soleil is to balance the theatricality of the lighting design with the lighting that’s required by the artist to do what they do.”

While the televised performance doesn’t have the same intensity as seeing Cirque du Soleil in person, the benefit of it is that you get better angles and close-up views of performers as they mentally prepare for that next balancing act.

Plus there are some great aerial views of the spectacular performances, particularly the pas de deux, revealing just how detailed the choreography is. You also don’t have to wait while the carneys get the equipment for the next act ready (although the commercial-free broadcast makes it harder to break for peanuts and popcorn).

True to Cirque tradition, Dralion is one of the most colourful spectacles you will see on television, in no small part due to the dedication of its staff.

“I think that most of us do it because of a passion for what we do, and the mandate we give ourselves is that we want the people who see our shows to be moved just as we are,” sums up Lafortune.

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By: Lawrence Christon | Variety
March 7, 2002

“Dralion” is among the more robust of Cirque du Soleil’s programs, and among the funniest — Guto Vasconcelos, Phillipe Aymard, Colin Gee and Gonzalo Munoz are the clowns who parody some of the acts in addition to inflicting mayhem on each other. Some of it is spectacular, especially in the double trapeze act of Han Yan, Zhu Sha, Zhou Chunmei, Wang Dongguo, Zhang Hongwei and Hao Desheng, whose moves appear designed not just around athletic prowess but mathematical possibilities. And some of it is plain beautiful, as when pas de deux aerialists Igor Arefiev and Colette Morrow rise and descend and swoop gracefully around the ring in one of ballet’s most poignant joys — freedom from Earth’s gravity.

“Dralion” is no different than when it made a 1999 tour stop in Santa Monica. Yet there’s still a lot to appreciate in how far the music and design team of Cirque du Soleil, not to mention the more than 55 performers, has blended a succession of acrobatic novelty acts into an art form that expands the possibilities of dance, theater and the circus.

One of the most consistent pleasures here is not just the unfolding sight of the human body in graceful fusion of strength and physical perfection, but the body set to music. As impressive as any of the sounds and spectacular light designs, it’s the human form and its amazing power of expression that gives “Dralion” and the Cirque du Soleil’s other programs their primary appeal.

Many of the acrobats’ acts are so old that Marco Polo’s Silk Road must have been littered with the broken bones of teeter-board aerialists who missed, or aging hoop divers who had fallen and couldn’t get up. The format isn’t exactly fresh, either. As described in the promo kit, the theme of “Harmony Among the Elements,” consisting of Air (Colette Morrow), Earth (Henriette Gbou) Water (Amrapali Ambegaokar) and Fire (Benjamin Pring) suggests the kind of vaporous uplift that makes you want to stay after school to petition for world peace.

Music and costumes evoke Third World cultures; harem pants, the American Indian Trickster dance, those hoopsters done up in Australian aboriginal body paint, Japanese drums and modern funkadelic supply diversity without bombast.

Cirque du Soleil is so unlike any other circus group that its only competition has been with itself. Much of “Dralion” has been seen elsewhere, tricked up in different ambient settings. You have to wonder what it would be like if this brilliant creative team set its mind to a phantasmal narrative classic, like Dante’s “Inferno,” Homer’s “The Odyssey” or “Orpheus and Eurydice.” The Cirque du Soleil revolutionized the circus. If the members put their minds to it, they could probably revolutionize theater, too.

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By: Misha Berson | Seattle Times
July 26, 2002

After testing the waters with a hit local run of “Saltimbanco” two years ago, Canada’s Cirque du Soleil troupe is returning to the Seattle area soon with another nouvelle circus extravaganza.

Opening Thursday, in a blue-and-yellow big-top tent pitched on the same spot next to the Renton Boeing Plant where “Saltimbanco” played, is the long-touring Cirque du Soleil show “Dralion.” The title refers to the “half dragon, half lion” dancing spirits who appear in the production.

Dragons? Lions? This spectacle is unique among Cirque du Soleil efforts, in the way it draws inspiration (and the majority of its 55 performers) from the esteemed circus culture of China. Many of the super-agile acrobats, bamboo-pole climbers, hand balancers, hoop divers, rope skippers and foot jugglers in the ensemble hail from China’s Red Flag Circus Troupe.

Director Guy Caron, and others in the “Dralion” artistic team, traveled to China to recruit them, and to immerse themselves in venerable Chinese circus traditions. But “Dralion” artistic director Sylvie Galarneau, who is responsible for keeping the 1999 show fresh as it continues to tour, emphasizes that this is first and foremost a typically pan-cultural Cirque du Soleil event.

“We have clowns from Chile, America, Brazil and France in the ensemble, a juggler from the Ukraine and a pas de deux team from England and Russia. Most of our musicians are American and Canadian. We’re like a little U.N. on tour.”

Her description is backed up by the condensed cable-TV version of “Dralion,” which earned three Emmy Awards and is available on DVD and VHS.

Onscreen, the show promises to be an eye-popping Cirque du Soleil fantasia, pulling from many cultural sources to evoke an imaginary universe where supple, colorfully adorned creatures perform amazing physical feats to ethno-fusion music.

“The result of our trips to China was a meeting, a hybrid, of Soleil’s signature style and some major Chinese content,” Galarneau explains. “But it is not strictly a Chinese show.”

Like the six other active productions currently in the prosperous Montreal-based troupe’s empire, “Dralion” is gauzily wrapped in a cosmic theme.

“The main images here are of the four major elements — earth, air, fire, water,” says Galarneau. “And we’ve added a fifth, a Chinese element we call ‘strength of soul.’ Our director wanted to show all these little unending circles of life, which all need to join together in balance to survive.”

The world-class skills of the performers, hypnotic world-jam score (with lyrics in a made-up language) and seductive marketing ploys have been intrinsic to all Cirque du Soleil exports, since the company became a major entertainment draw in the late 1980s. (Soleil’s four touring productions, and three resident shows in Las Vegas and Orlando, sold 7 million tickets last year.) But the dazzling visual-design work is also critical to the troupe’s success.

French Canadian costume designer François Barbeau drew on his extensive experience in theater, film and ballet to create the vibrant dream-wear for “Dralion.”

“Basically, the costumes are simple, and the accent is very much on color,” says Barbeau, who won an Emmy for his “Dralion” designs. “The colors are very, very powerful — there are no pastels. When we deal with the element of water it is all green, because looking down at China from the airplane I saw many green lakes below, like pieces of jade.

“Fire is red, of course. The earth is represented with browns and ochre and reddish browns, and the air is blue. It’s very basic, but quite sophisticated.”

One challenge for Barbeau was making the shimmering, “sculptural” costumes durable enough to hold up well on tour: “The fabric is dyed in spectacular ways, but each piece is designed to last,” he states. He adds that typically a performer will wear five different costumes in the show, and must make presto offstage changes so the visual spell is never broken for audiences.

“Dralion” comes to Seattle after an extended Portland run. Due to advance ticket demand, the Renton engagement has already been extended a week, through Sept. 8.

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By: David Yonke | The Toledo Blade
July 20, 2003

To find the limits of what the human body can achieve, take one part dragon, one part lion, and the four elements of fire, water, air, and earth. Add a traveling troupe of 55 athletes, acrobats, and artists from around the world and you’ve got “Dralion,” the latest entertainment spectacle from Cirque du Soleil.

The Montreal-based Cirque, which will bring its newest production to Columbus for a three-week engagement beginning Thursday, has become a show-business marvel by combining displays of strength and agility with elaborate choreography, colorful costumes, high-tech staging and lighting, and a contemporary musical backdrop.

Since it was founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberte, who started by organizing a show featuring jugglers, stilt walkers, and other Montreal street performers, Cirque du Soleil has traveled to 90 cities and entertained more than 37 million spectators.

Kati Renaud, artistic director of “Dralion” (pronounced “drah-lee-OWN”), said in an interview last week that she is still amazed by the athleticism displayed in such acts as the double trapeze, single-hand balancing, the teeterboard, hoop diving, and juggling.

“I’ve been with the show two years and sometimes I look at it and think, `That’s incredible!’ But that’s what good training is all about. A lot of the artists have been doing this since they were children.”

At the center of “Dralion” is a troupe of 39 Chinese acrobats, who travel with five coaches and three interpreters. The show also features performers from nine other nations – Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Ivory Coast, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States.

A large part of Renaud’s job is to rehearse the choreography and to keep the acts “tight,” she said, and directing artists from 10 different nations presents a number of challenges.

“Most of the non-Chinese seem to speak English,” she said. “But for the Chinese, we always have one interpreter stuck to us when we’re training. Everybody knows a little bit of Chinese and we always have a Chinese-English dictionary.”

Renaud, a native of Montreal, was a dancer with another Cirque du Soleil show, “Mystere,” for four years before becoming artistic director. Having been a performer herself makes it easier for her to direct “Dralion” artists.

“I’ll speak to them more on a one-on-one basis, rather than a boss to employee,” she said. “And I can do that because I’ve been where they’re at. It’s good for them and it’s also good for me. Sometimes I really do feel like a mom.”

“Dralion,” which debuted in Monreal in April, 1999, is the 15th Cirque du Soleil show and the eighth that is currently being performed. Five of the productions are on tour in North America, Europe, and Japan, while three are permanently based – “O” at the Bellagio and “Mystere” at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, and “La Nouba” at Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island.

There is no specific story behind “Dralion,” Renaud said, but the fast-paced show offers a fantasy theme based on the four elements, each associated with its own “family” of artists in corresponding colors. Blue represents air, green symbolizes water, red is for fire, and ochre represents the Earth.

The costumes, designed by Francois Barbeau, are fitted for each artist and made from combinations of natural and synthetic fibers including lycra, silk, leather, and cotton, accented with everything from emu feathers to Styrofoam.

The makeup for each performer requires between 20 minutes and an hour to apply for each show, Renaud said. The person who plays the Fire Element has the most extravagant makeup, which initially took two hours to apply. With practice, the daily task has been reduced to about an hour.

“Dralion,” presented inside an enormous blue-and-yellow circus tent, has a set that includes three large metallic rings hanging 42 feet above a shock-absorbing floor made of Taraflex. A metallic wall, covered with perforated, semi-transparent aluminum, serves as both an orchestra pit and a stage wing.

Cirque du Soleil is constantly scouring the planet for more performers, sending talent scouts around the world to search for top athletes who also possess an intangible ability to “express their inner creativity,” Renaud said.

One of the major attractions for the artists who join Cirque du Soleil is that the choreographers and designers don’t just dictate the roles, but during the development stages work closely with performers to make the best use of their individual talents.

By contrast, Renaud said, she was trained in ballet, which leaves little room for the artist’s interpretations.

“In ballet, the choreographer comes and shows you the steps. You learn the steps and then you execute them. But Cirque is different,” she said. “The artist has as much input as the creative team can accept or absorb. It’s really 50-50, in terms of choreography. Cirque uses the artist’s positive traits to make the show more beautiful and well-executed.”

A production as physically demanding as Cirque eventually results in injuries – “we call them little boo-boos,” the motherly Renaud said – but to keep the cast’s ailments to a minimum, “Dralion” travels with three physiotherapists.

“One works with the artists on training during the afternoons,” Renaud said. “Another works on body conditioning to keep the artists strong and, if injured, to bring them back to health. And one is there at night during the shows, of course.”

“Dralion” also has its own traveling kitchen in order to meet the dietary demands of its diverse cast and crew. The menu always includes rice, fish, and vegetables, she said. “There are the occasional french fries, but most of the time, being health-conscious is a priority.”

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

• 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)