We’re Off and Running, Part 15:
Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)

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 continue to look at reviews and other articles from Varekai’s original North American Tour.

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By: Julie Phillips Jordan | Athens Banner-Herald
March 1, 2003

Cirque du Soleil shows seem effortless. Performers glide through the air, climb, balance, juggle, dance and contort their bodies with fluidity and grace, awing the audience. The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil was formed in 1984, and exclusively uses human performers in its shows, creating through their acrobatics a world where virtually anything is possible.

The road to creating this seeming effortlessness is part of the job of Michael Montanaro, choreographer for Cirque’s latest touring show, “Varekai,” which opens at the Grand Chapiteau at Cumberland Galleria in Atlanta on March 6 and runs through April 6.

Having spent much of his career as a dance choreographer, Montanaro said in a recent interview he’s found it challenging to bring together the different acrobatic elements of a Cirque du Soleil show. “My responsibility is to connect everything together, so in some sense, each piece fits within the context of what the director wants,” Montanaro said.

In the case of “Varekai,” director and writer Dominic Champagne created a story based on the mythical figure of Icarus, whose wings fashioned of wax and feathers melted when he flew too close to the sun. The character of Icarus in “Varekai” is played by Russian artist Anton Chelnokov, who performs dives and contortions in a net that holds him captive following his descent to earth.

There’s much more to the show, though, and while the plot ultimately remains somewhat artistically abstract, Montanaro said the challenge is linking the many different performance acts together. “Varekai” performers run the gamut, from the Acrobatic Pas de Deux – a blend of ballet and acrobatics between two performers, to Aerial Straps, in which two “flyers” are suspended by wrist straps and glide above the stage in a synchronized aerial dance.

There’s also body skating, where artists create the illusion of skating on a slick surface; Georgian Dance, in which performers from the Republic of Georgia perform their traditional dances, recalling their countrymen’s struggle to dominate their land; handbalancing on canes, showing off the strength and flexibility of Russian artist Olga Pikhienko as she contorts and balances herself atop canes; Russian swings in which acrobats are propelled into the air and caught by their partners; juggling; triple trapeze and more.

“We have a team of designers, too, all working on the many different aspects of the show, so it’s hard, in the end, to say who came up with what – it’s such a collaborative effort,” Montanaro said of the overall show.

Montanaro said his work in contemporary dance prepared him for his role with Cirque. And when he got the call in 2001 that he’d been invited to work with the world-famous Cirque du Soleil, “I was ecstatic,” he said with a laugh. “A chance to be a part of the creative team for a company with such a world-class reputation, and for redefining the circus arts, I was just amazed.”

Among the acts in “Varekai,” is body skating in which the performers use graceful movement to create the illusion of skating. Other acts include aerial straps, triple trapeze, juggling, Georgian dance, Russian swings and more. He added, though, that he was a little overwhelmed at first. “I spoke to some other people who’d been with Cirque, and they said the best thing to do is for the first couple of months, just sit and watch. … And even now, every time I see it – even after working on the show and putting it together – I’m still as amazed as I was the first time.”

Carmen Ruest agreed. Working in the casting department as a talent scout, Ruest searches for performers for the organization’s shows. Currently there are eight different Cirque du Soleil shows in production; five of those are touring productions while three are on permanent location – “Mystere” and “O” in Las Vegas and “La Nouba” at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. “Every year there’s about 25 percent replacement, and there’s also always a new show in creation, so it’s a great deal of work,” Ruest said.

Having been with the casting department full time for eight years, she’s seen it grow from a department of five to 31, which has helped ease the load a bit. Still, she said, there’s the challenge of travel – trying to get to all corners of the globe at any given time to check out performers. “But,” she said, “it’s all worth it. Because when you see a show, there’s something magical about it, something that makes you believe that everything is possible. I believe that myself,” she said.

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By: Joseph Jeong | Georgia Tech
March 14, 2003

“The circus is in town, the circus is in town, but this is not your father’s circus anymore!” If Cirque du Soleil wanted to use a cliché slogan, that could be it. But Cirque du Soleil is anything but trite, hence it doesn’t have to resort to using gimmicky catch phrases to capture its audience. Its colorful and extravagant acts do that well enough without any help from marketing.

The latest production by Cirque du Soleil is called Varekai (pronounced ver-ay-‘kie), which means “wherever” in the Roman language of the gypsies. Written and directed by Dominic Champagne, Varekai is the story of a young man Icarus, who falls from the sky and finds himself in the extraordinary world of Varekai, a place deep within a forest, at the summit of a volcano, where the extraordinary can be ordinary. It is here that Icarus discovers a whole new world of possibilities and even love.

Varekai is an extravagant and colorful experience that pushes not just Icarus’ mind to the limits, but also the audience’s. The moment one enters the trademark blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau, it is as if one is transported to a whole new world of color, sound and even physics. Amazing acrobatics defy gravity, while the color and sound assault one’s senses to their limits in the world of Varekai.

Varekai is split into 15 acts, seven before the intermission and eight after, and it is bookended by the two best acts: “Flight of Icarus” and “Russian Swings.” “Flight of Icarus” is a subdued opening act that introduces the protagonist. It is a stunning display of aerial acrobatics that depicts the fall of Icarus from the heavens. “Russian Swings” is, of course, a more vibrant and colorful finale that celebrates the rebirth of Icarus in the world of Varekai, but its aerial acrobatics are just as breathtaking and amazing.

If you have never been to a Cirque du Soleil performance, you should try to catch this unique act before it leaves town. It’s an experience worth the price of admission and then some.

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By: Bruce Webermay | New York Times
May 1, 2003

Cirque du Soleil, which has turned an original mix of performance elements into an international entertainment franchise, is back in New York with its latest show. Called “Varekai,” which, according to a program note, means “Wherever” in the Gypsy language, Romany, it has set up a literal camp under colorful circus tents at Randalls Island Park in the East River, where it will remain through June 22.

The new show, on a three-year tour, is one of eight different Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas currently touring or planted in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. By now the company’s signature is set in stone, and “Varekai” follows the formula. It’s a collage of choreography and circus arts, flamboyant costuming and set design, world music and New Age spirit. Though the level of artistry is high as ever, there is undoubtedly a staleness infecting the show as a whole. Dervishlike Georgian dancers, an adolescent Asian trio of bola jugglers; a menagerie of posing trapeze artists: at one point the man sitting beside me mumbled, “I think I saw some of this 30 years ago on ‘Ed Sullivan.’ ” Though that’s a little harsh (not to mention off by a decade), the point is well taken.

As usual there is supposed to be a theme invoked or a story told by the show — Dominic Champagne, the director, also gets credit as the writer — though also as usual the narrative so hazy as to be inconsequential. The best guess here is that “Varekai” involves an innocent young fellow’s arrival in a strange land, where he comes of age and eventually finds love. In the opening act the young man, in white (Anton Chelnokov), descends from the rafters swathed in a fisherman’s net; the effect is not unlike that of Jane Krakowski’s entrance in “Nine,” though Mr. Chelnokov’s dazzling and gorgeous midair solo is considerably more acrobatic if nowhere near as salacious.

The final scene is a wedding of sorts, with gymnasts launching themselves from violently rocking swings into the seeming stratosphere, all in celebration of the nuptials of Mr. Chelnokov and his lady, Olga Pikhienko, an impossibly flexible young woman whose specialty is supporting herself with one hand, balancing on a cane upside down.

In between, there is a variety show that includes a couple of pairs of clowns. One pair — Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish — is very funny, especially in a routine in which the trim Mr. Carneiro plays a mediocre magician and the heavyweight Ms. Cornish, in a short purple teddy, his clumsy assistant. There is also a fine and amusing juggler (Octavio Alegria).

“Varekai” is generally at its best when it treats gravity with indifference. An aerial bungee cord ballet is performed with spectacular daredevilry by two brothers, Andrew and Kevin Atherton, whose physiques, costumes and embraces nonetheless give the breathtaking act a suggestive homoerotic charge. There is, however, show-offy repetition in almost everything, and there is hardly an act in “Varekai” — which is, at two and a half hours, itself too long — that wouldn’t benefit from being trimmed by a couple of minutes.

Stéphane Roy’s set, with tall spiky stilts spread across the rear of the stage, suggests a forest of bamboo, or a louse’s-eye view of a porcupine’s hide. It’s dramatically lighted of course in other-worldy fashion, by François Bergeron; and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka, mostly made out of latex for the sake of the gymnasts, complete an environment that is part Middle Earth, part outer space and part superhero comic book. The eclectic music, written by Violaine Corradi and played very loudly by an eight-piece orchestra, is of the pretentious sort that testifies to its own magnificence and encourages spectators to roar in response.

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By: Barbara and Scott Siegal | Theater Mania
May 1, 2003

No matter what anybody tells you, there is no story to follow in Cirque du Soleil’s new show, Varekai. There is a theme, which is flight, or at least man’s intrepid efforts to leave this earth however briefly. But trust us: The only narrative in this show is the one that you make up in your own head. Still, as a collection of acts that genuinely defy gravity, the show is utterly mesmerizing. And except for one decidedly unfunny clown with foliage growing out of his pants, almost every act is original, exciting, and unforgettable.

In other words, Cirque du Soleil is back. If you know what the troupe does, and if you know that you love it, then all you need to be told is where the hell it’s taking place. Seriously, when was the last time you went to Randall’s Island Park in the East River? One wonders how they came up with this location, but people are getting there: The tent was packed the night we saw the show, and the run of Varekai has already been extended for an extra nine performances through June 22.

For those of you who don’t know much about Cirque du Soleil, let’s start with the name — translation, “Circus of the Sun.” It’s appropriate in the sense that this is one extremely hot circus. And while it may not have three rings like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, what the Cirque people do is so special and so popular that the real ring here is the one at the cash register.

People will pony up to see a circus without circus animals because the human animal is by far the most trainable — and the most willing to risk his or her neck for a meal. Lord knows, no other animal would be so foolhardy as to attempt some of the dangerous stunts in this show. For example, there’s Anton Chenokov performing stunts high up in the air without a net. Well, that’s not entirely true; he does have a net but it isn’t beneath him. He hangs from it! Yes, all of his spectacular mid-air acrobatics take place in and around a man-sized piece of netting. The act is called “Flight of Icarus” but might as well be called “Net Profit.”

Olga Pikhienko uses her hands to balance herself, upside down, on canes — and that’s just the premise of her act. Where she takes it from there will leave you slack-jawed in amazement. Most of the acts in Cirque du Soleil will cause you to ask yourself what possessed these people to learn such peculiar stunts. Yet there is something totally liberating about an act called The Russian Swings, whose members catapult themselves high up into the air where they hit huge pieces of cloth or canvas and then come sliding back down to earth. It’s absolutely joyful to watch, and it sure looks like fun.

Among the other particularly breathtaking acts are two brothers who do their stunts hanging and swinging from straps on their wrists. There is a very impressive juggler and two whirling-dervish types who end their act with a thousand-mile-a-minute swordfight of clanging blades and shields. And, happily, there is another clown who does a hilarious bit of searching for a wandering spotlight while he aptly sings “Ne me quitte pas” (translation: “Don’t leave me”).

The show was written and directed by Dominic Champagne. Need we tell you that it bubbles? Champagne should toast his collaborators: Eiko Ishioka designed the costumes for this kaleidoscope in which all of the performers are clad in colorful, oftentimes playfully nutty outfits. Stephane Roy devised a set that has the look of an ultra-modern forest. Nol van Genuchten designed lighting that ranges from the intensely atmospheric to the spectacular; the tent is invaded by what seems like swarms upon swarms of fireflies during one sequence, and the effect is stunning.

One caveat: In order to cram as many people as possible into the Cirque tent, the seats are so narrow that they’re downright uncomfortable. We may be among the shortest, smallest-boned (dare we say thin?) critics in New York, but even we felt like sardines. Of course, this won’t be a problem for small children, and we should note that the sightlines are great; each row is a step up behind the one in front. But adults should bring a spatula and a lot of butter to get themselves into their seats.

We are told that, in the language of the gypsies, “varekai” means “wherever.” Dominic Champagne may have one idea of what that has to do with this show, but we think it means that “wherever” Cirque du Soleil puts up its tent — even on Randall’s Island — audiences will follow.

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By: Richard Corliss | TIME
June 12, 2003

The chasm couldn’t be wider between those who love Cirque du Soleil and those who love to hate it. In any discussion (argument, fistfight, Gulf War III) about the Montreal-based circus, there’s no DMZ. I’d call the rival groups the Cirques and the Squares — except that the anti-Cirque faction has claimed the hip ground. For them, Cirque du Soleil is just a pretentious name for a pretentious circus troupe too chintzy to pay for animals.
On the white painted face of it, the Cirque-haters have a few points. Who is uncomfortable mocking mimes? Who wants to see the strutting of street performers you would flee from if they performed on your street? Who enjoys the threat of being yanked from the anonymous discomfort of a wooden seat to be the butt of a clown’s slapstick raillery? Who hopes that all this medieval merriment will be encased in two hours of New Age music? And who is ready to pay $95 a ticket for the privilege? The expected antiphonal response: “Nobody” times five.

Many savvy folks of my acquaintance would rather endure a colonoscopy supervised by Michael Moore humming Reba McIntire songs than attend the new Cirque extravaganza “Varekai” (now playing on Randall’s Island in New York City), or read about the show in their own magazine. I not only know these people; I work for some of them. So, humbly, I defer to their worldly wisdom.

And fervently, I say they’re wrong. Not simply because I’m the official Cirque du Soleil reviewer for TIME magazine, but because each of the debating points can be concisely and conclusively rebutted. To wit:

The lack of animals? No loss: humans are easier to train, and they come potty-trained; they only thing missing here is the stench of elephant dung. The mimes and clowns? They consume maybe 15 mins. of a two-and-a-half-hour show; and in “Varekai” two of the three clown spots provide inspired comedy. The audience participation? Should you be chosen, you’ll be spared the humiliation that would be your lot on any TV show — no Simon Cowell will sneer your efforts into embarrassment. The world music? It evokes a world of music, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to “Hava Na Gila,” but it’s really just the pumping pulse to the acrobatic artistry awaiting you. The price? It’s about the same as for a Broadway musical, and kids get in for 30% less. (Their enraptured thanks should cover the cost.) As for the seats: if your butt isn’t cushion enough, bring a pillow.

I can understand the resistance of my cooler friends to the Cirque trappings, though to me the forest tones of “Varekai” have their own humid enchantment. But beneath Cirque is a circus, a demonstration of acrobatic skill and sorcery: humans doing, 10 times a week, what most humans can’t do. Viewers who fail to be impressed, moved by the performers’ dedication, their strength and finesse, are beyond blas?. They’re emotionally inert. (Except, of course, for my friends and employers at TIME. They have unusually high standards.)

Some of you don’t need my badgering, since more than 6 million people have seen a Cirque du Soleil show. And if you don’t live near one of the 10 cities where “Varekai” will be playing this year or next, tune in to the Bravo network Saturday (the 14th) for a TV version of the show. It’s preceded by a half-dozen Cirque specials, which give you a hint of the wonder that Guy Lalibert? and his alchemists have been manufacturing for nearly 20 years. But just a hint: the TV shows don’t come close to capturing the in-person Cirque sensation. You can’t lock magic in a box.


Each Cirque show has a different, often arcane name, to match the hazy twists of the “plot” that binds the show’s dozen acts. “Varekai” has no such obscurantist aims. Andrew Watson, the writer-director, spells it out in the press notes and house program. The word “Varekai” means “wherever” in the Romany language — appropriate for the theatrical and circus gypsies who have come from all over the globe to Montreal, only to wander across North America for the show’s three-year run.

Here’s the story line (which seems translated, sometimes poetically, sometimes whimsically, from the French): “Deep within a forest, at the summit of a volcano, exists an extraordinary world — a world where something else is possible.?A world called ?Varekai.’ From the sky falls a solitary young man, and the story of ?Varekai’ begins. Parachuted into the shadows of a magical forest, a kaleidoscopic world populated by fantastical creatures, this young man sets off on an adventure both absurd and extraordinary. On this day at the edge of time, in this place of all possibilities, begins an inspired incantation to life rediscovered.”

The show comes to life, slowly, gradually, like a jungle dawn. A dozen creatures (members of the company, costumed by renowned Japanese artist Eiko Ishioka) prance or creep across the verdant stage. (The scenic designer is St?phane Roy.) A half-dozen others clamber halfway up the tall bamboo shoots. Somnambulist images take shape, suggesting the paintings of Magritte and Bosch, the stately stagescapes of Robert Wilson. This is the circus, not of your memory but of your artistic bachelor uncle’s dreams.

In this Rousseau reverie are a myriad of forest denizens, animal, vegetable and that one human. Five creatures seem an amalgam of species: they walk on stilt-stalks. Another keeps time with an invisible paddleball. A beige bird walks carefully, as if hunters might capture and crate it at any moment. And then the boy appears, wrapped or rapt in a suspended net, a bas-relief painting against the living mural of the forest’s residents. This is a place of illusions, false perspectives, trap doors; performers execute their dazzling routines, then disappear into holes that suddenly open on the stage floor.

As I said, it’s a circus at heart — with stunts that suspend all laws of geometry, physics and credulity. Who dreams up these murderously tough muscle ballets? For example, a two-man routine in the first act: I’ll lie on my back and stick my feet up. You jump up onto my feet and, using them as a platform, do 32 somersaults — and landing on your feet, and mine, each time. The “water meteor” trio that follows has three Chinese boys (none older than 13, and all looking years younger) twirling large yoyos, sort of, on a kind of jump rope; for the climax, one boy holds the other two while the degree of difficulty accelerates to the googol power. (Then they vanish into holes.)

I say, “Send in the clowns,” and you ask to be excused. But thin, sad-faced Claudio Carniero (from Brazil) has an easy gift for playing the incompetent impresario, and his assistant, pudgy blond Mooky Cornish from Canada, makes for a fine foil and out-smarter. In the first act Carniero drags a spectator into a ramshackle magic routine and makes him disappear, never quite managing to hide him behind the cheap curtain. (At the end of the routine, Cornish tries diving down one of the stage holes but gets stuck.) In Act II he is a torch singer, lip-synching the Jacques Brel ballad “Ne me quitte pas” while trying to stay in the range of a very slippery spotlight. His ruses become more elaborate, more desperate, crescendoing to a lovely capper: that the spotlight has been controlled, “Duck Amuck”-style, by Mooky. An interlude of beautifully calibrated silliness.

I’ve left out the most gorgeous, soaring pieces of “Varekai.” Some things have to be experienced, and if poetry is what’s lost in translation, Cirque is what beggars description. Another warning: In this synopsis, I may have got a few of the details wrong. Truth is, at a Cirque performance I sometimes forget to take notes. Under the blue and yellow tent I misplace my pencil and my critical scruples. For two hours I become a kid, gaping up at miracles of physical strength and elasticity, splendors of stagecraft. I envy the young children who see “Varekai.” Like “the Lion King” on Broadway and “Finding Nemo” in the plexes, it is the perfect introduction to the empyrean of popular art — the wisest gift a parent could bestow.


The tone of much critical discourse in matters of popular culture is indulgent derision. TV reviewers join the rest of America in watching the weekly trudge of reality TV contestants — the idiot daredevils, quavering singers, annoying tykes, the people who are shocked that their neighbor has made a botch of renovating their rec room — and profess to find some nugget of entertainment truth beyond the ken of professional writers and actors. (Cirque had its own fling into docudrama, a Bravo series, “The Fire Within,” that followed several Cirque hopefuls through the arduous audition process. Just say it wasn’t the company’s finest half-hour.)

I can’t summon even an awful fascination for these adventures in condescension. I watch a TV show or movie, go to a show, listen to music, to discover something smarter, funnier, more sublime than I could imagine creating. Stupid, boring, embarrassing: those I can do on my own. Call me old-fashioned, but I want what Jean Cocteau demanded of a work of art. Astonish me!

Cirque du Soleil does just that, year after year, in every new show. Some more than others: none of Cirque’s tent spectacles matches “Mystere” and “O,” the permanent productions at the Treasure Island and Bellagio resorts in Las Vegas. I wrote it two years ago, and I still believe it: those are the two great theatrical experiences of the past decade. (And on Aug. 14th, a new show, the sexy “Zumanity,” will open at Vegas’ New York New York hotel.) But if “Varekai” is dwarfed by the Vegas epiphanies, it towers over most films, Broadway shows and even the finals of “American Idol.” It has an otherworldly grace and magnificence that, after two viewings, still astonishes me.

Skeptical New Yorkers, you have until July 6 to prove me wrong. Chicago (July 17 to Aug. 17), Los Angeles (Sept. 12 to Oct. 5) and Pomona (Dec. 4 to 28), you’re next. Take the Cirque challenge, wherever. I warrant that any suspicions you bring to the tent will dissolve in the radiance. And when someone asks you to name all the things wrong with “Varekai,” you’ll be as quiet as a … mime.

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By: Chris Jones | Chicago Tribune
July 21, 2003

The Cirque du Soleil has morphed from a cool little Canadian circus aimed at arty hipsters to a long-lived mainstream entertainment brand with annual revenues in excess of $500 million and a slew of copy-cat pretenders to its throne. And yet this remarkable operation somehow manages to constantly reinvent itself and thrill Cirque neophytes and veterans alike.

“Varekai,” the newest tented attraction to arrive in Chicago, departs from the Cirque’s dominant aesthetic over the years. And those first attracted to Cirque’s dreamy brand of surrealisme may miss some of the quiet thoughtfulness of such gorgeous early shows as “Nouvelle Experience.” But times change –and quicken. “Varekai” is a loud, dazzling and thoroughly beguiling family show that whipped its opening-night audience into a veritable frenzy.

One can tell “Varekai” is the work of a troupe now rooted in Las Vegas. Even the clowns eschew noses and oversize clothing in favor of a fabulous cabaret deconstruction performed to “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” If the roots of “Saltimbanco” were street performers, the roots of “Varekai” are in grand, inter-disciplinary spectacle with a huge budget. Given the number of people who have already seen its long-running shows in custom-designed Vegas facilities, Cirque knew that the tent pole has to be raised to a new level of high-tech energy. And “Varekai” delivers.

But look closely at this show and you can see the influence of the Blue Man Group (not coincidentally, also a Vegas fixture). The show catches fire early in the first act with Icarian Games. At first, the act looks like a highly skilled but conventional fusion of human catapults and catchers. But the performers stare at each other (and the audience) with such emotional intensity that one’s investment in their acrobatic routine turns into an emotional engagement. When they wobble or stumble, one’s ready to leap up there and swoop the guys up in a protective embrace.

Then just when the crowd has become a collective emotional wreck, Cirque trots out a trio of impossibly shrimpy guys who whirl ropes with metal “meteors” attached to their ends as if they were Dickensian urchins trying to get out of the workhouse.

“Varekai” plays around evocatively with the story of Icarus and is suffused with notions of wings, danger and flight. The backdrop is a series of long poles, evoking everything from grassy reeds to stilts. But the great strength of this remarkable piece of entertainment is the quality of its acts.

In a circus review, that may sound like a statement of the obvious. But at Cirque, the acts are only a minor part of the overall equation — Cirque likes to create unifying (if oblique) narratives that emphasize its house performers in their whimsical costumes. Usually, those visuals dominate the experience. Longtime attendees at this circus tend to have favorites (mine remains Franco Dragone’s “Mystere” in Vegas). But it’s very much a matter of individual taste, depending on which metaphors one finds most resonant.

I’ve preferred other visuals to those that infuse “Varekai.” But never has Cirque toured a collection of acts like this one. Juggler Octavio Alegria manipulates objects with remarkable dexterity. And a dazzling Russian act in the finale involving two moving swings and a pair of massive white sheets is the most thrilling of mobile spectacles.

Cirque has moved with the times. But it still maintains its one inviolate and brilliant rule — no overt references to any pop-culture icon outside of itself. And it keeps the omnipresent metaphor that has sustained it all these years: the act of watching. You can find weird spectators in every corner of le big top — staring and marveling, willing one to do the same.

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By: Evan Henerson | LA Times
September 11, 2003

We could try to explain Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” … but then we’d have to bewilder you. Still, if you insist …

“It’s about brotherhood and, I would say, transmutation,” says composer Violaine Corradi. “You will see there is a love story between the myth of Icarus – our Icarus – and a caterpillar.”

Uh-huh, OK. Would-be aviators of Greek mythology and insects. Got it.

How about you, Dominic Champagne. You’re the director – perhaps you can enlighten us further? There’s this blue and yellow big top outside that arena where the Lakers play their home games. What precisely is going on inside?

“The fall of Icarus is the starting inspiration,” says Champagne, referring to the myth of the young boy who fashioned a pair of wax wings and then flew too close to the sun. “It’s quite beautiful, the idea that the closer you get to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the closer you get to the light, you’re facing also the danger of being burned. That type of lesson you can apply to many different levels of your personal experience.

“I don’t think we can explain everything or keep the knowledge of things in little drawers or cans where everything is totally understandable.”

That’s Cirque du Soleil for you. Try a little surrealism with your gravity-defying acrobatics. And bring the kids.

By now, nobody should expect lion-taming, trick horses or human cannonballs from Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based company whose product – many would argue – is a circus in name only. More than 15 years after the company opened the Los Angeles Festival – and with eight Cirque shows in circulation around the globe from Japan to Las Vegas – the Cirque is back in Los Angeles.

Featuring more than 50 nationalities from more than a dozen countries, “Varekai” opens Friday at Staples before moving on to the Pomona Fairplex and the Orange County Fair and Exposition Center in early 2004. L.A. is the show’s eighth stop.

Expect no animals in “Varekai,” which premiered in April 2002. Several acts are inspired by traditional elements of circus performance, including juggling, trapeze artistry and the Icarian games (aka humans beings juggling other humans on their feet). Yes, there are clowns: Claudio Carneiro and Kathleen “Mookie” Cornish playing a pair of hopeful ushers who desperately want to join the act, performing every cliched possible circus act … badly.

For “Varekai” (pronounced Veray-kie, the word means “wherever” in the Romany language of the Gypsies), Champagne and director of creation Andrew Watson assembled an entirely new creative team. Champagne hails from the world of theater, costume designer Eiko Ishioka is an Oscar-winning film costumer. Corradi has scored films and set the works of several Quebec poets to music.

“There’s an inherent risk-taking in bringing in a different creative team. That’s huge,” says Watson, who was a trapeze acrobat with Cirque du Soleil before moving behind the scenes. “When you’re working with a lot of people, some of whom you don’t know, some of whom have never been in Cirque before, you have to be very accepting of other people’s processes. It’s a circus show, and we never pretend it’s not a circus show,” he continues. “The most important thing is to create a show that has its own identity.”

And precisely what kind of an identity will “Varekai” have? Well, the show is set within a forest at the summit of a volcano – in a realm of infinite possibility. A young man – our modern Icarus – parachutes in and begins a fantastical journey. In no particular order, those acts include:

— Acrobats balancing by hand on canes and a solo dance performed on crutches.

— Acrobats twirling ropes with “water meteors” attached to the ends.

— The flight of Icarus, performed in a net by contortionist Anton Chelnokov.

— Body skating and Georgian dancing.

To a person, the members of Cirque’s creative team maintain that the company’s avant-garde weirdness is like catnip to artists looking to flex their creative muscles. And it’s not easy.

“As a spectator and a professional playwright, I wondered if it was possible to tell a story in an acrobatic circus show,” says Champagne. “I had to go through the experience, and I realized it was quite difficult to tell a story out of a circus. The dramatic and poetic source of inspiration helped me to create the universe that is now ‘Varekai.’ ”

Put another way, the appeal of jumping out of a familiar realm to work Cirque is a kind of …

“Freedom!” sings Corradi, who is scoring her second Cirque du Soleil show. “A show like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ – and I’m not judging – you can see the same show in London or New York. When you see a show like what Cirque does, you feel this very dynamic and organic body moving. It’s more demanding to the artist and creator. As an artist, you have to want to always challenge yourself.”

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By: Pam Kragen | San Diego Union-Tribune
March 24, 2004

Cirque du Soleil takes to the skies in grand fashion with its latest theatrical export, “Varekai,” now playing through mid-April under its fanciful blue-and-yellow tent at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.

The aerial- and dance-themed circus stage show has all of the markings of its Cirque predecessors — fanciful costumes and makeup, live singers, state-of-the-art lighting and mystical circus acts — but it raises the quality bar an extra notch.

“Varekai” is a big improvement over “Dralion,” the Chinese acrobat-themed Cirque show that visited Del Mar in 2002. The “Varekai” acts are much shorter in length, there’s more variety in the program, and the caliber of the performances is much higher (most of the “Dralion” acrobats wore safety wires and their acts were sloppy). “Varekai” also boasts the most elaborate and beautiful costumes, light and set elements ever created in Cirque’s 20-year history.

So what is “Varekai” (which means “wherever” in the Gypsy language of Romany)? My guess is that the action takes place in a mythical oversized swamp where the characters onstage represent the wildlife in and around the water. Acrobats in bug and lizardlike costumes perch high atop swaying metal poles like grasshoppers on reeds (the program calls it a volcanic forest, but I saw no trees or volcano). Fish, sea creatures and marine plants cavort in a colorful underwater dance. And aerialists dressed in elegant feathered headdresses soar overhead like birds. Into their midst drops the mythical Greek character Icarus, his wax wings melted by the sun, and the action begins.

“Varekai” features an international cast of nearly 50 performers — including acrobats, aerialists, dancers, contortionists, a juggler and a troupe of strolling and backstage musicians. There’s a quartet of gibberish-speaking clowns, and there’s even a disabled acrobat who performs a pommel horse routine/dance on his crutches. The troupe is accompanied by talented singers Zara Tellander and Craig Jennings, who perform the pulsing New Age score in a nonsensical language that blends French and English.

The show has many high points, including Anton Chelnokov’s nifty aerial ballet inside a suspended net; an impressive (if repetitive) tumbling/balancing act called “Icarian Games”; a high-spirited Georgian dance (three Russians perform fast-paced folk dances and battle with sparking swords); a high-flying finale featuring Russian gymnasts leaping and cartwheeling from a see-sawing swing into pinpoint landings; and the gorgeous aerial duet of British twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton, whose soaring act on the aerial straps is perfectly conceived and executed. Less inspiring are overlong aerial hoop and contortion acts, as well as the ho-hum “Water Meteors” act in which a trio of petite Chinese acrobats tumble about while they spin ropes weighted at either end with rubber balls.

One visual effect of the show is so spectacular it has a program entry all its own — the “Cloud,” a cloth, helium-filled, cloud-shaped balloon that floats over the stage, illuminated from within by a ghostly kaleidoscope of moving colored lights and images of flying birds. Another dazzling light effect involves swarms of buzzing green gnats that fly over the audience (accomplished through neat special effects wizardry).

Gordon White, as a bare-chested wood sprite, leads the clown troupe through a mostly cliched and often-confusing series of slightly funny bits between the circus acts. The only bit that really works (and works hilariously well) is “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” in which clown Stiv Bello plays a cheesy French cabaret singer trying desperately to keep up with an ever-darting spotlight.

The show runs two hours, 30 minutes, with intermission. Some dark elements in the show, a few creepy costumes and frequent lighting blackouts may frighten sensitive small children, but the costumes, clowns and onstage action will enthrall most anyone.

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By: R. J. Donovan | ON Stage Boston
August 8, 2004

With vibrant music and a sensual fusion of drama and acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil has returned to Boston — this time with “Varekai,” meaning “wherever” in the language of the universal wanderers. More than 50 artists from 30 countries are represented in this year’s innovative production.

Set in a lush forest, “Varekai” is inspired by the mythical tale of Icarus who flew too close to the sun.

Here, the young man falls from the sky into a kaleidoscopic world filled with fantastic birds, bugs and assorted creatures. While his flight through the air may have been aborted, his journey on the ground is both surreal and amazing.

As Icarus, Anton Chelnokov is stripped of his wings but rises in the air in a fishnet that he uses to display an almost effortless strength. He sails to the peak of the yellow and blue tent and soars above the forest floor only to spiral down to earth once again.

Icarus’ betrothed is played by Irina Naumenko, a lithe and limber contortionist who balances on canes in a segment that (to her credit) is almost too painful to watch.

Throughout the vibrantly costumed two hour show, the audience is treated to any number of spectacular presentations. Three youngsters (Liu Xinxin, Wang ZhinXhen and Zhang Cheng) each twirl twin water meteors suspended from ropes. Four shimmering green females (Helen Ball, Cinthia Beranek, Juliana Countinho and Sophie Olfield) work a triple trapeze. And six tumblers (Stiv Bello, Roni Bello, Javier Santos, Pedro Santos, Oleana Durnyeva and Mariya Kanatnykova) engage in Icarian Games, involving one member of each team reclining back on a tipped board to wildly toss, twirl and spin a respective partner with his feet.

Dergin Tokmak offers a masterful solo ballet on crutches while Octavio Alegria juggles everything from boomerang-ing straw hats to ping pong balls.

Although all the performers are exceptional, one act is really quite unusual. Dressed in mirror-image black leather outfits, brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton present an aerial act suspended from wrist straps. Whether gracefully soaring as one unit or presenting a mid-air reflection of one another, they are remarkable.

Comic relief is supplied by Jordi Deambulants and Joanna Holden. The duo works the crowd as the audience enters, returning during the first act as an Aladdin-like magician and his hapless assistant. Corny and incredibly amateurish, they’re so awful, they’re good. Deambulants returns in the second act as greasy lounge singer who can’t seem to stay in his spotlight. At the conclusion of the number, we see the spotlight attendant is none other than Holden, who has victoriously ruined the act.

Saving the best for last, “Varekai” comes to an eye-popping finale with 13 Russian acrobats on two gigantic balancing-swings (top photo). They are not only propelled back and forth between the swings but fly up to the rafters only to be caught in huge spandex-like sails. It’s a definite crowd pleaser.

Even the slightest detail is important in a Cirque du Soleil show and “Varekai” is no exception — right down to the fireflies that float through the darkness and the pre-show sounds of water dripping in the rain forest. Production values are top notch throughout, with Eiko Ishioka’s fanciful jewel-toned costumes and Nathalie Gagne’s intricate make-up providing a treat for the eyes.

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A Chat with Nicolette Naum and Stephane Roy
August 31, 2004

The world Varekai means “wherever” in the Romany language of the gypsies, the universal wanderers.

This latest touring production of Cirque du Soleil 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.”

Nicolette Naum, artistic director, and Stephane Roy, set designer, for Cirque du Soleil were online Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the theatrical piece, its choreography, acrobatics, unique sets and the skill of the international cast.

Midway through the discussion, Nicolette and Stephane had to leave for another interview. Touring publicist Chantal Blanchard stepped in and finished the discussion.

A transcript follows.

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Q. Nicolette and Stephane, welcome to washingtonpost.com. We’re glad to have you with us and look forward to your Washington show at RFK Stadium. Will the show be done in tents? How will all that work?

Cirque du Soleil will be performing one big top tent that will accommodate 2,600 people. Around the tent there are five smaller tents for VIPs, refreshments, socializing, entertainment, etc. It’ll be like a little village all around, like modern gypsy. It’ll have its own ambience and will no longer be like a stadium. It will reflect the theatrical, poetic, familial energy that Cirque du Soleil represents.

Q. Please explain Varekai, the show.

Varekai means wherever and it’s about survival. It’s about human beings that gather together into a forest finding a new place, searching for food, gathering together, and this family is expecting a huge event to happen and this event is the fall of Ikarus. It’s the journey of Ikarus who lost his wings. In this journey all with all those human beings around he learns to walk. Everyone in this family shows to Ikarus what human beings can do and what can result when they put their creativity and energy together.

Q. What different countries are represented by your performers? Is it true that your group was scouting the Olympics for future performers?

In this show Varekai there are acrobats who were in the Olympics in Atlanta or in Sydney and they’re amazing. Last week we had members of Cirque in Greece at the Olympics interested in some of the athletes to possibly join us in the future. In Varekai, there are 25 performers who were in the Olympics in Sydney and Atlanta who are now working for Cirque du Soleil. Overall, 40 countries are represented in Cirque du Soleil. Varekai represents 13 countries.

Q. How does one become a member of Cirque? What skills do you have to have? Is it a big organization? Do you recruit?

The casting department travels around the world constantly. They go see the Olympics, they go see festivals, they visit athletic organizations. In all the shows we have high-level athletes, world champions. We have dancers, actors, musicians, performers who come from traditional circuses. The performers in our show have their own specialties which can be tumbling, gymnastics, diving, sport acrobatics, just to name a few. We are based in Montreal. People do apply with us. They send their resumes, videotape and we invite them to audition. We look for excellence in our performers. We look for something that is unique. The whole company has about 3,000 employees. We have nine different shows going on now at the same times in various parts of the world. Four of them are permanent shows, three in Las Vegas, one in Orlando and we have five touring shows: One in Japan, one in Australia, two in Europe and us in America.

Q. How did Cirque evolve? As an alternative circus? No animals?

It started out in Baie St. Paul in Quebec with street performers who all worked on stilts and they were called the High Heels Club and it is now a big company that employs, as we said, 3,000 people from all over the world. We concentrated on human beings and what they can do as opposed to animals in the circus. In a sense, human beings offer more possibilities than doing a show working with animals. We like to say the impossible is possible. The shows are a whole made up of the staging, the lighting, the costumes, the performances … Because if you come to see a show there’s no emcee. There’s no spoken words. It’s a made-up, invented language. So if there’s a trapeze to set up, that set up becomes part of the show, the storyline, part of the whole emotion of the show.

Q. I loved the Bravo series “Fire Within” that followed the development of the Varekai show. Do you have any quick updates about the performers we watched become part of the show, like Stella and Gareth?

Stella has moved on. She left the production in December. She’s now settled in Los Angeles and she’s working there. Gareth is back in the U.K. and he’s also making a living there.

Q. Listening to the music used in the performances, I’m impressed with the “world music” concept — but I can’t determine what languages are being used or specifically what countries are being represented. Can you shed some light on the music being used in the performances?

The language is an invented language. Sometimes you might recognize an accent that sounds Italian or Spanish or any other language but that’s just for effect. The music is very world beat. Our composers are from the province of Quebec and Quebec, like the rest of Canada, is very much influenced by the planet — the rest of the world. That’s why there are Arabic sounds, Georgian sounds, African sounds, Hawaiian, from everywhere.

Q. What is the culture of Cirque du Soleil like? How much of life is traveling, maintaining a normal life with family and physical training? Are you part of a union and what are some common issues (good or bad) that many in the organization face?

There are 200 people traveling together. Out of that there are 56 acrobats or performers and then there are 80-90 technicians, logistics people and then you have our administrative and tour services people. Then we have our kitchen with five cooks. We have a school for the performers’ children. We have husbands and wives and kids in our touring company. It is a little community. Nobody lives on site. We all live in corporate apartments. We try to become citizens of the cities we’re in in the six to eight weeks that we’re in the particular city. Back home at headquarters in Montreal, everyone lives like everybody else would in any other city. We have no union. One thing that you find out traveling with people from so many different countries is that everyone has issues but things always work out and it’s very mind-opening to work around people from all these different cultures.

Q. Are audiences different, say in Europe as opposed to the U.S.?

We are fortunate enough that they do respond respond as enthusiastically and warmly as the people in the U.S. but we have to say that the American people are very loud and we love it. Yeah, definitely.

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That’s all for in this issue. Just one more installment to go!

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

• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)