KURIOS: Cirque du Soleil’s World of Possible Impossibles
This article originally appeared on About.com.
Cirque du Soleil’s “KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities” dazzles audiences with a wide range of gravity-defying acrobatic and artistic acts—from contortion and human trapeze to rola bola on a swing and an upside-down world. This singular Cirque show is unlike anything you’ve seen.
It wasn’t director Michel Laprise’s intention to model the main character of Cirque du Soleil’s “KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities”, Le Chercheur (“The Seeker”), after himself.
But, much like Laprise, The Seeker is on a mission to reintroduce wonder into people’s minds and love into their hearts.
Laprise and his team spent months developing the show’s storyline—a detailed backstory that audiences never hear, but which fuels the show’s expressive and idiosyncratic characters.
In Laprise’s whimsical universe, The Seeker creates a portal to another world (Curiosistan) made of turn-of-the-century contraptions.
After months of tinkering and tweaking, The Seeker successfully activates his portal, and from it emerges an armada of inquisitive biomechanical characters: Nico the accordion man, Klara with her antenna-like dress, their conductor, Mr. Microcosmos, whose belly is a giant metal cylinder that houses the exceptionally tiny Mini Lili, and a slew of other Curiosistanians.
Sound far-fetched? That’s precisely the point. “The Seeker wants to build this portal because he wants to travel in the Visible Invisible and reach the Valley of the Possible Impossibles. [He wants to] bring all those crazy ideas and dreams back to earth so that people can be happy,” explains Laprise.
Why does The Seeker care? What about this man makes him work tirelessly to reach this far-off world? Laprise begins to choke up: “I’m a bit emotional because I love this character. He’s very sensitive. He sees that people need love, they need poetry, they need art, they need beauty. And he sees that there’s not enough in the world so he wants to bring more.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Like his beloved character, Laprise’s journey to bring people joy has been a long and arduous one. He joined Cirque de Soleil in 2000, trading in his acting career to be a talent scout, and later the company’s special events designer. Laprise was the first to create custom shows for client events (think Fiat and Microsoft product launches, and for milestone celebrations for Quebec City and the International Basketball Federation) around the world.
This unique combination of leadership, directorial, scouting and theatrical experience couldn’t have primed Laprise better for his full-scale debut.
Making Cirque Spectacular Again
Knowing the 32-year-old company had started to fall into the formulaic trap that plagues many large theatrical outfits, Laprise had his work cut out for him. While each Cirque show exhibits an immense amount of skill from creators to cast to crew, a trusted repertoire of stunts had begun to emerge. Audience members could count on contortionists doing some variation of a leg-outstretched backbend or of trapezists flying wildly through the air. After seeing several shows, even these awe-inspiring feats can succumb to monotony.
“We heard from some audience members that [Cirque] had become a bit predictable, so I said to the team, ‘This is more than a project, it’s a mission. We love that company so let’s work very hard to make something that really is going to feel Cirque du Soleil but is very new at the same time.’”
In KURIOS, contortionists still make an appearance, but these brightly-costumed women move from pose to pose more rapidly than ever—on a giant mechanical hand. Trapezists still make an appearance, except the “trapeze” is human. A strong man, held to his 13-foot-high platform by only a horizontal strap, swings his porcelain-faced partner to and fro, thrusting her into the air as she gracefully catches his arms each time. This is the kind of stunt that tips you breathlessly to the edge of your seat. This unique sense of wide-eyed wonder is what Cirque is all about.
Custom Costumes Go Far Beyond Custom
Contrary to the lone-wolf Seeker, Laprise had quite a few helping hands when building his “portal,” which is exactly what awaits audiences under the so-called Grand Chapiteau (“Big Top”).
The stage features 426 props, more than any show in Cirque’s history. A hodgepodge of 19th-century gramophones, lightbulbs, and other odds and ends complement the production’s intricate costumes to give this “cabinet of curiosities” a steampunk appeal. Laprise was inspired by the wellspring of curiosity that arose in the 19th century and catalyzed game-changing inventions like the light bulb, recorded music and the automobile.
The props, many of them salvaged or found in vintage shops, play an important role in telling the story, but nothing more adequately transports KURIOS’ audience to another universe than the jaw-dropping costumes.
Under the vision and direction of lead costume designer Philippe Guillotel, 120 ensembles comprised of 1,000 pieces were custom-made by Cirque’s costumers in Montreal. In fact, it took one costume-maker an entire week to hand-stitch the pleats that make up the accordion-inspired attire of Nico (Nico Baixas).
The result of this painstaking and meticulous labor is a closet of human-machine hybrids that speak volumes about each character’s quirks and abilities.
Take bubbly and precocious Klara (Ekaterina Pirogovskaya). Dressed in a hoop skirt made with tiers of metal, Klara flits about on stage, turning her heels this way and that to receive alpha waves. This bright and whimsical character mirrors advancements in telecommunications that forever changed how the world interacts.
On the other hand, there’s Nico, an introverted and inquisitive chap who can bend every which way. Nico’s fluid and touching act of hand puppetry, which he learned from his mother, whose parents were both deaf, leaves audiences stunned. Fun Fact: During his time as a talent scout, Laprise met Baixas when he auditioned for Cirque years before KURIOS was imagined. Years later, Laprise recalled the magic of this unlikely act and transformed him into the endearing accordion man.
It Takes a Village
Laprise’s years as a talent scout also shine through in the extraordinary team he’s assembled. From set designer Stephane Roy to director of creation Chantal Tremblay and acrobatic equipment and rigging designer Danny Zen, Laprise’s team is a roll-call of tremendous minds who fearlessly confronted the director’s outlandish vision and transformed it into a breathtaking reality.
In other words, they made the impossible possible.
Take the upside-down world, for instance. Initially, this act was to feature a man carefully balancing atop chairs as he stacks them to unimaginable heights. It’s a recognizable stunt that Cirque fans have surely seen before. Two weeks before the show, however, Laprise dreamt about a new version of this stunt and turned the idea on its head—literally. His “impossible” request: creating a parallel version of the scene that hangs upside-down from the ceiling and perfectly mirrors the movement on the ground. No one on the team thought it could be done, but lo and behold, the act is a mind-altering reality that elicits gasps of disbelief from the unsuspecting crowd.
“Our inspiration is the [tightrope] walker,” explains Laprise. “When he [masters] a trick, the next day he’s not just going to say, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ No, he’s going to try another trick and then another trick. He takes a risk. Why? Because he wants to inspire people. He wants people to believe in the human potential. He wants people to have hope.”
In Laprise’s world of possibility, one thing remains impossible: witnessing these feats of human artistry without feeling a sense of awe. Mission accomplished, chercheur.
BY THE NUMBERS:
- By April 24, the KURIOS team will have performed 750 shows for 1.5 million people in two years
- 426 props
- 150 team members hired locally
- 120 costumes made up of 1,000 pieces
- 116 tour members
- 65 trailers transport 2,000 tons of equipment
- 24 hours of laundry each week
- 22 countries represented
- 2 physical therapists available at all times