We’re Off and Running, Part 16: Varekai, Part 3 (2005-2006)

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 final installment, we finish up by looking at Varekai’s last months in North America.

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By: Everett Evans | Houston Chronicle
January 6, 2005

Icarus falls to earth in a magical forest, encounters gypsy wanderers and marvelous creatures and learns to survive in a new environment.

That’s the premise of Varekai, the fourth of Cirque du Soleil’s elaborate, new-style circus extravaganzas to reach Houston (following Quidam, Dralion and Alegría). Varekai opens tonight in the company’s trademark blue-and-gold Grand Chapiteau, the state-of-the-art big top set up at Reliant Park.

During the past 20 years, the Montreal-based company has grown from a cluster of intrepid street performers to a billion-dollar, globe-spanning enterprise with 10 shows currently in production — touring attractions such as Varekai and permanently installed shows such as O and Mystère (in Las Vegas) and La Nouba (in Orlando). In the process, Cirque du Soleil has developed its own brand of spectacle melding circus arts, avant-garde theater concepts, world music and New Age philosophy.

While all Cirque shows have a unique, instantly identifiable visual style, it’s important to the creators that each new one have its own distinctive profile.

“One of our goals is to make each different from the others,” Nicolette Naum says. As Varekai’s artistic director, her primary job is to “ensure that the show continues to evolve as it travels, yet does not change too drastically from the initial conception of its premiere run in Montreal (in 2002), while keeping the artists creatively nourished and in proper character.”

From the two main themes of the Icarus figure and the gypsy camp in the forest, Varekai acquires its mood, which Naum describes as “joyous, colorful and energetic.” The show’s title is Romany (Gypsy) for “wherever.”

“From Icarus’ achievement, it gains a message of hope,” Naum says. “He wanted to fly, and he did it. That shows what humans can achieve when they use their energy creatively. From the forest gypsies, the show gains the theme of survival — for they are always moving to a new place, putting up tents, organizing themselves to survive.
Through the show, Icarus witnesses what different members of this family are able to achieve and is inspired by them.”

That theme reflects the creative team’s process.

“The initial phase in creating each show,” Naum says, “is a time of opening the doors to imagination and creativity. We’re always searching for what is new, for different ways to do things. Every idea, every dream is put on the table. After that, the next phase is to bring those dreams to more concrete form, to see if they are feasible (onstage). It’s always a close collaboration between the creators and the (performing) artists, to make sure all things are integrated.”

Crucial to achieving the distinctive look of Varekai are the contributions of set designer Stéphane Roy and costumer designer Eiko Ishioka, an Oscar winner for her costumes for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
“The key element of the set design,” Roy says, “is the context of a forest. It’s a space for the rituals of the characters, a place where you can be scared or happy, meet monsters and dreamers. It is visually stylish, dreamlike, never realistic. The camp is hidden within the forest, never seen.”

Roy’s solution: a clearing encircled by 40 bamboo poles, 2 inches in diameter, of varying heights up to 40 feet, upon which performers climb and spin.

“In the course of the story,” Roy says, “the characters build a bridge over the stage area. It looks fragile, like a dangerous structure to move across, but it actually is very solid.”

The cluster of poles, Roy says, also serves as a “backstage” area from which characters emerge and into which they disappear.

“The costumes are working tools, not just something to parade in,” says Isabelle Panelli, assistant to Ishioka (who’s moved on to other projects and is no longer with Cirque). “They were designed to give continuity to the characters, each with its style and color palette particular to that character.”

Many Varekai costumes reconfigure the human silhouette with added forms, muscles, paddings, collars and extravagant headdresses. One of the most striking is a figure called the Blue Lezard, something of a marketing trademark for the production. The fact that most are worn by performers negotiating mind-boggling acrobatic, aerial and contortive feats adds to the challenge.

“The goal is to add complexity to movement without adding difficulty for the artists,” Panelli says. “Movement must be unimpeded, hands and arms free to reach for anything. When standing, the artists must always be able to see their feet in order to gauge their moves.

“Because so many of the costumes are unusually large and complicated, it’s crucial that they travel properly and are not out-of-shape when they arrive at the next city. We have to re-do them periodically because they wear out. Most of the artists have two of the same costume, one to use while the other is in repair.

“There are no wardrobe malfunctions at Cirque!”

* * * * *

By: Marylynne Pitz | Pittzburgh Post-Gazette
April 3, 2005

As rambunctious 3-year-old twins, Pedro and Ramon Santos loved it when their 12-year-old brother, Javier, balanced them on the soles of his feet while he lay on his back.

What began as child’s play in 1988 evolved into a spectacular circus act by the three brothers from Madrid.

When Cirque du Soleil’s production of “Varekai” opens under the blue and gold tent on Saturday, the trio will show local audiences a foot-juggling act that jumps back 1,000 years in circus history.

Using his feet, Javier Santos juggles his younger brothers and sends them spinning into the air to do up to 30 somersaults. During a practice session, Pedro Santos once did 45 flips. “You get to perfection day by day. The best training is performing,” Javier Santos said in a telephone interview last month from Austin, Texas.

In the Cirque cast, the Santos brothers are not unique. Roni and Stiv Bello, who are from Verona, Italy, also perform foot juggling in “Varekai,” which tells the story of a young man who falls to Earth and makes his way through a mythical forest near the base of a volcano. Derived from the Romany Gypsy language, the word “Varekai” means “wherever.” (It’s pronounced “ver-AY-kie.”)

On Feb. 15, 2003, the Bello brothers landed in the Guinness Book of World Records when they completed 45 consecutive foot-juggling flips during a performance of “Varekai” in San Jose, Calif. In a recent telephone interview, Roni Bello sounded nonchalant about the achievement.

“Performing every night for the audience, that’s the main thing. The record is just a moment. The most important thing is to be able to be in shape and not have any injuries,” he said. The Bello brothers learned gymnastics in Italy from their father, Luciano, who still coaches them, and performed with their family’s company, Circus Medrano. “When we were kids, there were a couple of French guys who did this act. We used to love that act,” Roni Bello recalled.

The Spanish Santos brothers, meanwhile, are seventh-generation circus performers, but the first in their family to perfect foot juggling, starting in 1993. Throughout circus history, fathers typically juggled sons. Such acts were called Icarian games, deriving their name from Icarus, the figure in Greek mythology who flew on wings made by his father, Daedalus.

Other members of the Santos family have been clowns or acrobats, Javier Santos said. “We have done everything except perform with animals,” he said, adding that his father, Pedro, has performed on the trapeze, high wire and trampoline and also has done clowning and juggling.

But when he realized that his sons’ rough-housing might lead to greater opportunities, he began coaching them in foot juggling. Their instruction began with a videotape of the Rios brothers, German circus performers who were considered the best foot jugglers of the 20th century.

“My father realized that there was talent, that we were able to create this act. He started to push us a little bit more,” Javier Santos recalled. Like any well-trained clown, he can laugh at himself. “We started doing this kind of act because, to be honest, I tried too many other things and I was not good at anything. Maybe if I lay down, I was going to be good at something,” Javier Santos said.

Initially, he juggled balls and cylinders.

“When you juggle with small kids, you cannot use all of your power,” he said, adding that he feared he would break his brothers’ backs. Foot jugglers lean against a slanted platform called a tranka. To gain traction, Javier Santos wears jazz shoes without the heel. Onstage, he said, “You have to control your emotions. When everyone is nervous or there’s too much adrenaline, the first thing that happens is your legs shake.”

In addition to regular visits to the gym, the Santos brothers do “a lot of Pilates. It’s very, very helpful. It helps the lower back.”

While the brothers have toured Europe with other circuses, this is their first U.S. tour with Cirque du Soleil. In New York City, Javier Santos said, “They didn’t scream a lot. They didn’t clap a lot. In New York, you go on stage and you really have to work for it.”

Audiences in Austin, Texas, were more vocal with their appreciation. “Whatever you do, the people scream like crazy. As an entertainer, a performer, you love it. They stand up and scream. My God, I feel like Bon Jovi.”

Going on tour with Cirque du Soleil is better than with other circuses, Javier Santos said. “They do take care of the artists. They have a really good space for training. It’s much more professional than any other circus.” But there are trade-offs, too. “It’s much more stressful to perform here. In a traditional circus, you do your act and then you relax. In Cirque du Soleil, you do other characters. The responsibility you have is greater. We have to do everything at full power every day.”

The person charged with seeing to it that Cirque performances stay at a high level is Nicolette Naum, artistic director for “Varekai.”

Naum understands the pressures on performers because she began her career as a street performer in Canada doing juggling and acrobatics and playing the saxophone and recorder. She was among the group of buskers Guy LaLiberte gathered in 1984 for a Canadian street fair. The group later evolved into Cirque du Soleil.

Naum’s job is to keep “Varekai” fresh while staying attuned to the needs of performers. Though based in Montreal, she visits the show regularly while the cast tours the United States. Her job requires the skills of a diplomat, politician, coach and counselor. “If we have to integrate a new artist for the triple trapeze, normal rehearsal time will not suffice,” she said during an interview at the Omni William Penn Hotel last month. Now that she no longer performs, Naum said, “One of my greatest satisfactions is to see the evolution of the performers.”

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By: Christopher Rawson | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
April 11, 2005

Pennants flying over a big top, upbeat music, the smell of popcorn and excited crowds — it sure feels like a circus.

And that’s just what it calls itself — Cirque du Soleil, “circus of the sun” — but it’s not the circus of nostalgic memory. There’s none of the warm aroma of animals, for example, but instead, the glow of electronics. The yellow big top in the Heinz Field parking lot is cone-shaped, the music is eclectic new age and the stage (no sawdust ring, here) is dressed with the glamour and expertise of a Broadway show blown up to rock concert scale.

No, Cirque du Soleil is not your grandparents’ circus nor even that of your own recent youth. This is what the circus evolved into, moved indoors and married to futuristic technology by an inspired band of French Canadians, drawing on the ages-old skills of acrobats, jugglers and aerialists, repackaged by wizards of design.

It’s the dream of a circus, you might say. And the dreamers who created “Varekai,” which they say means “wherever” in Romany, the gypsy language, have dreamed of a 35-foot-high jungle of golden bamboo, populated with fabulous creatures who might be the joint creations of myth, fantasy and Dr. Seuss. These human birds, animals and lizards are presided over by the Pan-like Sergiy Marchenko and Mephistophelean Michel-Andre Cardin, with musicians playing accompaniment on Rube Goldberg instruments.

Into their center plummets a feathered young man whom the program calls Icarus (Anton Chelnokov). He is sent back aloft in a cocoon to be reborn, and the show seems loosely to be his search for a mate. He finds her in the person of a curvaceous contortionist (Irina Naumenko), and the celebration of their union centers the final festivity of the show.

I think it is also she who first appears as a green clad sprite who, after intriguing Icarus, disappears aloft, only to reappear later in spangled, form-fitting white — which would add metamorphosis to rebirth and journey as the show’s prevailing metaphors.

But “Varekai” has the good sense to leave those metaphors vague and not burden itself with even as much plot as “Quidam,” the previous Cirque show to visit Pittsburgh. Attention to Icarus is sporadic, the better to allow the fabulous beings we meet to demonstrate their colorful mind- and body-bending skills. The accompanying songs and incantations, in whatever language(s) they may be, remain vague enough for us to project specific meanings if we choose.

The dominant figure is that of the Pan-like guide, who summons flying spirits and moves the show from one sequence to another. As in a traditional human circus, out of whose skills Cirque weaves its magic, those individual acts are the heart of the matter.

Not counting the recurring joking and mystification, there are more than a dozen such acts, and audiences will have their own favorites. For some, the only possible response is to laugh with disbelief and delight at seeing bodies do what I’m quite sure, in the prosaic world where I live, bodies simply cannot do. Perhaps these performers are actually made of rubber, but there are a few routines when rubber would be too stern and it must be butter, at least, to allow them to contort and flow with such supple agility.

Of course, there’s muscle, too. In some cases, you simply can’t make three-dimensional sense of the speedy contortions. Perhaps the performers have had access to some lost, nonsexual Kama Sutra of physical agility.

There are also clowns, starting with audience intervention during the warm-up and blossoming in a parody magic act in which the ostentatiously smarmy Steven Bishop is undercut by his awkwardly clunky and gleefully willing assistant, Joanna Holden. He reappears later as a chanson artiste deviled by a wayward spotlight — an old idea but funny still.

The parade of wonders includes a quadruple trapeze act; three young Asians flinging magical ropes; an air-borne hoop act with the fluid Leysan Gayazova; two brothers doing acrobatics in mid-air like Aztec birdmen, sailing out over the audience’s heads; a “body skating” troupe, flinging itself about with graceful abandon; fierce Georgian dancers; Octavio Alegria, who juggles balls, Frisbee-like hats and ping-pong balls with every part of his body; and a climactic extravaganza in which giant swings fling bodies through space.

I didn’t see any nets, just a couple of safety straps.

Much of the appeal of the two hours (plus a lengthy intermission) is the costuming, which mixes Amazonian Indian, Eastern European, Ninja and Seuss. The body skaters look like florescent undersea creatures. Much of the time, you don’t know where to look, there’s so much to wonder at.

But perhaps my favorite moment was at the end. After watching these superior beings perform such feats, it was immensely touching to see them doff their imperious attitudes and disguises and appear as normal human beings, touchingly young, happy to please.

* * * * *

By: Matthew J. Palm | Orlando Sentinel
December 3, 2005

Every Cirque du Soleil show has that moment.

It’s when you gasp aloud. Or you realize your heart is racing, or you’ve forgotten to breathe.

In Varekai, the moment comes early.

A young man is suspended in midair, entwined in netting. He manages to pull his body upright, as if standing normally. And then he lets go, the netting snaps and he flops 180 degrees, his head plunging toward the stage floor.

The netting, connected to a cable attached to the theater ceiling, pulls taut and prevents him from hitting the floor, of course.

And then you can breathe again.

The young man in question is Icarus. He has fallen, complete with giant feathered wings, into a mystical world deep in a mysterious forest inhabited by amazingly acrobatic creatures.

Such is the world of Cirque du Soleil.

Varekai is in residence at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg until Dec. 31, and Thursday’s exhilarating opening-night performance demonstrated why the Cirque shows have become an international phenomenon. The mix of ethereal music, exotic costumes, family-friendly humor and, above all, the breathtaking acrobatics creates a spectacle like no other.

The bare-bones story of Icarus’ adventures in the enchanted woods is just to set the mood. The thrill of the show is being caught up in the action, the feeling that anything might happen when the performers let loose with their flips, spins, twists and twirls.

The mystical forest is established effectively right from the start. A thicket of bamboolike trees rises from the stage. Mist swirls and the sounds of crickets, birds and one mighty big mosquito are heard. Performers dressed as iguanas or lizards slither into view, and then in an explosion of colorful costumes, the stage is filled with dancers.

The choreography throughout is more sophisticated than that of other Cirque shows, and many of the performers move as though dancing comes naturally to them. As lively and entertaining as the dancing is, though, it’s the acrobatics that inspire awe.

Anton Chelnokov as Icarus is grace and beauty personified as he uses his netting to climb higher and higher while spinning, turning and dropping.

The athletes in the Icarian Games segment of the show pair up so one man can use his legs to propel his partner into a series of twists, rolls and other gyrations, sometimes flinging him across the stage.

Badri Esatia, Temur Koridze and Khvicha Tetvadze, all from the Republic of Georgia, perform a Georgian dance full of fiery movements, many on tiptoe, and enough rapid-fire spins to make a whirling dervish dizzy.

Andrew Atherton and Kevin Atherton of Great Britain fly through the air at amazing speeds, suspended only by wrist straps as they perform powerful synchronized stunts.

Throughout the show, comic relief is provided by two exceptional clowns, Steven Bishop of Australia and Joanna Holden of Great Britain. The two take simple ideas — a magician’s act is ruined by his partner’s ineptness, and a singer desperately tries to keep up with a mischievous spotlight — and turn them into pure magic.

Overall, the second half of the show doesn’t quite match the energy of the first. A hand-balancing act is too long and doesn’t build to a satisfyingly dramatic finish. But these are minor quibbles.

In the Romany language of the Gypsies, a program note says, varekai means “wherever.” Wherever is a wondrous place indeed.

* * * * *

By: Susan L. Rife | Sarasota Herald-Tribune
December 6, 2005

A world of fantastical creatures capable of superhuman physical skill and grace lives under the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau in the parking lot at Tropicana Field this month. Appropriate to the holiday season in its sense of wonder and magic, “Varekai,” one of six touring shows by Cirque du Soleil, is neither circus nor drama, but theater in the broadest sense of extravagant performance.

Cirque du Soleil, with its roots in European circus and North American street performances, creates a performance within the framework of the myth of Icarus for “Varekai.”

After a prologue establishing the scene as a primeval paradise in a mountaintop volcanic forest, Icarus, the boy who fashioned wings from feathers and wax and then flew too close to the sun, tumbles into a world of creeping, flying and dancing creatures.

Despite the presence of a variety of characters — a sinewy Anton Chelnokov as Icarus, Sergiy Marchenko as the Guide, the comical Michel-André Cardin as the Skywatcher and beautiful and exotic Irina Naumenko as the Betrothed — “Varekai” is less the story of what happens after Icarus plunges to earth and more an astonishing two hours of physical flexibility and acrobatic prowess wrapped in whimsical costumes of tentacles, feathers, ruffles, padded appendages and fantastical headdresses.

You hardly know where to look as performers soar overhead on aerial straps and trapezes, flip over one another in displays of breathtaking agility, and balance against a forest of 35-foot-tall golden tree trunks filled with other creatures. Among the more amazing feats are the “Icarian Games,” in which Stiv and Roni Bello, and Javier, Pedro and Ramon Santos, serve as both catapult and catcher in astonishing human juggling. The show comes to a climax with Russian Swings, in which acrobats are hurled into the air and alight on their partners’ crossed wrists or are pitched into canvas nets yards away from their swings.

Naumenko, who as the Betrothed wears a costume that hovers somewhere between grasshopper, chameleon and butterfly, returns in a nude-toned bodysuit striped with golden sequins for a hand-balancing act that redefines suppleness.

No show with its history in circus would be complete without clowns, which in “Varekai” come in the form of the Skywatcher and of Steven Bishop as a magician hampered by a clumsy and pudgy assistant, Joanna Holden. Bishop returns in the second act in “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” in which he warbles in French and scrambles to stay in an elusive spotlight.

Cirque du Soleil has a reputation for overt sexuality and a certain creepiness in its shows, but “Varekai” is more overlaid with the sweet innocence of young Icarus and his delight at the world in which he finds himself.

* * * * *

By: Athima Chansanchai | Seattle PI
April 27, 2006

It’s hard to translate what exactly happens in a Cirque du Soleil show. Publicists use phrases like “a kaleidoscope world imbued with fantastical creatures” and an “adventure both absurd and extraordinary.”

Absurd and extraordinary. Now, those two words, they could explain a lot about the mind- and body-bending contortions that pulse through “Varekai,” a touring Cirque show scheduled for a Seattle-area premiere Thursday at Marymoor Park in Redmond.

The first time you see a millennium-old circus act called the Icarian Games, you think your mind is playing tricks on you. They could not possibly be doing what you think they’re doing. Must be CGI. But, no, look again and it’s right there: Roni Bello, one half of the family act, The Stevens Brothers, is throwing his brother, Stiv, up in the air. With his feet. And Stiv lands on his feet. Or he’ll transform into a human seal, going round and round in consecutive flips as Roni lies on his back keeping him in motion with his feet.

They hold two Guinness World Records: one for 45 consecutive foot-juggling flips and another for 38 consecutive flips in 30 seconds. As sixth-generation circus performers who’ve been training and traveling since they were kids, the Bellos’ lives mirror what they do: perpetual motion.

“Varekai” translates to “wherever” in the language of the Gypsies, “universal wanderers” from which the show draws its inspiration. It’s no wonder that Cirque attracts among its performers a fair number of nomads whose only real home is in front of an audience. More than 50 artists representing 14 countries are in “Varekai.”

Drama and acrobatics. Two more words that describe the kind of fusion that takes place under the yellow-and-blue big top known as the Grand Chapiteau.

Traditional circus families like the Bellos perform side by side with recent converts such as Andrew and Kevin Atherton, twins who have made the transition from traditional gymnastics to daredevil artist-aerialists.

Cirque is one of those odd amalgamations of tradition and innovative evolution that continues to fascinate, even as it spawns six touring shows and five permanent installations (three in Las Vegas). In a world of CGI fantasia, it’s refreshing to find out what can be done for real by live human beings, that we also are capable of the most seemingly impossible feats.

“Once we saw it, we knew we’d be hooked,” said Andrew Atherton, one half of the 30-year-old pretty-boy Brit twins who catapulted from the world of medalist-class gymnasts to the looser artistic forum that is Cirque. “It was different. It was something we both really wanted to do, this act we dreamed of.”

In part of the artistic technique that defines Cirque, the brothers were left alone to sort out working as a team for the first time. “They left us and said, ‘Go and play’ to see what we could come up with,” said Kevin. “There were a lot of fights.”

It took about six months for their new employers to break the mold of the gymnasts, using movement and acting classes, as well as lessons in percussion and singing. Even though they were used to being in the public eye at competitions, the duo found the interaction between performers and audiences through acting in a Tom Stoppard play.

In “Varekai,” they’re Castor and Pollux, the twins of mythology whose intertwined lives are given center stage during the second half of the show. Unlike the Icarus central character who falls into the forest, the twins achieve flight effortlessly.

“We have to be so synchronized,” Andrew said.
“I trust my brother so much,” Kevin added.

As newcomers to the circus scene, they’re adjusting to the life by learning from their more experienced colleagues and living as much like locals as they can in each of their stops in between the eight to 10 shows they do a week.
Since “Varekai” debuted in April 2002, they’ve traveled to 28 cities throughout Canada and the United States. They’d never been to the U.S. before that, and on this tour, Portland and Seattle are among their uncharted territory.

Roni and Stiv Bello also were new to the U.S., but not to the circus life. “I don’t see myself inside an office,” Stiv said. But they are businessmen and teachers of the Icarian Games who have evolved from the circuses of Europe, where their Italian accents don’t give away any specific region since they traveled so much as children.

“In traditional circuses, you used to live in trailers and all meet together,” Roni said.
“We do that as our life. For others, it’s only an experience,” Stiv said.

At Cirque, they all live in the same residential hotel, or in a few adjoining hotels depending on the city.
Roni said one thing about the act: He never gets bored.

“I’m always looking to do something else. The acrobatics are never the same,” he said.

It’s a craft that asks them to continually evolve. As Stiv said, “It’s like music that never ends.” Brother Roni adds, “Like a piece of jazz.”

“When you go onstage, you’re there for five or six minutes to show the best you’ve got to the audience,” Stiv said. “That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s dangerous.”

Despite that, when the lights go up, they’re there with smiles on their faces, feet in the air.

* * * * *

By: James D. Watts Jr |
January 21, 2015

The idea of Cirque du Soleil rose out of the work of a group of Quebec street performers who dreamed of creating a new kind of circus to entertain audiences around the world with shows that demonstrated all the strength, flexibility, daring and humor of which human beings are capable.

“Varekai,” which premiered in 2002, is the 13th show Cirque du Soleil has created and the fifth to come to Tulsa.
Inspired by the Greek myth of Icarus, “Varekai” is the story of a young man who plummets to earth, landing in a forest filled with strange creatures that soar through the air, skate across the ground, dance and tumble about with abandon — and even indulge in acts of pure silliness.

Here’s a glimpse into the lives and activities of some of the people who make the world of “Varekai” come to life.


It was supposed to be a two-year adventure — setting aside the dentist’s drill to run off and join the circus.
That was 10 years ago. For the past decade, Steven Bishop has been the principal clown for Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai.”

Given that this Canadian-born enterprise has as its unofficial credo “We Reinvent the Circus,” the role of clown in a Cirque du Soleil production does not involve baggy clothes, red noses and jars of white face paint.

In fact, in the world of “Varekai,” Bishop and his partner in mischief, Emily Carragher, wear the least amount of makeup of any of the performers.

“We’re sort of the contrast to the rest of the show,” Bishop said.

“Varekai” — which means “whatever” in the Romany language — is a fantasia inspired by the Greek myth of Icarus, whose wings of wax and feathers melted when he flew too near the sun.

In the Cirque du Soleil telling of this story, Icarus falls not to his death in the seas but into the midst of a strange and magical forest, populated by an array of unusual beings capable of doing extraordinary things.

In between the feats of strength, balance and flexibility, along with all manner of aerial acrobatics by performers in elaborate and slinky costumes, Bishop and Carragher will emerge to toy with audience members, attempt one of the spectacularly unsuccessful magic acts to disgrace the stage, and chase after a moment in the spotlight to croon the Jacques Brel ballad “Ne me quitte pas.”

Bishop is a qualified dental surgeon in his native Australia, “but I was always interested in creative things, especially when I could engage my entire body in the process. And if I could make people laugh, so much the better.”

He studied theater at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris and worked with an English-speaking theater company in France. While still practicing dentistry, Bishop was also performing, everything from mime and escapology to stunt work in films like the live-action “Scooby-Doo.”

When he landed the role in “Varekai,” Bishop said: “I know that this was where I wanted to put my artistic life. I’d reached the point in my life where I was only going to do things I was interested in and passionate about, and that would help me evolve as a performer and a person.”

Bishop started in “Varekai” in 2004, two years after the show had been created. At that time, the show toured as a “Grand Chapiteau,” or big-top tent production, which would remain several weeks at one locale.

So Bishop decided to bring his wife and four children along with him.

“I said it would be a two-year thing,” Bishop said, laughing. “We’ll keep the dentist chair, just in case, you know. But Cirque du Soleil allowed me to support my family while continuing to perform.”

When “Varekai” was converted into an arena show (the production that comes to the BOK Center this week), the stresses of weekly touring made Bishop’s family arrangements unworkable. Bishop’s wife and children moved back to Australia while he continues with the show.

The set pieces Bishop does in the show have been a part of “Varekai” from the beginning, but he’s been able to develop them in personal ways.

But the most important element of the show for Bishop is what is called the “animation,” when the two clowns come out prior to the start of the show to interact with the audience.

“For a clown, that connection with the audience is imperative,” he said. “That’s why the animation is so important because it’s a way to make that connection instantly. That way, when you finally show up in the context of the show, the audience knows who you are and what they’re in for.”

Bishop even relishes the process of doing the same thing night after night, show after show, in a way that is philosophical.

“No other company can offer you the chance to develop and present your art the way Cirque du Soleil does,” he said. “The number of shows that you do — it’s almost like ‘Zen and the Art of Archery,’ doing that one thing over and over until you get a sense of understanding that is beyond thought or learning.”

He paused, then added, “And you get to make people laugh.”


“Varekai” began, as did many of the shows created by Cirque du Soleil, in a tent.

The Montreal, Quebec-based company would set up a large, big top-style tent, capable of seating about 2,500 people, and present its shows within its canvas confines. The company would remain in one locale for several weeks at a time before striking tents and moving on.

Cirque du Soleil continues to perform under the big top — five shows, including the newest, “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities,” are currently touring in this fashion. It also has what it calls “resident shows,” including eight in Las Vegas.

Recently, Cirque du Soleil began converting some of its longest running shows to be presented in arenas, the latest of which is “Varekai,” opening Wednesday at the BOK Center.

And these conversations, said the show’s artistic director Fabrice Lemire, “is like creating a completely new show from the ground up. Every aspect of the show has to be redesigned — the set, to begin with.”

One of the main elements of the “Varekai” set is an enormous catwalk, which looks to be constructed of sticks and branches, that rises from the rear of the stage and extends over it.

“We are in a different space every week, and each space is different,” said Lemire, who has been overseeing “Varekai” for three years. “To accommodate that, we have two different heights for the catwalk — both of which are higher than the catwalk we used in the big top.

“So that means we have to rework the music because the performers need a little more to move along the catwalk,” he said. “That requires redesigning the lighting plan, everything. Because the show is 12 years old, we also had to adapt it to the changes in sound technology that are now standard. It was a huge challenge.”

Lemire began his tenure on “Varekai” right around the time the show was beginning to be transferred to arenas. He began his career with the company in 2008 as dance master for “Zaia,” a resident show in Macau, then became artistic director of “Quidam” until taking over “Varekai.”

Prior to joining Cirque du Soleil, Lemire spent some 20 years as a dancer, choreographer and ballet master, working with such companies as Oregon Ballet and New York City Opera.

“I wanted to try the other side, not be the one on stage, but share ideas so people could perhaps make better use of their talents,” he said.

“Varekai” is one of the more narrative-driven shows in the Cirque du Soleil repertoire, with many of the dazzling acrobatic acts having some bearing on the story.

“We have a new performer in the cast, who is taking over the male lead,” Lemire said. “He comes from a strong dance background, and it’s taking me a lot of work to get him out of his comfort zone, to get him to express something different, something more emotional.”


The principal emotion that Rodrigue Proteau has to express in his role as The Guide in “Varekai” is one that he finds difficult to summon outside of the theater.

“I was told at the start my character is grumpy,” Proteau said. “And that’s just not something within me. I really have to work at that.”

Proteau’s face as he said this told a slightly different story — only because his face was already adorned with the multicolored makeup he wears for the role. The makeup gives him a slightly ferocious look quite at odds with his soft, understated speaking voice.

The Guide is described as “a wise old man whose mission is to inspire and bring about change” — in the case of “Varekai,” that involves guiding the fallen Icarus to an acceptance of what is now his new home.

Proteau was a member of the original cast of “Varekai” and had some input into the creation of the character he plays.

“I was working as a physical actor — I did dance theater, movies, stuff like that,” the Quebec native said.

“Cirque du Soleil came to me, wanting me to take over a part in ‘Saltimbanco.’ But I wasn’t comfortable with that.
“Then, Dominic Champagne (the writer and director of “Varekai”) got in touch with me, saying he was creating this new show and wanted me to be a part of it,” Proteau said.

Originally, The Guide was going to be as much puppet as actor.

“They started out with this head piece and kept adding things, making it more and more elaborate,” Proteau said, smiling. “Then, a week before the show was to open, the head of Cirque du Soleil came in, took one look at what I was wearing, and said, ‘Cut that!’?”

Proteau came up with an alternate headpiece for his character — a helmet with a large light bulb on top.

“My original thought was it was something that would plug into the wall,” he said, chuckling. “But the technical people just kind of looked at it and shook their heads and said, ‘That would be pretty dangerous, Rod.’ So they came up with something with batteries.”

The Guide and his cheerful nemesis, a wild character called the Skywatcher, carry on conversations in a made-up language.

“The dialogue is all improvised — exactly what we say changes, although the import, the emotions are the same,” Proteau said. “I will toss in words and phrases from Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. We also try to work in some of the slang of a region, if possible.

“And since we are part of the story, and don’t have a great deal of time on stage,” he said, “we have to be very precise. We have to be sure people know exactly what we mean, even though they can’t understand what we say.”