The Next Gen of Cirque Comes to the DMV with “Echo”

District Fray went behind the scenes with the cast of “Echo” before their Under the Big Top performances from September 6 to October 22 in Tysons, Virginia.

“We put the ‘what’ factor in your face and let you digest it as an audience — we don’t try to hide it.”

I’m standing with Fabrice Lemire, artistic director for Cirque du Soleil’s “Echo,” trying to give him my full attention while watching performers complete perfect backflips midair behind him and catching a flurry of stunning costumes and makeup artistry in my peripheral vision. When I apologize for being so easily distracted by this behind-the-scenes glimpse of their latest show in the Cirque du Soleil Montreal Grand Chapiteau just hours before their next performance, Lemire chuckles with a knowing glance, then continues.

“What’s new is we’re revisiting something old,” he says, walking me through what makes Cirque du Soleil’s 20th Big Top production and 51st show in its 40-year history stand out from the rest.

Rather than try to create additional magic around a classic technique, the native Parisian says “Echo” invites you to just take it for what it is. This minimalist approach is a welcome deviation from the norm for the Cirque du Soleil team and “Echo” performers, who speak with collective pride about going back to basics with a laser-sharp focus on the physical acts.

District Fray was invited to visit Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal this summer for a sneak peek of “Echo” before 51 artists and their creative team relocate to Northern Virginia. From September 6 to October 22, the cast and crew will put down temporary roots in Tysons, Virginia with performances in the Under the Big Top tent.

Two days of learning about the massive global operation run out of HQ, experiencing the palpable preshow buzz backstage in the Grand Chapiteau and absorbing the excitement of the hometown audience during a live performance as “Echo” neared its 100th show in Montreal all paint a vivid picture of authenticity around the iconic entertainment group’s ethos.

“What I see is the audience leaves the show lifted,” Lemire says, noting “Echo” has had the most successful immediate reaction he’s ever experienced from the Big Top crowd among his past Cirque du Soleil productions. “We must be doing something right for the time we are currently in with the public we have. It speaks to them — no question.”

Audiences are matching the “Echo” cast’s energy. This aggregate of wildly talented up-and-comers who are mostly in their early to mid-20s and span 19 nationalities — with one-fifth of the troop hailing from Ethiopia — represent the next generation of circus artists. Whether they’re making their Cirque du Soleil debut or returning with a renewed sense of purpose, they’re breathing new life into traditional disciplines and embracing a collaborative approach to this production.

“These are really old disciplines we weren’t seeing for such a long time,” says double hair suspension artist Charlotte O’Sullivan, who plays one of the two Firefly characters with her partner and fellow double hair suspension artist Penelope Scheidler. “That was very clever of Cirque to approach artists at this level who had tested the limits of these disciplines, and bring them to a production like this to really show what we’re doing. People believe these are new disciplines, which is so great because it means we reinvented them.”

The Toronto native says what audiences notice first is the beautiful aesthetic of “Echo” and how unique it is within the Cirque du Soleil canon.

“You have this mix between [characters] who look like people and are wearing suits and those who are totally covered as animals — almost like moving set pieces. Those things alone are totally different [than other Cirque shows].”

While the plot line of “Echo” leaves much open to interpretation, the gist is that a young woman named Future, played by Washington Trapeze artist Louana Seclet, explores a fantasy world where she connects with animals and nature. But when she finds a mysterious cube, how the natural world and technology collide and coexist comes to the forefront. Seclet, who grew up in the French countryside, says audiences can choose to see “Echo” simply as a version of “Alice in Wonderland” or as complex and layered as George Orwell’s “1984” — a kind of choose-your-own-adventure visual experience.

“While the show is more futuristic and minimalist in its ideas, it’s really raw in the ways we bring the acts,” she says. “You see the human performance. You see the risk. We don’t replace the human acts with projections. The projections and technology support the human performance.”

This juxtaposition between an old-school approach to the pure physicality brought to bear by each performer and the sheer volume of technical elements implemented onstage is a bit of an enigma to Lemire and his cast. The combination of the two somehow works to create a show that’s contemporary yet nostalgic, complex yet simple, avant-garde yet classic.

The 52nd cast member with by far the highest price tag is the cube itself, towering onstage at the height of a two-story apartment building. The “heart of the show” requires 10 video projectors to cover it along with the stage and artists, rotates on a central pivot to move upstage and downstage, and can even float above the Big Top stage.

“This is my first time using the technology of projections,” Lemire says. “We are rethinking the way we work with these elements — including the cube itself. We can create so much dimension and depth by just having a simple box in the middle of the floor. There is nothing in this show that holds your hand and tries to take you to a fairy land. You sit and watch something evolve in front of you: a big box. How much can we have that box converse with you?”

The human cast is eager to find new ways to connect with audiences, too. “Echo” is introducing the new guard of Cirque du Soleil performers to the world, bringing their camaraderie to the stage as they perform familiar disciplines with originality and passion.

Seclet says one of the best compliments she’s received as Future is being thanked by audience members for her onstage generosity, and how much emotion she puts into her trapeze performance.

“I’m really excited to see how people in the United States and Washington, D.C. react to the show,” she says. “We are a young cast and we want to show the world that we do what we love and we are happy about it.”

{ SOURCE: District Fray Magazine