From the Big Top to Broadway

April 13, 2016

Does Cirque du Soleil have what it takes to tackle the Great White Way?

Photos by Jim Lafferty

It’s mid-February,
two months before Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour begins previews on Broadway, and the full cast and creative team have come together at Grumman Studios on Long Island for their second-ever “stumble-through” of the first act. The setting is Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the leading men, film director A.J. and composer Joey, are both in pursuit of actress-poet Indigo’s heart.

While the actors sort through their love triangle,
’s dance ensemble rehearses a rousing Wild West number, complete with do-si-dos, heel-kicks and fouetté turns. In the same scene, the show’s acrobats mark through a series of tumbling, teeterboard and Russian beam tricks. Director Philippe Decouflé and associate creative and staging director West Hyler pace in front of the stage, observing the action. Choreographer Daphné Mauger races from performer to performer, giving one-on-one corrections. Despite the controlled chaos, there’s excitement in the air.

“In its 30 years of existence, Cirque du Soleil has become known for visual spectacle, physical virtuosity and incredible music and costumes—so it seemed only natural for the next step forward to be a dive into storytelling,” says Scott Zeiger, the president and managing director of Cirque du Soleil Theatrical, a new division of the company that focuses on story-driven productions.

With Zeiger’s guidance, Cirque hopes to enter a new market—though this isn’t the company’s first attempt at a song-and-dance show. One of its few missteps, the vaudeville-infused
Banana Shpeel
, closed after just six weeks in New York City in 2010 amidst poor reviews that said the show was not cohesive. “From that ill-fated production, Cirque learned its lesson about needing to drive story as much as beauty and acrobatics,” Zeiger says.

Cirque du Soleil maintains long-running productions in Las Vegas, Walt Disney World and Tokyo, and has had a lot of success with its touring arena shows. But the company has never secured a permanent home in New York City, though productions that have toured there have done exceedingly well. One major hurdle: finding the right space. “Two years ago, we started with discussions of what a Cirque
show might look like in a Broadway house,” says Zeiger. “We toured every theater on Broadway. The Lyric”—which was once home to the stunt-focused
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
and, most recently, On the Town—“was the best suited for the acrobatic feats our audiences expect.” The Lyric Theatre is one of the largest Broadway houses, with nearly 1,900 seats, and is comparable in size to Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas venues. 

For the creative team, Zeiger and Cirque’s creative guide Jean-François
Bouchard hired both Cirque visionaries and Broadway veterans to ensure that story and spectacle went hand in hand. Decouflé, a French choreographer and director known for large-scale, innovative, abstract dance productions, was teamed with Hyler, whose directing credits include the national tour of
Jersey Boys
and the Big Apple Circus.

The cast also represents the coming together of two worlds. There are 22 acrobats and 16 musical theater veterans in
. That’s more performers than a typical Broadway show, but far fewer than Cirque’s biggest productions, which feature as many as 60 people. To accommodate the smaller cast the budget mandated, Paramour’s acrobatic choreographer Shana Carroll (who performed with Cirque du Soleil for years before co-founding a circus troupe, Montreal’s 7 doigts de la main) was tasked with finding multitalented acrobats. “Normally, Cirque can use really specialized performers,” she explains. “For this, our acrobats had to have two or three skills—otherwise the puzzle wouldn’t fit together.”

Rehearsals began in January, with the acrobats, dancers and actors working separately. Mauger did her research on classic Broadway-style dance, and worked with Decouflé to develop a vocabulary that meshed their French sensibility with the all-American setting and story. On the acrobatics side, the choreographic process remained true to Cirque’s experimental ways. “Acrobats have to find movement in their body in order for it to look good and be safe,” says Carroll. “I might have a vision for a sequence that doesn’t work for that acrobat. There’s a lot of give and take—try this, try this.”

When the cast came together, the acrobatic and dance ensembles used rehearsal downtime to share their respective skills; while some of the dancers have tumbling experience, few of the acrobats have formal dance training. “They’ve been teaching us how to stand on our hands. We’ve been teaching them how to tendu and pas de bourrée,” says dancer Justin Prescott, whose Broadway credits include
, Motown: The Musical and Gigi.

Decouflé and his team, meanwhile, remained focused on trying to seamlessly merge Broadway ingredients—plot, pacing and slick song-and-dance numbers—with Cirque du Soleil’s magic, whimsy and acrobatic prowess. “I have images in my head for every part of the show,” says Decouflé, “but I’m always curious and concerned with what is happening in front of me. If I see someone very strong, I want to use his talent. We have to follow the script and the story, but we’re also keeping our eyes and minds open.”

, Cirque says the end goal isn’t just creating a critical and commercial success, but also launching a new theatrical model. “Choreographers like Busby Berkeley and Merce Cunningham—in their styles, no one else did what they were doing,” Decouflé says. “I hope this show, created in such a unique way, will also be unique.” Cirque is betting on its success, and already has plans for a second foray into theater. This past winter, the company partnered with NBC to create a live version of The Wiz for TV, and will remount the musical during Broadway’s 2016–17 season.

“Storytelling through circus, with the circus performers playing characters, just hasn’t been done on this scale,” Carroll says. “And the creation process is a new way of working for Cirque. I designed some acrobatic acts based on a concept in the script. For other scenes, the act came first, and was worked into the story. And then for others, everything—including the dancing—developed together. It’s a true hybrid.” 

Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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The Dangers of Acro

’s rehearsal and tech process—approximately nine weeks of rehearsal and five weeks of tech—is longer than what is standard for Broadway productions, it’s half of what Cirque du Soleil performers typically get. This condensed time frame mostly affects the acrobats, who must not only create and memorize choreography, but also train their bodies in order to perform their acts safely.

“In rehearsals, we’re staging numbers before the acrobatics are ready,” says acrobatic choreographer Shana Carroll. “But the director needs to know how many seconds or counts of music a trick will take in order to put the rest of the scene together for the actors and dancers.”

Part of Carroll’s job on
is to monitor the acrobats’ energy levels. “There’s no reason to take risks we don’t need to take,” she says. “I have to trust that in a week or two, they’ll feel comfortable enough to give 100 percent.” —KH