'Dralion' unique to Cirque du Soleil's repertoire
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, December 09, 2012
12/09/12 at 3:38 AM
It's just another typical day at the work site for the cast and crew of Cirque du Soleil's "Dralion."
Men and women take turns launching themselves at trampolines, rebounding so that they can literally walk up the main wall of the stage.
Two men casually travel around atop 3-foot diameter globes, their feet moving backward to propel the orbs forward.
A woman tangles herself in long blue pieces of fabric that raise her to dizzying heights, before she unwinds and tumbles back to earth in a way that only looks out of control. A sextet of contortionists closely watch a video of their most recent performance, looking for minute ways to improve what they do. And a cadre of men from China dive and flip and gambol through a series of narrow hoops at such speeds that almost every pass ends with them stopping themselves at the very edge of the stage.
"I always am a little afraid when I watch them do this part," said Julie Desmarais, the publicist with the "Dralion" company. "I can just see one of them going over the edge. But they never do."
Of course, that sense of danger that comes from individuals pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities, balanced by the skill and strength that allows individuals to control all this on-the-edge behavior, has been the underlying principle of Cirque du Soleil ever since this Montreal-based organization set out in 1984 to "re-invent the circus."
"Dralion" is the fourth Cirque du Soleil show to come to Tulsa's BOK Center, following "Saltimbanco," "Allegria" and "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."
Created in 1999, "Dralion" was also the first Cirque du Soleil show in which the organization's creative team brought in new collaborators.
"The time was perfect," said Sean McKeown, the production's artistic director, "to take genre of avant-garde circus and combine it with other cultures. The original creators had a real passion for the cultures of Asia, and as the creation of this piece unfolded, they began to look at the differences and similarities between East and West."
McKeown said the show's creators decided to use the four elements of the ancient world - air, fire, water and earth - to be the unifying figures in the world of "Dralion," the name itself a melding of two potentially antagonistic creatures, the dragon and the lion.
"The funny thing," McKeown said, "is that we've got people from 17 different nationalities in our company, and we all work together and get along rather well. So it's a bit of life imitating art backstage."
The artistic director
McKeown himself is a native of Australia and has been with Cirque du Soleil for 11 years. "Dralion" is the third show for which he's served as artistic director.
"That means I'm responsible for the quality and the artistic integrity of the performance," he said. "And that means taking care of the artistic and technical crew, making sure everyone and everything is working at its best."
When "Dralion" debuted, it had a very different look and atmosphere than previous Cirque du Soleil productions. But it quickly became one of the company's most successful touring shows.
In 2010, the production was reimagined from its original big-top tent presentation to a format that would allow it to be shown in arenas such as the BOK Center.
"The basic concept and the set remain the same," McKeown said. "What changed was the cast. Only three performers from the original production are in this one. And we brought in a new acrobatic troupe from China for the arena production, who brought with them a different range of skills. That altered some of the individual acts to incorporate all this new stuff."
Converting a tent show to an arena show goes beyond simply no longer having to carry one's own roof around.
"In the tent," Desmarais said, "everyone is seated on a level, so the stage is more or less at everyone's eye level. Everyone is looking up at the performers. But in an arena, the audience is on different levels, some looking up, some looking down. So those sightlines have to be taken into consideration when choreographing the acts."
Also, McKeown said, the Cirque du Soleil tent might hold about 2,500 people, whereas the arenas the company performs in often can seat twice that many people, or more.
"And we still have to reach out to the back of the hall," he said. "So we usually take about one-third of whatever space there is for our backstage area. That allows us to keep that sense of intimacy that we want for these shows."
When Li Tao told his family he was joining the circus, they were not too impressed.
"For them, it was no different than the other international performances I have done," Li said through an interpreter. "But for me, being a part of Cirque du Soleil was wonderful. Because, for an acrobat, this company is the top of the world."
Li is a member of the Acrobatic Troupe of Shandong Province, a company that makes up a good portion of the performers in "Dralion." Li himself appears in several segments.
"What we do are really basic acrobatic skills," Li said. "But in the show, we have to put those skills to some different uses."
The Hoop Diving act, for example, is one Li performed many times before. However, the way it's done in "Dralion" gives it a different twist.
"We came to Montreal and spent three months training because the type of choreography Cirque du Soleil uses is very different from what we were used to," Li said. "But the result is better for it. It becomes all about speed, energy and power."
'Dralion' by the numbers
- 105 company members, representing 17 different nationalities.
- 80 to 100 local crew members hired at each location to assist with show.
- The set's main wall is 60 feet wide, 26 feet tall and designed to evoke a samurai's armor.
- It takes between 10 and 12 hours to load the "Dralion" set into an arena and about three hours to take it out.
- When "Dralion" was performed as a Cirque du Soleil tent show, it took 10 days to set up the show and three days to take it down.
- More than 16,000 feet of fabrics were used to create the costumes.
- The two-piece Dralion costumes, worn by two performers, weigh 40 pounds each.
- "Dralion" has almost 1,500 costume pieces - including shoes, hats and accessories - all designed specifically for each performer.
- More than 300 pairs of shoes are cleaned and painted by hand every week.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL’S ‘DRALION’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3:30 and
7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 16
Where: BOK Center, 200 S. Denver Ave.
Tickets: $35-$145. 866-726-5287, tulsaworld.com/bok
Original Print Headline: At new heights
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Performers show off their skills in Cirque du Soleil's "Dralion" at the Expocentre in Topeka, Kan. KEVIN ANDERSON/for the Tulsa World
"We've got people from 17 different nationalities in our company, and we all work together and get along rather well. So it's a bit of life imitating art backstage," says Sean McKeown, left, artistic director for Cirque du Soleil's "Dralion." KEVIN ANDERSON/for the Tulsa World
Zang Delong dives through a set of large hoops as cast members of Cirque du Soleil rehearse for "Dralion." KEVIN ANDERSON/for the Tulsa World