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A tough balancing act: how Cirque du Soleil is adapting circus for the high seas

Ladder act performed by Simon Nadeau. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti Ladder act performed by Simon Nadeau. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti
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When Cirque du Soleil launched sea-based productions, its gravity-defying acts had to adapt to a moving stage, particularly in rough weather. Frances Marcellin finds out how the team crafted ship-specific shows

In the early 1980s, a troupe of performers inspired by circus artistry performed for the first time on the shores of the Saint Lawrence River near Quebec City. The show was received with excitement and jubilation by local crowds and Cirque du Soleil was born.

In 1998, the company created its first water-based spectacular: O in Las Vegas. Now, two decades later, its artists are performing at sea for the first time – in the Mediterranean to be precise – on one of the most advanced cruise ships in the world, the MSC Meraviglia.

Cruise ships have sometimes had a questionable reputation for theatrical prowess, but that is changing. As demand for cruise holidays increases – from about 18 million global passengers in 2009 to 26 million in 2017, across all demographics, from millennials to families and retirees – the level of accommodation, technology, facilities and entertainment is scaling new heights.

Read our feature on career options on cruise ships

As cruise ships evolve into holiday destinations in their own right, some are becoming theatrical hotspots too. These days, passengers can watch RADA-trained actors performing Shakespeare on the Queen Mary 2 or watch Magic to Do on Princess Cruises – a musical from Oscar and Tony-winning Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. They can also catch a West End-standard performance of Mamma Mia! on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas.

Cirque du Soleil is presenting two new shows, Sonor and Viaggio, at sea for the first time. The former features beatboxing and takes the audience on an auditory adventure with dancers and acrobats. Viaggio creates the vivid world of a painter’s imagination as he encounters his muse. Exuberant and moving, it is full of colour, surrealism, aerial wizardry and  compelling performances.

Entry on stage by jugglers. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti
Entry on stage by jugglers. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti

But making a world-class Cirque du Soleil at Sea show required adaptation during the creative process to work on a smaller, more intimate stage – and ensuring that even in the roughest waters, the show could go on.

Cirque du Soleil artists in Mystere at the Treasure Island theatre in Las Vegas perform on a stage 121ft by 70ft with 1,541 seats; its technical grid is at a height of 80ft. By contrast, the circular stage at the Meraviglia’s Carousel Lounge, which was specially designed for the Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows by architect Marco de Jorio, has a diameter of 26ft with a 16ft height clearance and 413 seats.

The traditional set-up of the backstage area had to be adapted to work with the scope of the performances and the cruise ship layout, and was one of the largest differences for the cast and crew. “To maximise the space available on board and create the 360-degree stage, we needed to design a unique backstage solution,” explains Gennaro Parlato, MSC Cruises’ show and multimedia technologies manager. “Unlike any other theatre, the backstage preparation area for performers is located on upper decks, accessed by a unique lift system.”

It took the team three years of development to understand the parameters at sea properly: the size of the theatre itself and the way the aerial wires work. It was a challenge to use the space differently.

Rather than feeling limited by the venue, Susan Gaudreau, the show director of Cirque du Soleil at Sea, embraced the intimacy. “In a larger theatre you don’t have that intimate connection with the audience, so as a director it was a gift,” she enthuses. “We’re pushing the boundaries of how you look at and experience an acrobatic performance.”

The painter searches for his muse. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti
The painter searches for his muse. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti

Gaudreau, a dancer and choreographer, has worked on three cruise ships as a performing artist. This experience helped her plan a show that worked with a moving stage: both the mechanical movement of the carousel and the ship’s movement on the water.

“Mostly I wanted to have acts that wouldn’t be hindered if there was a large movement on the sea, so that was one consideration when I was designing the storylines,” she explains. “I wanted acts that would be consistent with a moving platform.”

During the show, Nicholas Steward, who plays the lead role of the painter in Viaggio (replacing original lead Simon Nadeau) performs tricks on a stand-alone ladder. It involves balancing and moving acrobatically on a ladder across the stage.

“With the ladder act, you’re dealing with fluctuations and movement anyway, even if you’re on a still stage,” explains Gaudreau. “There are 15 artists, all of whom do both shows, so I wanted to work with high-end generalists who had more than one skill. That meant when they switched to a different show, they weren’t doing the same act.”

As the circular carousel stage is surrounded by seating, artists enter by a sophisticated rigging system through the audience. During one scene, as the painter hears the call of his muse, the aerial performances come to life. Screens broadcast colourful backgrounds and vivid digital scenery, which stretch from behind the carousel across to, and beyond, the audience. These become the set for two suspended aerial jugglers, pedalling their way through the air to the stage on a humorously designed bicycle for two.

For the land-based shows, Gaudreau explains that they often work with a 50ft-high grid, where artists enter from the sky or from trapdoors within the stage. At sea, these entrances and exits are not possible, so instead they mostly come through the audience, which, overall, she believe creates a “more magical” show.


Cirque du Soleil in numbers

2 Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows on board the MSC Meraviglia 

8 Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows to run in 2017-2020

12 performances each week

10 different languages spoken by team, who come from 11 different countries

15 artists on stage per show

40 different costumes for both shows (22 for Viaggio)

413 guests hosted for each performance

450 cities host Cirque du Soleil shows in 60 countries

1,300 l artists from about 50 countries perform in Cirque du Soleil’s shows

4,000 Cirque du Soleil employees around the world

Sonor and Viaggio are performed six nights a week: 120 guests can enjoy dinner and a show for €35, with tickets for a cocktail and show costing €15

This posed a particular challenge to the technical team, which had to use lighting differently from some of Cirque du Soleil’s land shows. “People come in on the stage and exit from the stage, so it’s really important to get them in the show as the performance is going,” says Alexandre Picotte, lighting designer for Cirque du Soleil.

“They were very smart about how they designed the theatre because they created these tracks, so the artists can enter above the audience,” she says. “We also have what we call a Pandora’s box, which is like an elevator on the stage. These changes made the show flow differently and I found that it helped the storyline.”

Building up to the premiere in June 2017, the artists were initially flown into Montreal for a two-week, land-based workshop ahead of their 10-month contracts (the maximum allowed for artists at sea under maritime law). There is a changeover period of about 10 days between the first cast and the second one.

The artist's muse. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti
The artist’s muse. Photo: Ivan Sarfatti

All new artists to the show first come to Montreal, where they rehearse and have their measurements checked for costumes. Casting is currently in progress for the new Meraviglia-class ship the MSC Bellissima, which will premiere new Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows in March 2019.

Ahead of the premiere, Gaudreau arrived on April 16 and, while some of the acts were new creations, she had to add the characters to the specialist acts and fit them into the  storyline. “Everything was pretty much done in the theatre at sea,”  she explains.

One of the most complicated acts is the Rola Bola from Brandom Rueda, who performed it for Cirque du Soleil’s show Joya in Mexico. Consisting of several layers of a cylinder and balance board, it is a balancing act renowned for its difficulty.

With the safety of the artists a priority on land as well as at sea, the Rola Bola sometimes cannot be performed. A ladder act, where the artist balances on the ladder with another artist on his shoulders, is another that often has to be changed in rougher weather. Either the second artist sits instead of stands on the shoulders, or it is cut altogether.

A weather report from the ship’s bridge is key to how the cast will proceed with the show and whether they will have to revert from Plan A, to Plan B or Plan C. If an act is cut, other tricks are embellished, while some are merely modified to accommodate the rougher weather.

Viaggio lead performer Nicholas Steward

“From the off, we have an idea of whether we can do the full show or a slightly adapted version, but as it gets closer we have to adapt our own act,” says Steward, adding that sometimes the weather can change midway through a show. “I’ve been on stage and then it has become rougher and rougher and I have to make a call during the act to scale something back or switch the trick for something else. It definitely keeps you on your toes and you have to keep your wits about you.”

While the Rola Bola act is performed every day in the show, Steward says that Rueda had a “trial by fire” as his first week in the show coincided with a week of rough weather. “It is very difficult if you haven’t got a reference point because it’s black and the whole theatre is moving with you,” he explains. “But usually he performs this act at least six times a week.”

Shows are performed twice a night: three nights in the week are dedicated to Viaggio and three nights to Sonor. Performers have every Friday off, known as the ‘dark day’.

Yet while Cirque du Soleil performers on land go home every night, at sea the artists stay on the ship and live in cabins that are never too far away from the theatre. They can also visit the different destinations that the ship sails to each week around the Mediterranean coastline, which include Barcelona, Naples and Malta.

“It’s a very different lifestyle and you become very close to the cast because you’re with them for about 20 hours a day,” laughs Steward. “It’s not for everybody, it takes a certain type of person to be able to deal with it, but this cast and crew get along really well, so we are very lucky.”

msccruises.co.uk; cirquedusoleil.com

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