Cirque du Soleil has proven time and time again that they have perfected the art of entertaining. One of Quebec’s most famous exports is bringing their show, Varekai, out of the big top tent and into the arena. When Varekai hits Copps Coliseum on January 29th, it will give Hamilton audiences the opportunity to be among the first in the world to see the re–launch of the show. It is based on the Greek mythological story of Icarus and is full of beautiful and dramatic performances.
Varekai is set in an enchanting forest and is brought to life by strange and foreign creatures. The imaginative, vibrant and quirky costumes of these creatures were originally designed by the late, great costume designer, Eiko Ishioka. Ishioka is very well known for her provocative and daring designs which eventually won her an Academy Award in 1992. Some of the most notable costumes in Varekai are those of the performers in “Slippery Surface.” These costumes are bright tropical coloured Lycra bodysuits that are adorned with what looks like petals and gives the illusion that the performers are underwater as they slide, dance and tumble over the blue surface.
One of the most stunning acts that I have ever seen is that of “Hand Balancing on Canes” starring the amazing Alona Zhuravel of Russia. This is one act that you have to see to believe. If I told you that she can balance her entire body on one hand as she is twisted to the side and her feet touching her head, would you believe me? Well she can. She can do absolutely anything with her body, I am sure. She is literally, not figuratively, but literally bent in half for part of her routine. She owns the stage while shimmering in her body suit which looks as though it were made entirely of diamonds. She is so graceful and poised on the canes as she shows off her superhuman strength. Even her fellow performer, Emily McCarthy is blown away by her talent. “I’m totally inspired... she’s awesome. And I watch her every day and I’m so amazed by her. She always impresses me.”
Andre Solodar, 27, and Emily McCarthy, 18, are among the amazingly talented 50 member cast. Both are professionally trained acrobatic gymnasts and are enjoying the new experience of going from performing in intimate settings to performing before 5,000 people a night for in the arenas. For Solodar “…it was almost a little bit overwhelming but it was amazing to be on stage.” For McCarthy, the energy in the arena is a motivator. “The bigger the audience the more adrenaline you get and... well, I don’t know about anyone else but for me, it really affects me the way the audience reacts.”
These two performers really represent only a slice of the diversity that makes up a Cirque show. Varekai alone has 18 countries represented. Andre Solodar was born in Ukraine but raised in California. Emily McCarthy, born in England and at age 18 makes her one of the youngest performers on tour. She is now an old pro, having run away with the Circus when she was only 16. She was first scouted at a gymnastics competition. “It’s such a great opportunity and I love every second of it.” Since McCarthy was barely out of school when she left for Cirque, it was Solodar’s wife who actually became Emily’s guardian until she came of age.
Varekai is truly a family of entertainers. Being on the road away from your loved ones can be difficult so naturally the performers and musicians become one big super talented acrobatic family. Solodar says that “...everybody’s friends. There’s so much talent here that I admire everybody.”
McCarthy says that one secret of the show is that they are always supporting one another. “[The] audience don’t see but we’re all talking to each other and encouraging each other whilst we are in the act performing...”
Artistic Director, Fabrice Lemire jokes that “It is the touring family, like it or not!” Lemire sounds like a father and these performers are all of his children. “If an artist knocks [sic] at my door, calls my room, I cannot tell him see me in the office tomorrow. I will have to open the door, sit and listen. And they will find you so [you have to be] available 24/7. And then you really live together. You travel by bus together. You travel, transfer by plane together, you stay in the same hotel so you have no escape!”
With dangerous stunts playing a major role in all Cirque shows, the shocking death of one of their performers (not during a Verakai performance) during a stunt late last year left the company dealing with a major crisis. For performers like Solodar, it was a stark reminder that along with all of the fun and excitement is the sobering reality of the dangers of their jobs... “…it’s kind of shocking that it could happen… we kind of forget about it, that it’s still dangerous what we do because we have all these safety’s we have all these rigours… it kind of makes you forget that actually what you’re doing, could be dangerous. It’s a sad time. But you know, like all of us know, the consequences that we face to do this job.”
Although, even with the best training, accidents can occur. Lemire says it is all about “Understanding the danger... I think the main focus is really to be well prepared for everything.” To him, communication among the cast and crew is the key. “I also trust my instincts. When a performer comes in the space and I feel something is different, I will quickly try to meet with that artist and discuss if the artist is fine but if I feel though there may be something still in the way, I will not put this performer on stage. And after that, it’s also themselves who really are responsible to come forward...”
As in all Cirque shows, just when you think the show is over, Varekai hits you with one final jaw–dropping performance. I was on the edge of my seat watching the performers dressed in red and orange suits resembling flames, swinging back and forth during “Russian Swings” as they project themselves forward and fly over the stage narrowly avoiding a crash mid–air. You could feel the tension in the arena as each jump became more difficult. The pulsating excitement of experiencing this live show is truly something that everyone can enjoy. V
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Jan. 29 – Feb. 2
@ Copps Coliseum,
101 York Blvd.