Montreal Gazette: “Nouveau Cirque Switches Gears” (KURIOS)

Screaming anachronisms and a cocky science fiction attitude make for a Steampunk world under the Big Top down at the Old Port, where the Cirque du Soleil’s latest tent show, Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities, is being prepared for its April 24 opening. The presence of gramophones and the Sherlock Holmes-era costumes suggest a period piece and the setting is inspired by the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Yet high-tech nouveau cirque remains the name of the game in the Cirque du Soleil’s 35th production, directed by Michel Laprise.

A brief excerpt presented to journalists last week revealed a distinct pseudo-Victorian bent. Eccentric characters included an accordion man with pleated arms and legs, a woman straight off the set of My Fair Lady, and a clown in an towering hat carrying a toddler-sized woman in his oversized stomach.

Steampunk means a mash-up of old and new, a genre of science fiction with roots in the 19th century. The word, with its allusion to punk rock, appears to have been coined around 1987, by science fiction author K.W. Jeter, as he searched for a hip term to describe works by authors like himself who were influenced by the likes of H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley. No longer confined to literature, the term Steampunk is used across the arts and within the world of fashion.

While talking with members of the Kurios creative team, this hybrid word kept popping up in the conversation, as did the title of the movie Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese.

“My first source of inspiration was the second half of the 19th century,” director Laprise said. “Because it was an era when everything was possible. This era became the inspiration for this show because I think we need optimism. I’m a happy camper. Nice things happen to me. I think we live in a world of abundance. And we have to remind ourselves of that.” Much was invented then, like the phonograph, “which allowed you to have a whole symphony in your living room,” he said. “It all gave a lot of access to culture to people. And the development of the railway system allowed them to visit each other more often.”

Set designer Stéphane Roy, now working on his sixth Cirque du Soleil show, mentioned Fellini’s La Strada as another influence for his copper-toned clockwork set with its startling steam engine and quirky props. Author Jules Verne (Around the World in Eighty Days) was important, too, he said. Kurios differs from other Cirque du Soleil shows, he said, because “in this one you’re somewhere, you’re in a house, you’re in a room, in a space where things are happening.” This home is packed with curios. When the numbers appear, “it’s as if a jewel box is being opened,” he added.

They focused on the 1900 Paris Exhibition, which honoured the achievements of the 19th century, because, “it was when everything was invented for new communication and transportation,” Roy said. “Trains, planes, electricity, telegrams. It was a moment in the history of mankind when communication just went bang, everything was exploding.”

If there are hints of the Cirque’s ill-fated Iris — which is said to have lost about $50 million for the company in Los Angeles — it’s not only because of thematic similarity. (Iris evoked the history of film and talkies were the talk of the Paris Exhibition of 1900.) There are also shared performers (six of them) and Iris costume designer Philippe Guillotel, who also worked on the Beatles Cirque show Love, is back.

Modernizing 19th-century costumes for acrobats meant facilitating movement. “In that epoch they must have had a hard time doing circus and sport,” Guillotel said. All of his costumes are made of the same material, printed in various ways. And yes, that spiral skirt on the coquettish girl is very similar to one seen in Iris. “It’s the same performer with the same personage,” he said. “So it was difficult to do something different.”

Production manager Gabriel Pinkstone, another Cirque veteran, described Kurios as a complex show. “Michel is a director who enjoys a lot of detail, a lot of subtext,” she said. “We have a lot of elements that are mechanical because of the Steampunk inspiration. It’s complex dramaturgically as well because there are a lot of ideas that are difficult to express without words, like the idea of travelling to another reality.”

One of the most dangerous acts, she said, is the flying rola bola. The acrobat balances on stacked cylinders while flying on a swing. There’s also an “invisible” circus within the circus. “It’s a bit like reverse puppetry,” she explained.

Although its $27-million budget sounds substantial, Kurios is being launched just over a year after Cirque du Soleil was forced to lay off more than 400 employees. Pinkstone said spending constraints included working with a smaller number of artists (46 instead of 52) and using fewer trucks for transportation between cities. “Instead of 18 trucks, we have 16. So they’re not major changes, we’re just being a little more efficient here and there.” Also, an on-site school is no longer part of the Cirque tent show deal for performers with children. But Kurios families have been given a break, with classes provided until July 2015. And the catering truck survived the cuts. “We can’t live without the food truck,” she said. “The kitchen is the epicentre of touring life. Basically everything happens in the kitchen.”

{ SOURCE: Montreal Gazette | }