Monday, November 21, 2016

A Mexican Magical Mystery Tour

Just in time for the end-of-year holiday season, Cirque du Soleil has returned to the San Francisco Bay area with the U.S. premiere of its latest spectacle. Billed as a journey through an imaginary, poetic vision of Mexico "like the awakening from a dream where light quenches the spirit and rain soothes the soul," the company's 38th production in 32 years, Luzia, hints at a new direction for Cirque shows in which the artistic vision weaves a more cohesive web between individual acts.

The visions of Mexican culture proffered by the creative team for Luzia are in sharp contrast to what many Americans may think of a country which has constantly been denigrated by our taco bowl-loving President-elect. Instead, they evoke a rich cultural heritage much older -- and often more beautiful -- than our own. With a cast of 44 artists from 15 different countries, Luzia (some of whose set and costumes designs are inspired by contemporary Mexican artists) will easily become a cultural ambassador for a nation bursting with history and art. With an anticipated seven-year-tour planned, the Mexican government will get plenty of bang for the $47.7 million bucks it put into this production.

Luzia offers up dreamy images of a tropical climate filled with lush vegetation, tropical rainforests. and Cirque's trademark wit. Upon entering Le Grand Chapiteau, audiences see a stage filled with nearly 5,000 cempasuchil flowers (the main element of Day of the Dead altars). Although the use of the Aztec marigold dates back to the pre-Columbian era, during the pre-show activities, these flowers are tended to by cute little robots whose heads are made from watering cans.

As the show begins, a group of gymnasts dressed as hummingbirds starts performing a hoop routine atop two industrial treadmills resting on a turntable. The effect woos the audience into accepting a much different fluidity of movement than seen in past Cirque shows -- a sure sign that the company's visionaries are making full use of old technologies while fusing traditional acrobatics with state-of-the-art stage machinery.

Although the acrobats may be jumping through hoops that are barely 30 inches in diameter, they must do so while wearing headdresses that resemble a hummingbird's beak and costumes that reflect the brilliant colors of a hummingbird's wings.

The brilliant colors of one of Giovanna Buzzi's hummingbird
costumes for Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

As more acrobat/animal figures come onstage, the audience sees everything from a running woman (Shelli Epstein) costumed as a butterfly to life-sized jaguar and horse puppets -- similar to the ones used in War Horse. Of note, Epstein's butterfly wings are each approximately 20 feet long and require more than 130 feet of silk (the costume pays tribute to the annual migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico).

An acrobat dressed as a butterfly lands atop a giant horse puppet
in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 

A horse puppet and butterfly dancer pass before the giant disk
in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

With animation aimed at the giant disk symbolizing a Mayan calendar that is a focal point of the production, Cirque's increased use of such technology allows it to project hungry sharks circling the water for food as a clown (Eric Fool Koller) descends from the top of the tent wearing scuba gear and bright yellow flippers.

The statistics attached to any Cirque du Soleil show always fascinate me. Mounted on a cylinder, the red Papel picado (perforated paper) curtain which is lowered during intermission stands 36 feet high by 98 feet wide. Its images (hand-drawn by Mexican artist Javier Martinez Pedro) were created by punching more than 13,000 holes into the surface of the curtain.

The Papel Picado curtain in Luzia
(Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 
Some of the animal costumes (cockroach and armadillo) that were
designed for Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 

One area in which Cirque du Soleil's creative teams have always excelled is being able to take new technology in new directions. Those who have attended a performance of O (one of the company's resident shows in Las Vegas) have been astounded by its use of water as a performance medium. Those who saw Amaluna (which was directed by Diane Paulus in 2012) remember the water bowl which became a centerpiece for key contortionist and balancing acts (as well as its "womb with a view" love scene).

If you thought that that prop -- which stood  5’5” tall, measured 7’3” in diameter, and weighed 5,500 lbs when filled with water -- was something, you ain't seen nothing yet! Luzia's stage floor is divided into three concentric sections.
  • The core resembles a cenote (a naturally-occurring sinkhole or cistern which ancient Mayans believed was a sacred gateway to the afterlife). A symbol of Mexican folklore and geology, this part of the stage floor has 94,657 holes through which water be drained into a 925-gallon basin hidden beneath the stage. 
  • The inner ring allows two precisely positioned industrial treadmills to rotate as acrobats perform tricks in the middle of a field of fake flowers. 
  • The outer ring contains a series of holes which allow quick installation of fake trees or vertical "stripper" poles as it rotates (the ring can easily spin while accommodating the weight of acrobats performing tricks on vertical poles).
  • High above the stage floor is a truss through which water travels to create a movable rain curtain. Because the motorized truss can be rotated 360 degrees (and various holes in the water pipe can be opened or closed to create special effects), a computerized lighting program can project electronically-generated Otomi patterns, rain drops, and flowers as well as animal figures resembling the whimsical creatures of Mexican painter Francisco Toledo onto the falling water while acrobats working with large hoops or doing aerial tricks can feel the water cascading onto their heads and shoulders.
Angelica Bongiovonni and Rachel Salzman spin around the stage in
Cyr wheels as Emily Tucker flies overhead on a single point trapeze
in a scene from Luzia (Photo by: Laurence Labat)

Aerial straps performer Benjamin Courtenay interacts with a jaguar
puppet in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 

Cirque performers appear to be caught in a tropical rainforest
in a scene from Luzia (Photo by: Laurence Labat)

The rain curtain in Luzia was inspired by architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez’s circular fountain in Mexico City (which honors Tlaloc, the Aztec god of fertility and water). Early in the show, Angelica Bongiovonni and Rachel Salzman can be seen spinning around the stage using Cyr wheels while Emily Tucker flies above them on a single point trapeze. Whereas the contortionist in Amaluna did not become airborne, in Luzia the hunky, long-haired Benjamin Courtenay performs on aerial straps while being lowered into and flown out of the water in the stage pool. In the following clip, Marshall Spratt explains the logistics behind Luzia's rain curtain.

Luzia features a variety of specialty acts ranging from Rudolf Janecek's phenomenal high-speed juggling to Abou Traore (who break dances and does mad tricks with a soccer ball) and Aleksei Goloborodko's jaw-dropping performance as a contortionist. As a group of bored male beachgoers steadfastly ignore his presence, Ugo Laffolay mischievously flexes his bulging biceps and pillowy pecs during his balancing act while shamelessly flirting with the audience.

Ugo Laffolay performs his beef-tease balancing act in a
scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko is one of the star
attractions in Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Ugo Laffolay provides the answer to "Where's the Beef?'
in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Originally conceived by Daniele Finzi PascaLuzia's script was crafted by Julie Hamelin Finzi. The show is gorgeously lit by Martin Labrecque with sound design by Jacques Boucher. Backed by guitarist Rodrigo de la Mora, Majo Cornejo is the lead singer for the show. However, the stunning sets and props designed by Eugenio Caballero as well as the puppets designed by Max Humphries are among the true highlights of the performance. From guitarists wearing crocodile heads to a dancing saguaro cactus sporting an prickly erection, Giovanna Buzzi's costumes are filled with imagination.

Performances of Luzia continue under Le Grand Chapiteau through January 29 near AT&T Park in San Francisco (click here for tickets). The show then moves to San Jose near the Taylor Street Bridge, where Luzia will be performed from February 9 through March 19 (click here for tickets). In the meantime, enjoy Simon Carpentier's robust musical score -- easily one of the best in recent memory to be created for a Cirque show.

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