We’re Off and Running, Part 14:
Varekai, Part 1 (2002)

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 look at reviews and other articles from Varekai’s premiere year.

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By: Graeme Hamilton | National Post
By: Paul Chiasson | The Canadian Press
April 23, 2002

Inside the blue-and-yellow big top on Montreal’s Old Port, beneath the elaborate stage, Olga Pikhienko waited patiently for her cue one afternoon last week. “It’s cold down there,” the star acrobat and contortionist reported during her brief dinner break. “We’re so bored we’re singing songs now.”

Ms. Pikhienko, 22, would finally get her chance to emerge through the trap door and rehearse her act later that night, and tomorrow she and more than 50 other performers will burst on to stage as the Cirque du Soleil makes its long-awaited return to the city it calls home. Creators promise the show will be anything but boring.

After a three-year absence from Montreal, the Cirque du Soleil’s distinctive tent, redesigned in a swirl of colour and expanded to seat 2,600 people, again dominates the waterfront. More than ever, the Cirque returns as a conquering hero.

Last month, the outfit that redefined circus with its first performances 18 years ago landed a coveted spot during the Academy Awards, seen by 1.6 billion people. When the new show, Varekai, makes its world premiere tomorrow, it will become the eighth Cirque du Soleil show playing around the world. It is expected more than seven million people worldwide will attend a Cirque performance this year.

The circus’s success means it can have its pick of the top stars from Europe and Asia. “This circus is the most famous,” said Ms. Pikhienko, who comes from a Russian circus family and first performed with Cirque du Soleil in 1996. With one of the main acts in the new show, she knows it would be hard to reach higher in the world of circus entertainment. “I could maybe go to Hollywood,” she said with a laugh.

When the Cirque began in 1984, nobody involved had dreams of Hollywood. Funded by the Quebec government as part of the celebrations of the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Canada, it began as a collection of Quebec street performers who imagined a circus without the conventional elephants and lion-tamers.

Now Guy Laliberté, the co-founder and chief executive, is among Canada’s 100 richest men, with a net worth of $700-million, according to a recent estimate. He is the only known former fire-eater to have been invited to address the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. When he spoke to the business group this month about his vision for the development of Montreal’s cultural industries, he refused to begin his speech until the assembled business titans donned the red clown noses distributed on the tables.

It’s that challenge of retaining the heart of the circus while playing in the global big leagues that sometimes leaves Mario D’Amico feeling like a high-wire artist. “If I had the right answer to that, I’d sleep a lot better at night,” said Mr. D’Amico, the Cirque’s vice- president of marketing, when asked how far the circus can keep expanding before it becomes Disneyesque instead of daring.

“Go see one of our shows and tell me if it feels like a corporation produced it, or if it feels like a group of seven or eight passionate people produced it,” he said. “As long as we keep that feel inside the big top, that’s our guarantee against business-ification.”

As director of creation for Varekai, it is Andrew Watson’s job to make sure the excitement remains. As he watched a recent rehearsal, Mr. Watson, a former trapeze artist, said it is a constant challenge. “After all of the shows we’ve done, with all of the different acts, how do you make a show with nine or 10 different acts that are completely different?” he said. “We try to make a show that will touch people, give hope to people.”

As he spoke, his attention suddenly wandered. A young acrobat was on the stage receiving attention from a physiotherapist after injuring herself. Already he has had to adjust an act called Icarean Games, starring three young Spanish brothers, after one of the brothers dislocated his shoulder during rehearsal. “People are doing extreme things. That’s the nature of our business,” Mr. Watson said.

With two permanent shows in Las Vegas and one in Orlando, Fla., the Cirque is more of a presence in the United States than in Canada. After a seven-week run in Montreal, Varekai will pack 1,000 tonnes of equipment into 45 tractor-trailers and hit the road. After stops in Quebec City beginning June 26 and Toronto beginning Aug. 1, the show heads south for a planned three-year tour of the United States.

Mr. D’Amico said Montreal, where the Cirque has its head office next to a garbage dump, remains the preferred launching pad for new touring shows. Part of it is the practicality of being close to headquarters, but there is also a sentimental desire to give Montrealers the first look.

Mr. D’Amico expects the Montreal performances will be close to sold out. Attending a show is like a vote of confidence in a homegrown world-beater. Mr. D’Amico said that immediately following the Cirque’s Oscar-night performance, there was a jump in ticket sales in Montreal that he interpreted as a sign of pride: “People said, ‘Wow, Cirque du Soleil made it to the Oscars. Let’s go out and buy a ticket.'”

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By: Pat Donnelly | Montreal Gazette
April 26, 2002

Leaving the tent after Wednesday night’s opening of the Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, I felt happily swept away by the random, dazzling beauty of it all.

The crowd was still shouting and clapping, the acrobats still cheerfully accepting their just due, and the moon hung high and round over the Old Port, shedding its grace on the waters.

So many things are right about Varekai, down to the perfect locale and the ideal time of year for a show that’s a bacchanalian celebration of multiple art forms.

This is the Cirque’s 14th live production. And while it might not be the grandest (that would be the watery O in Las Vegas), nor the flashiest (that would be Saltimbanco), it certainly is one of the most ravishing – and theatrical. Its theme of Icarus, the ancient Greek who flew too close to the sun, touches very close to the soul of the sunshine circus itself.

Wing envy plays a large part in audience appreciation of circuses, particularly the aerial acts. We’d all love to soar with the birds. Here Icarus, in the slim form of Russian acrobat Anton Tchelnokov, falls to Earth and is trapped like a butterfly by forest creatures. Stripped of his wings, he’s lifted high within a net to do an aerial act that explores the very essence of freedom.

This act sets a heroic tone that’s followed up by the bravado-laden Icarian Games, a frenetic number that involves bodies twirled foot-to- backside by performers reclining on specially designed chairs. Then the diminutive heartwarmers arrive, three young jugglers who twirl ropes with glass dishes attached to the ends. They move like quicksilver.

When the Atherton twins (Andrew and Kevin), looking like super ravens, swoop high above the crowd on ropes they invoke a sense of otherworldly awe. And the Georgian dance number, with its rousing battle scene, brings the first half to a thrilling conclusion that helps us forget a couple of lame clown interludes along the way. (Pretending to blow a woman’s head off might be grotesquely fascinating, but it’s not funny.)

Varekai, which employs the talents of two choreographers, Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon, is the most dance-happy Cirque yet, with acrobatic finesse sometimes giving way to the kind of meaningful moments expected from quality dance companies.

When Tatiana Gousarova and Oleg Ouchakov pair off like figure skaters without the blades under Montanaro’s guidance the emphasis is on the romance of the pas de deux, not the flexing muscle. The group number Body Skating that opens the second half is mostly dance, too. But the combination of South African-flavoured music, technicolor costumes and and exotic characters gives it a Disneyesque (The Lion King) feel. Best to stay out of that jungle.

Its follow-up, a solo dance on crutches by Vladimir Ignatenkov, is unique and darkly moody but too understated to register. Circus skills find their most enthralling balance with the choreography in the Triple Trapeze number performed by Stella Umeh, Zoe Tedstill, Cinthia Beranek and Helen Ball, who embody spider- goddesses with sensuous, interwoven moves. And again, with Olga Pikhienko’s exquisitely graceful hand-balancing act. She’s the diamond in Varekai’s tiara.

Although Varekai is a breakthrough that moves way beyond its 1999 predecessor, Dralion, it shares a mild case of that show’s malady: clown-humour deficiency. Claudio Carneiro is at his best in his Ne Me Quitte Pas solo, performed in pursuit of an elusive spotlight. Colleagues John Gilkey and Rodrigue Proteau offer an amusing answer to the question of how many clowns it takes to change a lightbulb.

But Mooky Cornish treads too near the edge of pathos to do real satirical damage in the 1950s kitsch numbers she performs with Carneiro – as a swami who can’t keep his armpit rugs in place. They’re better as mock vendors in the pre-show crowd interaction.

But any faults Varekai might own get blown into oblivion by the pageantry and mad Russian daring of its grand finale. Bodies fly through the air in all directions, dangling on ropes, bounced off swings and tossed into movie screens. Suddenly all the disparate elements of the productions, from Violane Corradi’s eclectic music to Eiko Ishioka’s stunning costumes, come together in one wild, anarchistic romp. This is where director Dominic Champagne really shows his flair for postmodern cabaret.

Eager to share the rapture? Varekai’s Montreal run is rapidly approaching sell-out point.

But this year the Cirque is selling “last-minute” house seats, at top price ($70) on a first-come, first-serve basis 30 minutes before the show starts. If you still can’t get a ticket for Varekai in Montreal, try its next stop in Quebec City, opening June 27, or Toronto, opening Aug. 1.

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By: Janice Kennedy | The Ottawa Citizen
April 29, 2002

Canada’s circus of the sun, the Cirque du Soleil, is used to bringing out the stars. Ever since the Quebec-based troupe first toured its special brand of artistic genius to audiences beyond its national borders in 1987, word has spread like quicksilver: “this is a must-see show, entertainment that will sweep you away and steal your breath into the bargain.”

As a result, 33 million people worldwide have taken in a live Cirque show since 1984; the company, with its various resident and touring companies for its different productions, has received a ton of awards; and the Cirque du Soleil has become an international phenomenon.

Even the most jaded Hollywood types, stars who believe they’ve seen it all, have walked away from a Cirque performance in Las Vegas or Los Angeles or New York shaking their heads in pure and deferential wonderment. Those stars, and the company’s other fans around the world, are about to be dazzled again.

Cirque du Soleil has just premiered its newest show, the first in three years. Varekai opened last week to ecstatic audiences in Montreal, the company’s home base, and will play there (in the big yellow and blue tent at the Old Port) until June 16. From there, it heads off to a two-week run in Quebec City at the end of June, and three weeks in Toronto starting Aug.1. After an autumn stop in Philadelphia, it’s California-bound.

The show is a glorious, two-hour celebration of all that is most engaging, moving, inspiring, beautiful — all that is luminously transcendent — about the unfettered human imagination. Directed by Dominic Champagne, this highly theatrical, intensely artistic Cirque production weaves its spell in and around a loose narrative line.

On Stéphane Roy’s stylish set, a forest encircled by a surreal stairway to some kind of heaven, an Icarus figure flies too close to the sun and falls. But unlike the Greek myth, he does not plunge to his death in the sea, or even land on a dreary piece of soul- destroying earth. Instead, he finds himself, wounded and seeking redemption, in a fantastic forest peopled by strange creatures (all decked out in Eiko Ishioka’s arresting costumes).

There, the dance of good and evil, of hope and human triumph, is a choreography of exotic beauty, strange creatures and dazzling derring- do. He finds himself, in other words, in the world of pure imagination. The word “varekai” means “wherever” in the old Romany language of the gypsies, according to Cirque publicity. The show “pays tribute to the nomadic soul, to the spirit and art of the circus tradition, and to those who quest with infinite passion along the path that leads to Varekai.”

That is the bare bones of it. What happens in the time between the Icarian fall and the inevitable redemption is the magnificent result of the whole raison d’être of the Cirque du Soleil: to create a panoply of brilliantly original illusions effected by artistry and a breathtaking athleticism formed of strength and grace.

That is a much-abused word, “breathtaking,” but there is nothing else in the language quite up to describing the effect on Cirque audiences.

Before Varekai audiences are rendered breathless by the show’s stunning finale — where the soaring bodies of Russian acrobats in beautiful costumes defy earthbound gravity, hurtling into giant silk screens, and the multitude in the tent can only stand, awestruck, and cheer themselves hoarse over the impossible heroics of the artists in front of them — before all that, they are treated to sequence after sequence that leaves them gasping, shaking their heads, and invariably wondering, “How did they DO that?”

In the nowhere/everywhere world of Varekai:

– The young Icarus (Russian aerial contortionist Anton Chelnokov) puts on a show of incredible grace and strength as he performs a mid- air ballet — wrapped in a net, his only support;

– In the “Icarian Games,” showcasing a classic circus act, the bodies of men are effectively juggled into the air, launched by the feet of prone men, on whom they then land, time and time again;

– Three young boys (Yang Junping, He Bin, Li Siguang) toss spinning meteors into the skies, twirling about with elegant energy as they catch them, over and over, after their dizzying fall;

– The brothers Atherton, as well as four women and a triple trapeze, show that it is possible to create living, moving art — floating sculptures — in the insubstantial air;

– Georgian dancers prove that dazzling balletics are not only found in the Bolshoi;

– High camp makes an appearance in the persons of Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish, a pair of slapstick clowns whose mostly-funny shtick is an assertive reminder of the tackiness that is the antithesis of Cirque-style circus;

– Ethereal music (the composition of Violaine Corradi) combines with lighting and make-up, and choreographers Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon’s masterful movement designs, to create a world that really is magic.

What is remarkable is that the show, in the spirit of all that gives Cirque du Soleil its impetus, is a truly universal masterwork. Not only does it feature the achievements of creative minds and performers from across the globe, it is dependent on no language but that of the human spirit in the joy of unconfined artistry.

Varekai is the best kind of circus: carnival colours, boundless energy, beauty, laughter, amazement, spectacle — and nary a mistreated animal in sight. This triumph of the imagination, in other words, is pure Cirque du Soleil.

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By: Paula Citron | Globe and Mail
July 27, 2002

‘Cirque du Soleil is a place where creators come to create,” says Andrew Watson, “and where the impossible becomes possible.” The British-born, former trapeze artist is a perfect example of that maxim.

When he joined the company in 1987 as an acrobat, Watson could not have imagined that one day he would achieve the pinnacle of Cirque du Soleil invention. He is director of creation for the company’s new show, Varekai, overseeing the production from inception to performance. The Montreal premiere of Varekai in April did not mark an end to Watson’s involvement. The creative team continues to refine and hone Varekai’s artistic vision.

Varekai is a show of firsts. The previous 13 Cirque productions were all produced by the same core creative team. When Cirque founder Guy Laliberté asked Watson to head Varekai, it signalled a conscious decision that the company encourage new risk-takers. Says Watson, “Guy is driven by the philosophy of creation, and I think he felt that perhaps Cirque had become too settled into one artistic direction.”

Watson’s background with Cirque involves stints as director of casting and artist training, as well as artistic co-ordinator and artistic director, all necessary skills in his new job. He is 43, and for his creative team, has surrounded himself with other mostly fortysomethings. Of his 13 hand-picked colleagues, the director, costume designer, choreographer, specialty choreographer and clown-acts designer are new to the Cirque family. The lighting designer has been promoted from assistant, the set designer, composer, and projections designers have each worked on one other Cirque show, leaving only the rigging, sound, aerial acts and makeup designers as the old hands. As well, most of the 50 artists, representing 13 countries, have never worked with Cirque before.

Watson and his choreographer, Michael Montanaro, discussed the creative high of their grand adventure at a downtown hotel. Montanaro is the quintessential example of what motivated Watson’s choice of visionary team members. Before closing his company, Montanaro Danse, in 1994, the American-born, Montreal-based choreographer was well-known as a multidisciplinary dance experimenter, incorporating new technology, particularly video, into his pieces. In order to work on Varekai, he took sabbatical from his post as acting chair of Concordia University’s contemporary dance department. One major tasks was creating movement that would give artistic continuity to the circus acts without detracting from the skills themselves. “The performers already have a unique entertainment dynamic,” he explains. “I had to find ways to blend their individuality into an ensemble.”

It takes between 16 months and two years to put together a Cirque show, with a budget in the neighbourhood of $17-million to $25-million. The heart of Cirque du Soleil is the magical blend of circus and theatrical artistry, taking what is essentially a variety lineup of specialty acts, and weaving them seamlessly into a narrative with both poignancy and humour.

Varekai’s genesis began with iconoclast Montreal director/playwright Dominic Champagne, chosen by Watson for his imaginative productions that are as much visual spectacle as they are text-based theatre, including acclaimed adaptations of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Homer’s Odyssey. Champagne wrote the Varekai scenario which he then took to the creative team for brainstorming sessions in December of 2000. He is also the show’s director.

Champagne’s theme, in his own words, is humankind’s eternal journey between dreams and disillusions, which is also the soul of Varekai. His storyline revolves around a man, Icarus, who falls from a great height into a strange country, and is helped by the characters he meets to find the courage to fly again. The other main characters are the exotic, entrancing Olga, who becomes Icarus’s mentor and muse, the wise, old Guide whose mission is to inspire change, and Skywatcher, a mad scientist who is the collector of the world’s memories and an interpreter of signs.

The challenge for the creative team was to translate this scenario into stage reality, particularly creating the environment that would be the backdrop for the story. Both Watson and Montanaro vividly recall the moment of epiphany in which set designer Stéphane Roy unveiled the primitive model that would become Varekai’s enchanted golden forest and meadow, dominated by a an immense bird-like, aerial catwalk.

Discussions began with impulses, focusing on fragments of ideas culled from aspects of Champagne’s vision, such as the fraternity of people who live on the road and make their home wherever they are. This led to the idea of the Romany people, or Gypsies. In fact, the working title of the show was “Rom,” which was finally rejected as being to impersonal. After endless research, the title became Varekai, the Romany word for “wherever,” which the team saw as a magical world where anything could happen.

Thus, circus acts would have to be found that could rise out of this environment, feeding the metaphor of finding the courage to fly. “We looked at the previous Cirque shows and decided that our point of departure would be what hadn’t been done before,” Watson says. Montanaro adds, “Our goal was not to make Varekai better than other Cirque productions, but different. We didn’t want to be a reflection of past glories.”

For example, Watson was determined to have Icarian games, the time-honoured circus tradition of human juggling that has, in recent years, fallen into decline. The catapult, lying on his back with his legs in the air, uses his feet to throw, spin, turn and catch a colleague, like a juggler would his balls and clubs. “It fit into our theme,” Watson says. “Icarus can’t walk, while these people use their legs to move others.”

The Icarian games of Varekai, however, are like no other. It is now a group act for 12 people, surrounding the traditional Icarians with three mixed couples whose backgrounds are sports acrobatics, acrobatic dance and apache dance, thus building a scene that is intense, exciting and dangerous — a perfect foil for the Earth-bound Icarus. Two unusual segments include ethnic dance from the Republic of Georgia, and body skating.

The Cirque is all about risk and experimentation, some of which works and some of which doesn’t. Watson’s idea of using Teflon as surface material for the body skating is a dazzling effect, but his plan to use a backpack built into the costume instead of the traditional Icarian games chair-like support is a disaster. Nonetheless, Varekai will be Cirque’s first “multimedia” show with fully-integrated video projections throughout.

“There is in Varekai a narration one can bond with,” Montanaro says. “It presents the hope that although life may be difficult, you can overcome adversity. That is why Cirque has always been more than mere spectacle. Its productions radiate camaraderie and humanity.”

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By: Ray Conlogue | Globe and Mail
August 3, 2002

Rating: ***

Varekai, which opened Thursday night at Ontario Place, is the newest in Cirque du Soleil’s widening roster of spectacles. The troupe is now running eight different shows throughout the world, twice as many as in 1996, and needs to recruit 300 new acrobats and artists every year to support them.

Fans of the Cirque will be happy to know that Varekai, for the most part, keeps up the high standards. It has a gorgeous, evocative setting — an imagined rain forest, with highly plumaged inhabitants — and boasts several spectacular acrobatic performances that match the high standards of earlier shows.

However, there is a higher percentage of apprentice acts. Every show has these: acts that look good but don’t yet quite hit the bell. To my eye, having seen four earlier shows, Varekai has more of these acts than it should.

It’s also the first Cirque show by young Montreal director Dominic Champagne, an avant-garde artist hired to take the organization in a fresh artistic direction.

Artistically, though, there’s little evidence that this has happened. Instead, Champagne’s work seems to underline how formatted the Cirque’s shows have become.

Varekai (from the Romany word for “wherever”) begins with a wild howl of tropical bird song as the lights gradually reveal a forest of bamboo-like steel poles as high as 10 metres tall, some with attachments permitting acrobats to climb them monkey-style. It backgrounds a broad, open play area equipped with turntables, trap doors and even an elevating platform.

Enter the Guide, the superb Quebec clown Rodrigue Proteau. Bird plumage sprouts from his waist, accenting his naked, athletic upper torso and remarkably plastic mouth. Seduced by the surrounding bird song, his face registers sudden dismay as an airplane thuds overhead. He rolls a Rube Goldberg contraption onstage, grabs the invisible airplane/truck/motorcycle and stuffs it into one end, honks and drums on various controls, and transforms the racket of civilization into — more bird song.

The Guide, a cranky nature spirit, kibitzes and skirmishes through the evening with Skywatcher, a black-clad scientist with a light bulb screwed into his head. Skywatcher (John Gilkey) often flaps about with man-made wings, which provides a carnivalesque echo and mockery of one of the show’s acrobat centrepiece acts, Anton Chelnokov’s sensitive take on the Icarus myth.

This is probably Champagne’s most successful intervention as a theatre director. Some of his other ideas, such as having a bride, a groom and wedding attendants dance through a Russian swings routine, don’t make any sense and amount to little more than bubblegum for the eyes.

Most Cirque shows have a theme with some artistic meat on it: whether Saltimbanco (society’s love-hate relationship with artists), Alegria (the struggle of the powerful and the powerless), or Quidam (the inability of parents to share their children’s sense of wonder).

Varekai is about our separation from nature. Like all Cirque shows, it flirts with a little darkness and finishes strongly upbeat. But the weakness of some of the acts impairs the overall consistency of the show.

The Guide, for example, is brilliantly funny and thematically on-key. But the other featured clowns, Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish, do a series of standard routines disconnected from the rest of the show. The best, perhaps, is the old standby of the inept magician (instead of coming out of his hat, the rabbit races across the stage and falls into a hole) and his deficient assistant (Cornish, blond and overweight, stylishly parodies the vamp poses of the customary shapely assistant and makes a pass at the audience volunteer). The worst is Carneiro as a singer who must chase a malevolent spotlight that shines anywhere except on him.

The outstanding acrobat acts, apart from Chelnokov’s Icarus, are also Russian. Olga Pikhienko does a superb hand-balancing act supported on three walking sticks set into the stage, and an 11-man team does the most ambitious Russian swing routine the Cirque has attempted. The three-man swings have been redesigned to look like spaceships from the movie Alien, and when the lead acrobat is hurled from the swing he reaches an altitude I haven’t seen before, landing at high speed against a huge fabric backdrop. Composer Violaine Corradi’s take on various ethnic music styles goes right over the top in this case, with thundering Slavic dance rhythms to accompany the high-flying acrobats.

The whole show clocks in at just over three hours. It’s to Champagne’s credit that the energy level rarely flags. But the innovation level isn’t quite what it needs to be.

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By: Richard Ouzounian | Variety
August 16, 2002

“Varekai,” the 13th production from Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil, faces a problem born of the company’s massive success. In recent years, the company’s touring shows have had a hard time matching the level of dazzle found in Cirque’s sit-down attractions in Las Vegas and Disney World. The latest show, directed by company newcomer Dominic Champagne, is no exception.

When Cirque first burst onto the scene in 1984, it was a refreshing concept: a circus free from animals, sawdust and sleaze. Instead of a cheap carnival atmosphere, it offered something sleeker and finer, with a continental flavor. It became the perfect entertainment for indulgent boomers and their families.

As the years went on, this brainchild of Guy Laliberte grew more and more impressive. Lighting, costumes, sets and music all became part of a seamless whole, and by the mid-’90s, shows such as “Alegria” had reached a breathtaking level of artistry.

But it’s hard to keep reinventing the wheel, even if that wheel is a unicycle ridden 200 feet in the air. Cirque du Soleil’s solution was to create permanent homes where it could mount sit-down runs of even more spectacular shows.

This led to “Mystere” and “O” in Las Vegas (two more are on the way there) and “La Nouba” in Walt Disney World, all of which have proved to be phenomenal success stories.

It’s difficult to maintain that ever-increasing level of excitement with the touring shows, however.

Champagne, Montreal’s avant-garde staging wizard best known for his productions at Theatre du Nouveau Monde, has shaken up the format slightly, imbuing it with increased sensuality and losing some of the artsy preciousness that pushed shows like “Saltimbanco” over the edge.

On the other hand, the thematic thread running through “Varekai” seems more tenuous than that of some of its predecessors. Not all the elements are well integrated. A young man named Icarus falls to Earth, loses his wings and is forced to wander through a surreal forest full of vagabonds and gypsies. (“Varekai” means “wherever” in the Romany language.) At the end of his journey, he encounters a spirit of light named Olga and marries her.

All of this, of course, is just a framework on which to hang, admittedly, some of the most dazzling acts Cirque has ever produced. The Atherton Brothers (Andrew and Kevin) perform an amazing display called “Aerial Straps,” in which they swing perilously above the arena suspended by leather wrist bands, uniting into one being, then dividing and hurtling into space.

Olga Pikhienko brings sheer poetry to her hand-balancing on canes, in which she folds her body back and forth into ever more unlikely configurations. And Octavio Alegria stretches the juggling envelope enormously, utilizing his hands, feet, head and — most memorably — mouth. There are also astonishing group displays of Body Skating and work on the gravity-defying Russian Swings that has to be seen to be believed.

But in between, there are pedestrian slices of testosterone-charged Russian dancing that could have wandered in from “The Ed Sullivan Show,” some young Chinese jugglers who are not quite good enough and a pair of clowns recycling ancient material from “La plume de ma tante.” Director Champagne also doesn’t seem to know how to keep the narrative thread together — tenuous though it is — and young Icarus (who is sensitively portrayed by an amazing Russian contortionist named Anton Chelnokov) frequently vanishes from our sight for far too long.

The wedding finale is vintage Cirque du Soleil, an explosion of sound and color, in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It leaves the audience in a blissed-out state of exaltation; the totally sold-out Toronto run is a testimony to the positive feelings it engenders. Still, “Varekai” proves the franchise needs a strong directorial hand.

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By: Laura Bracken | Playback Online
September 16, 2002

As if a bamboo forest, Russian swings, a falling angel and a dancing firefly aren’t enough to round out the more than 50 performers and 150-person tour staff on Cirque du Soliel’s Varekai, add lighting rigs, dollies, 10 high-definition cameras, a mobile HD unit and an 80-person film crew to the mix and you’ve got a real circus.

Cirque du Soleil Images, the multimedia arm of the Quebec performing arts institution, has taken on the ambitious task of shooting for DVD and broadcast its fourth Cirque du Soliel production, Cirque du Soleil Presents Varekai, exec produced by VP multimedia Vincent Gagne with producer Martin Bolduc, and coproduced with U.K.-based Serpent Films. It is the first time since 1991 that a Cirque show has been filmed live in Canada.

The crew, shooting in Toronto Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, recorded four full live performances from 32 different angles with 10 HD cameras carefully positioned throughout the big tent, as well as two days of inserts, producing more than 80 hours of footage to be digitized and later broadcast on CBC, Radio-Canada and Bravo! in the U.S.

The big tent, usually packed full of dedicated Cirque fans, stands empty on a Tuesday afternoon as the film crew, whose mission it is to extend Cirque’s reach beyond its live audience into film and television, is privileged to a private performance.

Precariously thin netting suspends the protagonist of Cirque’s newest touring show high above the stage in the tiptop of the big tent erected on the grounds of Toronto’s Ontario Place. Below, a lone cameraman shooting close-up inserts stands directly under the performer as he suddenly drops to just inches above the stage in his net cocoon.

The performance is part dance, part drama and all astonishing artistic and athletic talent. Varekai, which means ‘wherever’ in Romany Gypsy language, tells the story of a man who loses his wings and falls into a magical world at the mouth of a volcano.

The challenge for director and editor Nick Morris, who sits inside the mobile HD unit viewing images on 10 LCD screens as the cameras record the evening’s performance, is making the film distinct but faithful to the magic of the live performance. He says he is careful not to assume everything will look good on film just because it is such a remarkable show to watch live.

‘The most excruciating challenge is everyone already thinks this show is fantastic,’ says Morris, who also directed the Emmy Award-winning Cirque du Soleil Presents Alegria. ‘You don’t want anyone to say the DVD didn’t quite capture the live show.’

Because the performers make their acts look so easy, Morris takes extreme close-ups that are intended to convey to viewers the incredible strength and skill of the performers. For example, a woman’s hand gripping the triple trapeze, the muscles in her hands and forearms strained to the limit, white-tipped fingers gripping the trapeze, as she holds herself and a co-performer 15 feet above the stage.

‘I don’t think there’s a place in the tent where we haven’t had a camera. [But] for Cirque du Soleil, the audience always comes first,’ says Morris, explaining how this project differs from live music performances he has filmed in the past, where the placement of cameras took precedence over the audience’s view.

When Morris met with Bolduc, DOP Barry Dodd, Serpent producer Rocky Oldhan and TV lighting designer Mike Sutcliffe, to view Varekai’s debut in Montreal and develop a strategy for the filming last June, one of the first things they had to do was submit plans for where cameras would be positioned, reserving blocks of seats so as not to obstruct the views of any audience members months later in Toronto.

Dodd’s task as DOP is to capture the fantastical live performance without missing a beat, while at the same time adding new magic and depth. ‘The atmosphere and the ambience created at Cirque du Soliel are magical. We have to create magic like they do,’ says Dodd, who has shot four of Cirque’s performance specials, including Cirique du Soleil Presents Quidam. ‘There are clever touches of brilliance all over the place and the hardest part is to transpose that energy and magic on the small screen.’

This is the first show Dodd has done on HD, and he says it requires more thought. Because HD absorbs so much light, Dodd subtly filters the back of the lens to make the pictures softer and more filmic. But this makes focus more difficult, he says. ‘HD is an exact art.’

Dodd and his crew are not the only film unit on set. Producer Fiona O’Mahoney’s four-person crew is backstage shooting a documentary to be included as part of the DVD, which features each of the 54 performers, focusing on 10 to 12 of them more in-depth, giving the viewer a sense of how performers, from 13 different countries, ended up in the circus.

The 90-minute performance art special, budgeted at $2.3 million, will be delivered to broadcasters in December. The DVD and video, distributed by Columbia TriStar, should be released in early 2003.

Cirque series preems on Global

Meantime, Cirque du Soleil The Fire Within, a 13 half-hour documentary series that premiered on the Global Television Network Sept. 15, is a unique behind-the-scenes chronicle of the creation of Varekai. Shooting began in June 2001 as hopeful artists arrived in Montreal for auditions, and continued through to the end of Varekai’s Montreal run in July 2002.

Cirque du Soleil The Fire Within is the first time the Cirque has allowed a camera crew to film detailed preparations for a new show. The production team shot more than 1,000 hours of original footage using two camera crews on location in Montreal, New York, Dallas, London, Paris and Sofia, Bulgaria. Each episode took nine weeks to edit, says Galafilm president Arnie Gelbart, who exec produced with Gagne and Marie Cote of Creations Musca, a subsidiary of Cirque du Soleil Images.

Producers are Gelbart and Bolduc. Lewis Cohen is the series’ director, with additional directing by Bachir Bensaddek. Valerie Beaugrand-Champagne is the series’ creative producer and story editor. The North American broadcasters are Global, French-language arts specialty channel ARTV (Cirque du Soleil sans filet) and Bravo! USA. Gelbart says ‘the observational’ series keys on the human element of drama, comedy, love and loss, work and play. Tension mounts as production demands deepen and the show gets closer to opening night in April 2002.

The show’s behind-the-scenes look also includes session profiles of technicians, administrative staff in the Cirque’s casting and marketing departments, choreographers and head coach Boris Verkhovsky, live show creators Dominic Champagne and Andrew Watson and Guy Laliberte, president and CEO and founder of Cirque du Soleil, who is also Varekai’s creative guide. ‘It’s really interesting to work with people who want to do new stuff all the time. I’m glad they like what we do because we brought some originality to it and it could have been somewhat more pedestrian,’ says Gelbart.

Cirque du Soleil The Fire Within is budgeted at $3.2 million, with support from the Canadian Television Fund Licence Fee Program. Granada International out of London has world rights. Both Bravo! USA and Granada are among Cirque du Soleil’s established international media partners.

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By: Jonathan Takiff | The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 19, 2002

When the typical circus comes to town, the public relations people invite the media to interview the star acrobat, put on clown makeup or spend a day scooping up behind the elephants. When Cirque du Soleil wants to drum up attention for a visit, it sends ahead its philosophical director of creation, Andrew Watson, and equally high-minded lighting designer, Nol van Genuchten.

Their pleasure is to talk about the “artistic process” – Cirque du Soleil’s ongoing mission to rewrite the rules of circus arts. Most especially, to challenge the imaginations of performers and viewers alike “to realize our dreams,” said Watson.

Clearly, Cirque du Soleil is not your father’s three-ring circus. Philadelphians learned that last fall when the Montreal-based organization first visited our town, setting up its tents at Broad Street and Washington Avenue.

Presented in an intimate, 2,600-seat theater with the audience wrapped 270 degrees around the stage, Cirque is almost as much performance art or aerial ballet as it is European-style, one-ring circus. Mime and exotic world-beat music, plus highly imaginative costumes, scenery and lighting add to the mystique.

And there are no animals to add to the, um, mustique.

While it took this theatrically minded, globe-hopping organization 17 years to land here, the response Cirque enjoyed from the Philadelphia ticket-buying public for its “Dralion” show was so magnifique, Cirque decided to make an unusually fast return visit.

They’re treating us to the U.S. premiere of their 14th touring show. “Varekai” opens tonight at the same site as last year’s show. The show’s title – pronounced ver-ay-kie – means “wherever” in the Romany language of the Gypsies and is intended as a “tribute to the nomadic soul,” said van Genuchten.

Personifying the spirit is a winged character named Icare (first cousin to the mythological Icarus), who lands at the lip of a volcano, where he discovers and then chases the flightly love of his life through a magical and oft-perilous rain forest. Along the way, he encounters more than 100 odd characters and witnesses amazing events imbued with mythological and poetic significance.

Among them are an amazing contortionist (Russia’s Olga Pikhiekno) hand-balancing on poles, a pair of androgynous “birds” (Andrew and Kevin Atherton) who swoop and meld in perfect synchronicity over the audience, and a troupe of magical “body skaters” who glide across a slippery floor with no blades attached to their feet.

Also exploding before our eyes are a troupe of feisty Georgian dancers, limber Asian tumblers and heart-stopping Russian high-swing adventurers risking midair collisions. And, of course, there are regular visits from a pair of wacky clowns, Mooky and Claudio, the show’s most overt bow to circus tradition.

While a “fantasy world” set has become the standard for all Cirque extravaganzas (eight different productions are currently touring the United States and beyond), Watson and van Genuchten stress that the execution this time is different. “To sharpen our edge, we reached outside the Cirque organization for creative talents who’ve never worked in circus before,” said the British-born Watson, himself a former trapeze artist.

The noted Quebecois theater director Dominic Champagne is a first-timer, “which is why this show has more narrative than other Cirque shows,” Watson explained. The spectacle also has (judging from the Canadian reviews) a tad more sensual allure than Cirques past – though not so much that you shouldn’t bring the kids.

Choreographer Michael Montanaro heads the dance department at Quebec’s Concordia University and had never worked with talents who steadfastly refuse to let their feet touch the ground.

Seasoned Japanese costume designer Eiko Ishioka and “scenographer” (set designer) Stephane Roy “are well-known in the world of opera, dance and film, but circus novices,” said van Genuchten, “while sound designer Francois Bergeron had done theater and installations, underground things…”

“Varekai” performers, from 13 countries, were similarly called upon to broaden their perspectives and skills.

“This is not a show where you just come in, do your number and then disappear till the grand finale, when you return to parade and wave to the audience,” Watson stressed. “Here, you are called upon to play characters, to dance throughout the show. A small percentage of performers don’t like the extra effort involved, but most find it liberating. After I did my first Cirque show as an acrobat, I couldn’t go back to doing traditional circus.”

So how will Cirque du Soleil top this one?

“We want to enlarge our span of involvement in entertainment and hospitality in general, creating environments and the content within them,” said Lyn Heward, Cirque’s president and CEO of creative content. Toward that end, Cirque recently announced the addition of two productions to its pair of permanent Las Vegas offerings, in partnership with MGM Mirage. “The first will open next July 31 – and neither will be a circus show,” teased Watson. “All I can say is, we’re branching out.”

Also on the works for a possible 2005 opening is a Montreal hotel where all the staffers are Cirque entertainers. Would you like a hand-stand with your martini, Monsieur?

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By: Robert Hurwitt | San Francisco Chronicle
November 11, 2002

The show went on Friday afternoon under the yellow-and-blue Grand Chapiteau big-top of Cirque du Soleil. That had to be even more of a relief for the producers and performers than for the audience that arrived at the Pacific Bell Park parking lot during a lull in the first big storm of the season — and later would have to struggle through heavy traffic to leave as hordes arrived for the Rolling Stones concert in the stadium.

Thursday’s opening of the Cirque’s “Varekai” had been canceled due to gale force winds. The wisdom and irony of that decision — the first such Cirque cancellation since ’95 — soon became clear. “Varekai” begins with a lyrical evocation of the fall of Icarus (Russian aerialist Anton Chelnokov) and the aerial rigging and catwalks, integrated into the tent’s structure, look too complex to warrant taking chances.

Aerial acts make up a large part, though by no means all, of the thrills in “Varekai.” Wonder-inducing acrobatics, hand-balancing and human catapulting provide the rest. But thrill is never the primary reason to catch a Cirque du Soleil show. A seamless blend of skill and imaginative eye-candy design, wrapped in pulsating music and a semblance of a mystical-humorous story, is the hallmark of the group that redefined high-end, new age circuses in the late ’80s.

“Varekai” fills the bill pretty well. It isn’t as magical as some of the Montreal-based Cirque’s earliest creations or the child’s-dream of “Quidam” seen here in ’97. But it avoids the trap of preciousness the Cirque has always been prone to, as well as the ponderous rock-concert-gone-wrong flaws of “Dralion” two years ago.

Created by director Dominic Champagne, Cirque founder Guy Laliberte and “director of creation” Andrew Watson — with a host of designers — “Varekai” is a generally fast-paced, eye-pleasing, buoyant entertainment that flies by almost too quickly (the 2 1/2-hour running time includes a half-hour intermission). If the clowns aren’t as funny as in “Dralion,” the less impressive acts aren’t as oversold.

Eiko Ishioka’s wildly creative form-fitting costumes — a jungle of insanely colorful half-human lizards and people with bulbs or tentacles growing out of their heads — form a visual feast against the forest of bamboo poles and rickety, rain-forest-like catwalks (an amazing set by Stephane Roy). Violaine Corradi’s score — brightly played (if a tad over-amplified) by Michel Cyr’s seven-piece ensemble and hauntingly sung by Zara Tellander and Mathieu LaVoie — is eclectic, pulsating and generally charming, especially compared to her relentless techno-wash score for “Dralion.”

The story, such as it is, is pretty bogus. The loose concept has something to do with Icarus falling into a jungle full of strange creatures and surviving to fall in love with a gorgeous winged lizard named Olga (Russia’s Olga Pikhienko, who executes an awesome, sinuously sensual act of hand- balancing and contortions). It’s better forgotten. Too much effort spent trying to figure out how the acts fit into the plot only detracts from their impact.

Chelnokov is breathtaking in his aerial twists and turns in a net he twists into a rope as he tumbles from great heights — as are the English aerial strap artists Andrew and Kevin Atherton, creating angular statuesque poses as they spin high above the arena. Mexico’s Octavio Alegria juggles pins and soccer balls with impressive dexterity and tops himself juggling Ping-Pong balls with his mouth and turning straw hats into boomerangs.

A trio of Chinese boys — He Bin, Li Siguang and Yang Junping — execute amazing feats of tumbling while tossing whirling ropes with metal balls at their ends. A quartet of beauties from England, Brazil and Canada slide over one another and turn into human trapezes in another aerial act.

There are some slow spots. An acrobatic dance on crutches (Vladimir Ignatenkov of Russia) is underwhelming, as is a dull routine with projections on a big cloth balloon by John Gilkey, formerly of the Pickle Family Circus. Gilkey, who plays a gangly crackpot inventor with weeds growing out of his pants, is much funnier in a number of other routines. Riding a zany bicycle of parallel giant wheels, or devising a madcap method of changing a lightbulb, he outclasses the amusing, deft but uninspired clown routines of Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish.

Any such lapses are easily forgiven when the Cirque shifts into high gear with the incredible dexterity of the international troupe of male acrobats tossing and catching one another high in the air with their feet — or the astonishing Russian swings finale of men flying from fast-swinging platforms to land on others’ shoulders or catapult themselves sprawling into canvas walls. “Varekai” isn’t circus magic, but it’s mostly a treat.

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

• Issue #174, JUL 2018 – Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)
• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)