By Christine Leonard
CALGARY — The celestial bodies of Cirque du Soleil are geared up for a steampunk odyssey through a dreamscape of spectacular oddities. And, according to the show’s set and props designer, Stéphane Roy, KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities is quite possibly the company’s most impressive production to date. A bold statement to make, considering that since its formation in 1984, this world-famous ensemble has thrilled over 150 million audience members beneath the blue-and-yellow Big Top.
Popular from the time of Renaissance Europe through to the 19th century, cabinets of curiosities are the ancestors of museums. They functioned as private galleries, where outlandish artefacts were categorized and displayed according to the stories that were woven about them. Written and directed by Michel Laprise, Cirque du Soleil’s celebratory 35th production revolves around just such a strange and outlandish chamber of wonders and its cryptic curator.
“The Seeker, our main character, is travelling in time in his head. He’s trying to understand things while moving from one experience to the next,” explains Roy, who has previous designed Cirque productions such as Dralion, Varekai, Zumanity, KOOZA and Zarkana.
Together with Laprise, Roy found that the concept of a collector’s vitrine was the perfect framework for exhibiting the Cirque’s exotic array of performers. Thus, each individual act is highlighted as a themed-vignette which unfolds as the Seeker’s intriguing menagerie becomes (re)animated.
“The great thing about opening up the cabinet is that it’s a surprise every time,” says Roy. “Everything has its own life. In the first act, the couple who performs the Russian Cradle Duo appears within the mechanical context of a music box. It’s a hybrid of sculpture and invention. Similarly, the Contortion act involves the interplay between the human artist and a huge Mechanical Hand. We’ve sort of Frankensteined all kinds of pieces and about 500 years of art history into one concept.”
Inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and cinematic muses such as Scorsese’s Hugo, Laprise and Roy have recreated the moment when the elegance of the Victorian-era collided headlong with the science and gadgetry of the Industrial Revolution.
“When we started to evoke the term ‘steampunk’ about five years ago it seemed as if only a few people in Amsterdam and New York knew what we were talking about. Now, it’s not just a fashion, it’s a movement!” Roy acknowledges.
“Michel and I agreed that steampunk provided an amazing universal language that was very modern yet influenced by the past. I think we were both touched by the way steampunk artisans repurposed things, that were made to be used in one way, and gave them a second life. We brainstormed freely about the idea of hybridization and how we could use the steampunk code to bring humour, fun, and pleasure into the equation. I think it is the best production we’ve ever done.”
The creative duo’s anachronistic vision comes to life as their steam-powered locomotive rolls through town. The Seeker’s clockwork circus transpires in miniature while perspective is turned on its head and telekinetic energy crackles through the air. A retro-futuristic aviator counterbalances a pair of gravity-defying Siamese Twins while supple sub-aquatic acrobats hold court at a depth of 20,000 leagues.
“Trains, hot air balloons, telegraph communication; so many new technologies exploded into the culture within a period of 25 years,” Roy continues. “Today we are surrounded by technology, but we rarely see how it works. Steampunk exposes the engineering within these civilized contraptions. It was important to us that the materials we used in the sets reflected the raw elements that comprised them. In KURIOS the leather looks like leather, the brass is the colour of brass. Another thing we were conscious of was that the lighting and costumes are rendered in the same dusty sepia tones that were the typical colour of the photographic exposures of that time.”
Placing living performers at the locus of these moving parts was a challenge for the veteran artistic director, but with a history of contributing to more than 100 different productions over the course of his award-winning career, Roy has become a bit of collector himself.
“My creative process starts with a white page. Set design is one of the first things we start working on from day one. I drew every object that the artists play with on stage drawn by hand. It’s actually a fun part of developing the props and sets,” he says. “Everything in Cirque’s research and development department is so well organized and so close to artists that we are able to experiment with materials in our prop shops.”
Goggles and brass gears abound as some 426 manifestations of Roy’s handcrafted objet d’art revolve about the stage. Still, he remains ever mindful of the flesh-and-blood performers at the heart of his infernal machines. Performers like Antanina Satsura, the artist portraying the character Mini Lili, who at 3 ft. 4 in. tall is one of the 10 smallest people on the planet.
“We wanted to build a set that evoked the idea of steam and machinery, and at the same time we didn’t want to merge the technological with the organic too much,” explains Roy.
“The grandest thing about a circus act is the body and demonstrating what those amazing human machines are capable of. To achieve this we ensured that the design elements around the acrobats have a low level technology. We avoided putting anything artificial in immediate proximity to the body, because we didn’t want to convey that the artist is being pushed by the technology. There are all kinds of steampunk machines around them, but the real push is to reveal the physical body that lies at the centre of the art.”
Cirque du Soleil runs from April 9th to May 24th at Stampede Park. Tickets available here or call 1-800-450-1480. Also read KURIOS tour publicist Amélie Robitaille’s reflections on working with MasterChef Canada, filming an episode of the reality cooking show.AB, Alberta, Big Top, Cirque du Soleil, KURIOS - Cabinet of Curiosities, Stampede Park, steampunk