“We’re Off and Running II, Part 4 of 4: La Nouba (& More)”

In “We’re Off and Running”, the 16-part series that we concluded last month, Fascination! explored some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows (Le Cirque Réinventé through to Varekai) as they took their first steps across North America. Sometimes the coverage was just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there was a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. Although we narrowed our series to focus on touring shows that had hit the road before Fascination began publication (with the exception of Varekai), what of Cirque’s signature resident shows or the Company itself? What interesting blurbs did we uncover about Mystere, “O”, or La Nouba? Enough, as it turns out, for “We’re Off and Running II”, a four-part sequel series to conclude with a few articles about La Nouba, Journey of Man, and Fire Within.

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By: Cory Lancaster | Orlando Sentinel
December 8, 1998

When Cirque du Soleil debuts in two weeks, Walt Disney World will have its first Broadway-caliber show – with ticket prices to match.

The international theater company, based in Montreal, has built a reputation in such places as New York City and Las Vegas for combining acrobatics and theatrics into elaborate stage productions.

But in Central Florida, the French name (pronounced SERK-dew-so-lay, and translated as Circus of the Sun) likely will sound foreign to many.

In fact, Cirque officials acknowledge they will have to increase their name recognition to fill the 1,671-seat theater at Disney for two shows a day, Wednesday through Sunday.

“It will take time to educate people to the product,” said Jacques Marois, general manager of Cirque’s Americas Division. “According to what we’ve seen before when we open a show, the interest will build pretty fast.”

Cirque officials are mum about the production here, called “La Nouba,” which in French means to party or live it up. The $40 million stage production debuts Dec. 23 in the circus tent-shaped building at Downtown Disney West Side.

The show will bring to six the number of Cirque productions worldwide, each of them with a different theme. In Las Vegas, the “O” show revolves around water with a swimming-pool stage. “Quidam,” a touring show now in Atlanta, is about social isolation. In it, a young girl wanders alone through life, meeting dancers, acrobats and circus performers.

Disney and Cirque signed an agreement that makes them partners in the 90-minute production. Although the agreement lasts 12 years, both companies expect the partnership to last a lot longer.

“We plan to play here for at least 20, 30 years,” said Cirque’s founding director, Guy Laliberte.

Under the partnership, Disney built and owns the theater, which cost $27 million. Cirque paid for the show – including costumes, sets, props, lighting and audio and other equipment – which cost $13 million, Laliberte said.

Disney will handle advertising and some other business matters. In exchange, the two will share ticket revenue.

“It is 100 percent Disney’s job to see that these tickets sell,” Marois added.

Tickets to “La Nouba” will cost $59.89, including tax, for adults and children 10 and older. For children younger than 10, tickets will cost $47.91.

The prices make Cirque the most expensive ticket at Walt Disney World, exceeding the price of theme parks (by $15), club-hopping at Pleasure Island and virtual-reality games at DisneyQuest. Few other events in Central Florida command such a price.

Neither Cirque nor Disney sound nervous about the ticket prices. In Las Vegas, where Cirque performs two productions, tickets range from $70 to $100.

And industry observers don’t think they should be nervous.

“I think there’s definitely a market here,” said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, a theme-park consulting company in Orlando. “I don’t think the price would be that prohibitive. Conventioneers are here. Groups are here. It’s going to be a status symbol to say you’re going to the show.”

Cirque enters a growing market of after-hours activities vying for tourists. It will compete not only with attractions at Disney World but also with Church Street Station, Pointe Orlando, Universal Studios’ upcoming CityWalk and smaller attractions, such as Skull Kingdom and various dinner shows, such as Arabian Nights.

Disney officials said they wanted Cirque to come to Downtown Disney for years. To Disney, the show continues efforts to offer a wide range of entertainment that caters to families, couples without children and senior citizens.

Historically, Cirque relied on word of mouth to attract people to its shows. But for “La Nouba,” it has a potential client base of millions of Disney visitors a year, plus customers from around Florida, Marois said.

Cirque also will have the Disney marketing machine behind it. Some advertising has begun, but the big marketing push will occur closer to Jan. 28, the official premiere of “La Nouba.” Cirque officials say they will tweak the show for a month before the official debut.

If the show is successful, Cirque likely will join in other partnerships with Disney around the world. “We’re all looking at this project as the first of many others,” Marois said.

For “La Nouba,” Cirque employs 120 people here, including about 65 performers – mostly gymnasts – from Russia, France, China and the United States.

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By: Elizabeth Maupin | Orlando Sentinel
January 1, 1999

Imagine a man riding a bicycle upside-down across the sky.

Imagine a circus parade of Federico Fellini’s film grotesques, the blank-faced men in bowler hats of the artist Rene Magritte, the floating brides in the paintings of Marc Chagall.

Imagine all that, and you may have an idea of the wonders of La Nouba, the new Cirque du Soleil extravaganza at Downtown Disney West Side.

Housed in a 1,671-seat theater designed to look like a circus tent, La Nouba promises to become a powerful magnet for Central Florida’s out-of-town visitors as well as a beloved home-town institution – the kind of show locals will return to time and time again for years to come.

This is the 11th full-scale production for Cirque du Soleil, the hugely successful Montreal company that was founded by street performers in rural Quebec in 1984.

A no-animals circus that blends traditional acrobatic and clown acts with extravagantly high-tech design, Cirque du Soleil (“Circus of the Sun”) now has one production touring Europe, another crisscrossing America, a third touring Asia and the Pacific and two permanent shows in Las Vegas.

La Nouba, which opened to the public Dec. 23, will not have its official opening until Jan. 28, and some bugs remain to be worked out. Snafus snarl the box office, swarms of people push to get through the understaffed doors, and hard-working ushers are spread too thin. Programs will not be available until late January, ushers say, and the 90-minute show itself – especially, word has it, an ever-changing finale – seems to be still in flux.

Yet audiences are paying full price ($56.50 plus tax for adults) for tickets, and many Orlandoans do not want to wait until the end of January to know what’s up.

What’s up, in fact, is the whole world in La Nouba, a phrase that derives from the French idiom “faire la nouba,” meaning to party or to live it up. (One dictionary links the phrase with “to hold a wedding,” which figures significantly in this production.)

A woman balances on one hand on a man’s shoulders on a wire high above the stage. A pair of men scale the side of a building by leaping from a trampoline. The sky becomes a forest of stars or a sea of eerily floating window frames, and alien creatures in orange skullcaps soar through the air.

If you describe La Nouba not as a two-ring or three-ring circus but as a circus with an infinite number of rings, you’re getting close. Closer, still, would be a circus in which the performers refuse to stay inside the ring or to color inside the lines.

Indeed, color runs riot inside Cirque’s spacious high-tech arena, where the seats are arranged in half a circle around the stage and just about everybody has a good view. The acrobats’ extravagant costumes come in brilliant turquoise or fiery reddish-orange; the same reddish-orange flows from on high in lavish swaths of fabric in the show’s most striking scene. Many of the performers are clothed so neutrally, in flowing cloaks or in Lycra, that you can’t tell if they’re men or women; even their shaved heads, hoods and skullcaps add to the mysterious feel.

The show’s traditional circus acts are impressive – the high-wire and trapeze artists, the man who balances on a tower of eight precarious chairs with what looks like a lighted birthday cake on his head. The two clowns are child-pleasers, although their antics will seem tame to many adults (and a sequence in which they’re garbed in spacesuits falls flat). And four tiny Asian girls who twirl large wooden spools on strings – sort of giant yo-yos run amok – have to be seen to be believed.

But the glory of La Nouba is the stranger sights, the otherworldly images and the eerie melodies in minor keys. Two men fit themselves into giant hoops and glide this way and that while an army of beings in the anonymous attire of Maoist workers march across the stage and a rubber-limbed strong man skulks weirdly here and there. A little chandelier tumbles from the rafters; a toy train passes through; and a silent observer lounges in a window that floats by on air.

In one thrilling sequence, the stage floor glides back to reveal an X-shaped trampoline. Two other trampolines are dropped from the flies, and close to two dozen orange-garbed jumpers catapult like flames through space.

And in the show’s piece de resistance, a man in white trousers seizes a pair of voluminous orange streamers and flies through the air like a bare-chested Icarus – while four women wind themselves in other streamers, are lifted high and then fall miraculously to midair. It’s a glorious sight, like a cluster of children dangling in the long sashes of a Japanese kimono or like the wings of incredible butterflies. Images like that make all of us children again.

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By: Andew Paxman | Variety
January 25, 1999

The nuptials between the Mouse House and French-Canadian performance troupe Cirque du Soleil appeared to be getting off to a rocky start at Disney World in the fall.

Cirque was, in its customarily improvisational fashion, way behind in rehearsals for “La Nouba,” the permanent show it was prepping for Downtown Disney, a new entertainment and dining zone on the grounds of Disney World, roughly akin to Universal Studios’ CityWalk in California. Slated to begin previews on Dec. 23, ahead of a Jan. 28 grand opening, “La Nouba” was to be the centerpiece of Downtown Disney.

The suits at Disney were understandably nervous. “You’ll never be ready on time,” some moaned. “You must be feeling a lot of pressure,” muttered others, loosening their own collars.

The match itself is a bizarre one: a control-obsessed, English-speaking corporate giant paired with a control-obsessed, French-speaking bunch of former street performers.

“We don’t work from scripts, and a lot of things in this show were ‘found’ just as we were in final rehearsals. Towards the end, our level of tension always becomes very high,” concedes Jacques Marois, Cirque’s Montreal-based production VP.

“I don’t doubt that some people at Disney were uncomfortable about the way we work,” Marois adds. “But whenever doubts arose, someone from the creative side of Disney would say `Let me explain what Cirque is all about.'”
In the spirit of it’ll-be-all-right-on-the-night, “La Nouba” has preopened to ecstatic reviews from the Florida press. Since there’s nothing remotely like it in the Orlando area, where nocturnal entertainment is at any rate pretty limited, this adult-skewed $20 million production is already looking like a home run.

Perhaps that’s no surprise, as the contrast in corporate cultures is less than it seems. Cirque may maintain an aura of rag-tag charm, but its convictions are strictly capitalist: Annual revenues have jumped from $30 million in 1994 to $150 million in 1998.

Much of that increase derives from Cirque’s move into permanent shows, of which “La Nouba” is the third. In Las Vegas, another unlikely domain for the ex-street urchins, “Mystere” debuted in 1994 and the water-themed “O” bowed in October.

Just like Disney, Cirque is keen to exploit all windows, including merchandising. The Canadians didn’t need Disney to suggest that the Orlando venue include a store selling Cirque T-shirts, jackets and so on, says Downtown Disney VP Karl Holz.

Around 10% of Cirque revenues now derive from merchandising, says Marois, and there are plans to spin off action-figures from “La Nouba” — which has no discernible narrative but is more character-based than previous Cirque productions.

“The inspiration is somewhat from the accomplishments of Disney. And we can learn from Disney about merchandising, but learning doesn’t mean copying — we want to do it with our own kind of originality,” Marois says.

Such expansionism has led Pierrot Bidon, founder of avant-garde French troupe Archaos, a competitor, to call Cirque “the McDonald’s of circuses.” But Cirque officials insist that none of their shows are cloned; unlike “Cats” or “Riverdance,” there’s only one place to see “La Nouba” and only one troupe performing each of its distinct touring shows.

What’s different about “La Nouba” is that it sets a new standard for Cirque’s ability to joint venture. Talks with Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s were reportedly derailed by Cirque’s insistence on creative control, a first look at a Disney collaboration in the early 1990s went nowhere, and nothing came from an episodic TV drama that the circus planned with fellow Canucks Cinar and CTV in 1996.

Moreover, Cirque’s first film, the Canada-France-Holland co-production “Alegria,” has been sitting on a shelf for a year. The $7 million pic will finally get a Quebec release via Alliance in April, but word is that the feature has played down Cirque’s trademark acrobatic daring for the sake of a meandering, sappy storyline.

Disney, to its credit, has given Cirque a remarkably free rein. “We built the theater — which was designed by Michel Crete, the set designer from Cirque and helped with the marketing and ticket sales. Otherwise the input from our side has been minimal,” Disney’s Holz says.

“There’s been no interest from Disney to compromise our creative integrity. They want to see us flourish,” says Marois. “We’ve had to admit that some of our preconceived ideas about Disney were totally wrong.”

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By: Jack Zink | Variety
February 8, 1999

A Cirque du Soleil presentation of a performance in one act written and directed by Franco Dragone. Musical director, Benoit Glazer. Choreographer, Debra Brown. Sets, Michel Crete; costumes, Dominique Lemieux; lighting, Luc Lafortune; music, Benoit Jutras; sound, Francois Bergeron, Jonathan Deans; director of creation, Gilles Ste-Croix. Opened, reviewed Jan. 28, 1999. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Eschewing the elaborate trappings of “O” at Las Vegas’ Bellagio resort, the Cirque du Soleil creative team returns to nouvelle circus essentials for “La Nouba” at Walt Disney World. Though it meets today’s standards for ornate production value, the $13 million attraction plays out on a human scale that focuses on the performers.

Choreography by Debra Brown to music by Benoit Jurras bends Franco Dragone’s fairy tale concept to a theatrical context. “La Nouba” gratis a childlike carnival foreground to a backdrop reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1927 filmic urban nightmare “Metropolis,” replete with techno-funk and hip-hop. The cumulative effect is much edgier than one expects from Cirque, and especially Disney.

The show opened for previews Dec. 23, without a featured bicycle act that joined the show two days before the Jan. 28 gala premiere. A few other significant design changes also took place during the monthlong break-in, culminating in the slick visuals and acrobatic finesse that is Cirque’s trademark.

Recent years have seen a spate of specialty acts and floor shows crop up around Orlando’s theme parks, many for the budget tourist crowd. “La Nouba” puts Disney squarely, if belatedly, in the front of that theme-show market and should prove another popular component of the still-growing Cirque empire.

Cirque’s first permanent, freestanding venue features a large thrust stage with orchestra and mezzanine sections arrayed in a horseshoe around it, without balconies. The stage platform sits above a 16-foot pit whence the scenery rises.

The theater is situated at one end of the theme park’s Downtown Disney section, a large shopping and nightclub district adjacent to Disney World’s burgeoning hotel strip.

“La Nouba” runs the requisite 90 minutes, though interest begins to dissipate somewhat after 75 (the standard running time of traditional floor shows, and apparently for good reason). Major acts include an opening Roue (German Wheel) performed by two acrobats garbed like mummies in Day-Glo wrap, a highwire duo, a balancing act on chairs, a trademark cirque “aerial silks” routine and a house trapeze troupe. The climax is an inventive trampoline act using the majority of the 65-member cast.

The title is drawn from the French idiom “faire la Nouba,” which translates “to live it up” or “to party.” Dragone says his fairytale blueprint was altered during rehearsals to juxtapose the dreamy new-age circus formula against a harsh, regimented, industrial-age reality. Choreographer Brown flanks the colorful cirque characters of “La Nouba” with a cadre of “urbanites” in monochromatic costumes (by Dominique Lemieux), performing aggressive hip-hop routines in militatistic alignments.

Michel Crete’s sets spit up from the floor — black lacquer derricks and in one case the shell of a rotting tenement or factory, upon which the denizens cavort in terpsichorean delight both with and without trampoline assist. The set pieces are overhung by a collection of huge impressionist and cubist paintings and frames.

Jutras’ score, while new-age puree at the top, comes with hefty chunks of source material embedded below the cream. Underlying the traditional circus elements are vintage heraldry, minstrelsy and chanson. Those bleed into the puree along with the aforementioned techno-funk (plus various other permutations of electronica) and, especially, the hip-hop used as the basis for much of the ensemble choreography. Superimposed over all are scat-like vocal intonations hauntingly performed by Dessy and O’Neil Langlois.

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By: Edna Tromans
January 1998 | Saga Magazine

Franco Dragone, the director and great creative mainspring of the fabled Cirque du Soleil has the reputation of being a Pied Piper among showbusiness folk. The most elusive of entertainers, who are normally non-committal and hard to pin down, are ready to follow him anywhere.

Francis Ford Coppola, the celebrated film maker who made Godfather wants to work with him. So does actor Robin Williams. And every time Whoopi Goldberg runs into him she offers her time and services in her own individual way. Something like, “Hey Franco, when are we going to party?”

The subject of all this interest is an unassuming 42-year- old Italian-born director with a charismatic personality. Dressed from top to toe in black with dark eyes and a thick crop of ink-black hair, Franco looks like a soulful artist dedicated to his work and, almost mournfully, he agrees that he concentrates on his working activities to the exclusion of almost all else.

Twice married and father of two sons, he says, “I feel regret – deep regret – about not being a better husband and father. I once said to my son Lucas, ‘Shall I give it up? I don’t spend enough time with you.’ ” His son urged him not to think of it. Now 16, Lucas got his reward when he bobbed up as production assistant alongside his father on Franco’s first film, Alegria which he made last summer.

During filming, Lucas’ mother Antoinette Capettas was also a beautiful and friendly presence on the set, accentuating Franco’s own deeply-held belief that,”Once these important relationships are formed, even after a divorce they remain precious and still last a lifetime.”

The Cirque performers form a second kind of family, one with whom he travels throughout the world and many of them were cast in the film which was shot on location in Amsterdam and Berlin.

The same troupe is appearing at London’s Royal Albert Hall this month where it will be playing to packed houses in the Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical production of Alegria. Later in the year the film of the same name will be playing in selected cinemas.

In the film – with a screenplay written by Franco and producer Rudy Barichello – the magical universe of the Cirque du Soleil becomes the backdrop for a tender love story between a street performer and the lead singer of a travelling circus. René Bazinet stars as the love-struck mime artist who falls for a young gifted singer, played by Julie Cox, a dazzling English actress who once played the late Diana, Princess of Wales in the TV production A Prince’s Story.

The role of her father is played by Frank Langella who had barely taken the last curtain call in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter on Broadway before he hopped on a plane for Amsterdam and the film location of Alegria.

Was it Franco’s work with the Cirque that so impressed Frank Langella? This dazzling circus of human performers has no animals in the ring and achieves its spectacular effect from a dramatic mix of art, gymnastic skills and street theatre. It was understandable that someone as knowledgeable about the theatre as Langella could be drawn to the magic created inside the Big Top.

“It was actually because of Franco himself,” says Langella.

“I knew about the Cirque, of course. My children had seen it and loved it. But as soon as Franco walked into the room I thought, ‘Yes, I want to work with this director.’ There are just a few people who can create that effect.”

Langella now lives and works chiefly in New York after years in Hollywood in such films as John Badham’s Dracula and Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs and Diary of a Mad Housewife. Big films with considerable budgets. Nothing like that with Alegria, and Langella says, “There’s no financial profit for me with a movie like this. I do it because I love the project. It’s not noble on my part. It’s survival, I think. It’s a way each day to wake up and think, ‘I’m working on some worthwhile material’ that gives me a reason for saying I’m an actor. I might as well test those abilities on something like this as opposed to, ‘Don’t move or I’ll shoot.’ ”

The film is budgeted at about 10 million Canadian dollars, a mere fraction of the cost of a big Hollywood action movie and, as a first-time director, Franco is subdued about the costs. Like a new boy at school he listens attentively to the dangers of running over budget but in fact each day of the week with the Cirque he is handling productions that can soar beyond 60 million dollars. Until two years ago his own parents had no idea of the scale of his productions. They saw a show of his at Las Vegas and marvelled, “You did this?”

Great success has overtaken the Cirque. From its humble beginnings as the brainchild of a group of street performers in Montreal, it grew to become the actual Cirque du Soleil in 1984, and from a few dozen artists it has now expanded to include nearly 300 artists worldwide.

In 1998 it is creating two new permanent theatre projects: its first aquatic show in Las Vegas and another show in Orlando, Florida. Next stop is Asia, where the Cirque is opening in Singapore, in addition to a permanent show in Berlin in the year 2000.

And all this, everyone generally agrees, is largely because of Franco Dragone.

On the set of his first movie, his own demands appear surprisingly modest.

Franco doesn’t seem to realise that the question of the director’s trailer might even be a deal-breaker in some Hollywood contracts. No trailer has been allocated. He just didn’t get around to asking for one and when he needs to hold a private conversation during filming he humbly asks one of his cast if he might borrow his or her caravan.

He is as beguiled by this whole new process of filmmaking as his son Lucas. “A whole new box of magic tricks to play with” is how he describes it. He scoops up a handful of the paperwork that streams every day into the film’s production office. The day’s call sheet. Transport movements. Script changes.

“It wasn’t until I saw it written down for the first time that I realised what was involved,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like this before.”

His ingenuousness wins him friends because he remains one of the team. There is nothing dictatorial about his approach. “I don’t want to give orders and tell people what to do,” he says. “I create an environment in which people can express themselves.”

At the age of 65, Brian Dewhurst, a Mancunian performer and mime artist, is happy to be playing his first speaking role in Alegria. He plays Old Taps, a café owner and retired performer who can still go through all his physical paces, tap-dancing and standing on his hands. Now living in Las Vegas, Brian comes from three generations of circus performers and knows Franco well from his 10 years at the Cirque. “Franco is the spirit of the Cirque,” he says. “He brings great depth to each of the productions. It’s not just a matter of putting on a show. He has great respect for the playing space and what he puts in has to be of an exceptionally high standard.”

Franco Dragone himself came to the circus from a background in theatre. His collaboration with theatrical companies across Europe led him to integrate theatre and circus through new forms of expression. He has directed all but one of the Cirque’s internationally acclaimed award- winning shows that have won worldwide recognition. His aim throughout has been to create not only dazzling shows with surprise and beauty but for them to be about something. While his film is spun out of imaginative images that delve into the world of dreams and nightmares, it remains rooted in reality. A sub-plot of his story Alegria tells the plight of children who are exploited for adults’ gain as they toil for a pittance: today’s story of many millions of children who are being exploited worldwide.

He says, “I won’t direct a movie or a show if I don’t feel something. I want to transmit ideas to others. I want to say, ‘Please take time to think, just once, about the atrocities that are done everywhere; take time to think about a child. You can always participate to change ugliness.’ ” He puts a different twist on the word Alegria “In Italy when someone dies in the family we say, allegria. It means, ‘Let’s go. Life must go on.’ ”
He wrote the part of the disillusioned mime artist for René Bazinet, an internationally renowned mime artist and clown who toured for four years with one of the Cirque’s productions. Traditionally there is a sadness about the character of the clown, and Franco detected a pervasive melancholy in the personality of René himself. “It’s why I wanted to create this character for him,” he says.

Away from the set, René appears subdued, but he chuckles when a clown – a street entertainer with baggy trousers and red blob for a nose – appears at his table with a harmonica and a powerful tenor voice and is persuaded to leave only when René offers him a fistful of change. “I know what has to be done to be left alone,” he says. For many years he was a street artist in Paris, struggling to make a living in a city that he found fiercely competitive and often unfriendly.

There was also a lot of partying, he says, and a bohemian way of life to which he was highly drawn in his twenties. “Living in Paris and pretending to be Parisian means almost being debauched, I guess,” he says. “There was a particular period around the late Seventies when I was full of red wine and into indulgence on a big scale. I could do a street show any time I chose, weather permitting, and party the rest of the time. I used to hang out with a prominent group of street artists. There were many raucous nights. Too many. My body is my tool and if it does not function I can’t work. I can’t support myself.”

In 1980 – a year that is deeply etched on his memory because of the fundamental changes it brought – he was overtaken by personal disaster. He contracted hepatitis and for six months he couldn’t work. “I was sick. I had no money, my girlfriend left me and I had to spend my last few francs on a few kilos of rice,” he says. “I was in bed, all alone in a garret in Paris. There were flies everywhere. Every day there were more and more of these little flies in my tiny apartment. They were driving me mad. Then one day I found a white worm exploding in the rice in the larder. Now I couldn’t even eat. It was enough to make me want to jump out of the window.

“In fact, there was a logical reason for it all. There was an open tin of cat food lying somewhere on a shelf, but I didn’t realise it at the time. I was in a dreadful state. I thought I was going mad. I thought. ‘What have I done wrong to find myself in such a predicament?’ ”

It marked the beginning of the end of René’s days as a wild young man and took him into the realms of an important new friendship with a tutor and mentor named Annette Lask, who gave him the confidence he needed. It was she who illuminated some of the areas which were giving him such difficulty. Through her he discovered a new discipline, the Feldenkreist exercises, which taught him how he could conquer the physical limitations of his body. Performing the exercises showed him how he could move with precision and economy and trained him in the easy rhythmic movement which he uses to great effect in the Big Top. “She also made me aware of what I was doing to myself and where I was heading – which was right down the drain,” says René. “She made me see I was on a self-destructive course and made me question a lot of things about myself and my background.”

It is his unexplained background that niggles away at him. He possesses extraordinary talents and has little idea where they came from. He has never known his father, who was a circus performer and moved on to some unknown destination shortly after he was born. He knows his name – William Dégé – and that he came from Essen in Germany.

René was born in Bochum, Germany on April 26, 1955 and lived in and around Essen until he was 16, when his mother, Ellen Fiener, remarried and the family moved to Canada. At that point he was flung into high school speaking not one word of English or French. He is now fluent in both languages but before he mastered them, as a solitary child he used to go for long walks in the park where, for his own amusement, he learned to imitate birds. That was when he mastered the idiosyncratic squeak that has become his professional trademark in the Big Top.

He was always able to make people laugh. Following graduation he studied theatre in Montreal where a teacher, detecting a particular ability to communicate using his body, encouraged him to specialise in mime.

Unconsciously, he was already following in his father’s footsteps. Among his most treasured possessions is a snapshot of himself as a four-month-old baby being held in a firm one-handed grip – in the typical manner of circus folk – by the man who was his father. Shortly afterwards William Dégé disappeared. No one knows where.

Although his mother was briefly in touch with him in later years, he remains a stranger to his son who has taken numerous trips to their old home town to try to find him. Perhaps by now, René estimates, his father is in his mid to late seventies.

“He was a very clever performer,” says René. “My mother told me he could play three or four harmonicas at the same time. It feels so strange. I have never met this man but I have his talent. I don’t know him but I’ve turned out exactly like him. It’s hereditary. It’s all in my body. He is the missing link. If I could find him it would be the moment of my life.”

Over 15 million people have seen the Cirque worldwide. The chances are that the audiences for the movie Alegria will dwarf that number. Is there a chance, he wonders, that William Dégé might be one of them and that he might perhaps find the person who provides the missing link in his life?

It would mean even more to him than the shot at screen stardom offered by Franco Dragone.

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By: Susan King | The LA Times
May 19, 2000

During the four-month production of the new Imax 3-D adventure, “Cirque du Soleil Journey of Man,” the cast and crew were at nature’s mercy, battling rain, snow, wind and nearly freezing water temperatures.

“It was an uninsurable film because we were victim to any weather condition,” says producer-writer Peter Wagg. “We were also locked into the artists’ performance schedules.”

Celebrating human spirit with the artists and music from the enchanting Cirque du Soleil, the 40-minute film follows the stages of human development from birth to maturity with each stage introduced by a Cirque act, including the taiko drummers from “Mystere” in Las Vegas; the graceful synchronized swimmers of “O” in Las Vegas; the bouncing Bungees from “Mystere” and “Saltimbanco”; the Cube Man from “Mystere”; and the Statue Act from the European tour of “Quidam.”

“Journey of Man,” which opens today, was developed by Wagg, the managing director of Cirque du Soleil Images, the audiovisual-multimedia division of the Canadian company.

“It’s my responsibility to attempt to take the magic of a live Cirque du Soleil experience to other mediums,” he says. “The most challenging and ambitious was to take a Cirque du Soleil experience into the immersive world of the Imax large-format 3-D, because that’s as close as you can get to the reality of a live show.”

But Wagg didn’t want to simply film one of Cirque’s eight live shows currently in performance around the globe.

“This [format] allowed us to go into whole new areas and consequently write a visual story line that used all of the wonderful benefits of Imax and fused it with the artistry of Cirque. That’s why we went to all of those spectacular locations [including the Valley of Fire in Nevada, the Redwood forests of California and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate] and took our artists out of the big top and put them into locations that worked within the story line and reflected those different stages of the journey of man.”

Director Keith Melton added a continuity to the story line and gave it “some sort of an internal logic to what the acts mean. I also had to figure out how to make all of this work from a stage experience to a film experience, and that meant adapting a lot of things along the way.”

Melton used two types of 3-D camera, the primary one being the Imax Solido twin camera, which weighs a whopping 400 pounds when the base of the camera is added. “It’s two cameras put together, and it runs about 3 1/2 minutes worth of film at 24 frames per second,” he says. The other camera used was an Iwerks 70-millimeter 3-D rig.

Because of the various locations, the production was constantly on the move. “There was a lot of down time in between but, to give you an idea, traditional feature films maybe shoot 20 setups a day, and we were lucky if we got seven setups a day,” says Melton.

The Imax camera takes a “ridiculous” amount of light to get any depth and focus. “It is also a lot more meticulous because you see things pretty much as the eye sees the world,” Melton says. “Everything was carefully designed in terms of color, lighting and color contrasts.”

The synchronized-swimming sequence was shot in the ocean off the Bahamas where the water temperature was nearly freezing at the time. The camera had to be placed in a huge waterproof encasement.

“It literally took a mini-crane to lift it off the boat and into the water and then back out again,” Melton recalls.

“The swimmers could hold their breath when we were shooting these complicated moves for about 30 seconds,” he says.

To make it easier for the swimmers, the sequence was designed as a series of montages. “Fortunately, I was a diver. I had an underwater whistle–one beep would mean the camera would start, the second would mean these very long [air] regulators would be pulled from the mouths of the swimmers who were in position, and as soon as the regulators were clear, the third beep began the performances. We were down there four to five hours a day.”

Equally arduous was the Cube Man sequence, which was shot over several bitterly cold December nights at the Valley of Fire State Park north of Las Vegas. The performer Mikhail, who wears next to nothing, had to endure wind and snow while spinning a cube 65 feet up on one of the rocky cliffs.

“We had these huge cranes to get the cameras up there,” says Melton. “We literally had to gel him down, which sapped the heat from his body.” ”

Huge generators were brought in to light the scene, as they also were for the forest sequence. Because the forest was so dry, the art department brought in hundreds of fern plants to brighten the surroundings.

“We literally art directed the forest,” says Melton. “We shot the Bungee sequence next to a parking lot that we covered and dressed.”

The haunting, surreal Statue Act features a couple performing a balancing act on a lily pad. Melton’s location scout found the perfect location at a reflecting pool at an estate called Green Gables in San Mateo in Northern California.

The 60-by-120-foot pond was in bad shape, so all the water had to be drained. “We built this huge structure just underneath the surface and we put our dolly track and our lily pad on a wood block,” notes Melton.

Save for the opening title sequences and a few other scenes, Melton limited the 3-D effects. “Overall, we tried to keep it very performance-based, as Cirque is. . . . It would weaken the power of what they do if we embellished it with too many effects.”

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By: David Kronke | LA Daily News
January 7, 2003

If you’ve seen a Cirque du Soleil show, you know they’re extravaganzas of jaw-dropping acrobatic bedazzlement, of real-life special effects — human bodies doing things human bodies shouldn’t be able to do.

Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within, alas, scarcely represents as high-flying an achievement as a live performance. This behind-the-scenes documentary series follows the evolution of a Cirque show, from the recruitment of new talent to training, choreography and rehearsals. There’s also very mild backstage drama provided by the performers’ personal lives playing out in the severe apartments of the Cirque’s projects-like residences.

Ultimately, Fire Within calls to mind what they say about sausage — you may enjoy it, but you really don’t want to see how it’s made. Not because the procedure is so grisly, in this case, but so determinedly tedious.

As the series opens, narrator Christopher Dyson, reading from series creator Lewis Cohen’s portentous script, grimly intones, “Not all who started on that journey made it to the end.” Huh? Did they kill some mimes? Dyson’s voice, choked with grim emotion, should be narrating documentaries about the Balkan genocide, not a show about clowns and acrobats getting ready for a circus.

Fire Within skimps on the trademark Cirque stunt work in egregious favor of banal discussions and observations from the troupe’s members and trainers. For example, one trainer notes somewhat less than scintillatingly of a new recruit, “If you say to him, `Do something,’ he’ll try and do it.” Another issues this proclamation: “For me, life is movement; movement is life.” Oh, jeez.

Cirque solemnity spills over into the narration, which offers its own inanities. Describing a talent scout searching for singers, Dyson marvels, “Her first day, she sees more than 36 candidates.” So that would be 37 candidates?

Acrobats and gymnasts describe their craft as prosaically as I herewith describe mine: “When I type, it’s a little challenging, because your fingers have to go on the right keys on the keyboard or else it all turns out all wrong and then you’ll have to use the delete key and fix it all.”

Actually, a delete key might have come in handy early in the conception of Fire Within. Eventually, the series will show a full-blown performance, but until then, the backstage drama hardly amounts to any drama at all.
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By: Virginia Heffernan | Slate Magazine
March 6, 2003

For two months now, a cool, understated weekly series has chronicled the making of Varekai, the most recent production from Cirque du Soleil, which opened last August in Toronto. The series, Cirque du Soleil Fire Within (Bravo, Monday, 9 p.m. ET), tunes into the banality—and venality—of the lavish fantasy produced by the Cirque dreamweavers. At the same time, it provides a low-key reminder of the formal differences between documentary and reality TV.

In this show, the cast—circus performers, mostly—do not wear microphones. The big tent they pass through is full of irregular light and shadow, denied the warm pink-gold of studio lights. The performers are almost never presented in one-person “singles”; rather, they cluster in pairs or small groups. Interviews are conducted on the fly, with no styling. And, in the tradition of documentaries of the ’60s and ’70s, there are, it seems, no head slates—no clap to signal to the crew that a scene has “begun.” Rarely, if ever, does anyone appear to move in deference to the filmmakers.

The one to whom they defer is someone else entirely: Guy Laliberté, the fearsome founder and owner of the circus—the paradigmatic ring leader. Bald, with a formidable skull and a taste for breath spray, Laliberté decides, autocratically, which acts work and which fall flat. He spits, declaims, fires people. On Monday’s show, he presided over what the troupers call “The Lion’s Den”—a grueling preview of Varekai for Laliberté and his 500-person entourage of “Cirque insiders.” The show enters the Lion’s Den a mere 15 days before it premieres. Until this moment, Laliberté has seen the show in bits and pieces; tonight he gets the whole shebang. The impresario was expected to be ruthless in his judgment, and he was.

Since the first episode of Cirque du Soleil Fire Within, Varekai changed drastically in rehearsals. Acts were dropped; new ones were brought in; people were sent home. Gareth, a fretful gymnast, fled the circus for London, only to return and have his act cut—and then restored. Months into rehearsals, Adrian flew in from Romania to ululate. Raquel and Stella, the triple-trapeze girls, were fired—and then brought back with a new mandate. Throughout, Oleg and Tatiana, two lead dancers, have been the big top’s king and queen. But tonight, before Laliberté, the show’s stars may become its flops, and vice versa.

“It’s almost the feeling before sex, before this show. I feel the same in my stomach, right here,” Oleg gloats, pressing his fingers onto his unyielding abdominals. “It’s a nice feeling.”

The documentary then runs through smudged-looking fragments of the show, which is loosely organized around the legend of Icarus. As Dominic Champagne, the director, has explained earlier, in a speech that was only technically not in French:

“A man is dying, and he’s sure he’s dead. And all the family around will remind him, no, it’s not the end of something. It’s the beginning of something else. This show is just about that. The lesson that everybody has to share with them is that something else is possible.”

Icarus crashes down. Strange creatures gather, their bodies twisted. Lovers dance. People are thrown around in nets. Adrian makes strange sounds. Heaven, it seems, is loud and Gallic.

Midway through the episode, Laliberté renders his verdict: The show is boring. Out with sensuality—and in with what Michel Laprise, who begins instantly booking replacement acts, calls “danger.” Oleg and Tatiana are cut from the premiere. (“We are very upset, of course.”) Gareth and Ashley are demoted to supporting cast. And, finally, Adrian, a bearlike tenor among the young, ripped gymnasts, is told to leave town. A new singer is already on his way to Montreal.

The Romanian packs up to leave, sporadically addressing the camera. “The Cirque is an exceptional place to be for some people,” the big man mutters, as, in black silhouette before a broad window, he folds clothes, a cigarette hanging from his lip. He draws, then exhales, staring straight on—”But it’s a prison for others.” Un prison pour les autres.

We are far from The Real World or The Family. This is straight-up European psychodrama, but it takes little elitism and no dense Europhilia to enjoy it. Cirque du Soleil Fire Within is saturated with pathos, a story about earthbound people who produce spectacles in the air. In keeping with their show, their troubles are Icarian in nature: They fly, and they fall. There is hubris and comeuppance.

Still, because the series is so meticulously underproduced, voices get lost intermittently in ambient sound—the strange tent din of bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, wails, electronica, the grunts of acrobats. Visually, too, the old-fashioned vérité style takes some time to readjust to. With the costumes, the makeup, and the general chaos of the crowd, it’s hard at times to get a fix on someone. But Cirque du Soleil Fire Within is well worth watching—especially the last few episodes, as opening night approaches.

If Married by America and The Family have left you sure that real documentary is dead, let the excesses of circus showmanship—and purist filmmaking—remind you, as the director Champagne says of the show, that we’re not at the end of anything. This is Le Cirque: Jugglers can be booked. Or fired! Something else is possible!