In Pieter Bruegel’s iconic paintng, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (below), farmers tend to their fields as Icarus plunges to earth after his infamous flight too close to the sun. A small splash, a few feathers, and a leg are all that’s seen of Icarus – put best by William Carlos Williams in his poem of the same name:
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
– and thus Ovid’s parable shows us the fatality of hubris.
|Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1560s.|
But what of Icarus? Did he, as Ovid and Bruegel suggest, unceremoniously drown, unnoticed – a cautionary tale of over-ambition? Or did he, just perhaps, survive, finding himself in an unknown and strange new land where he must let go of his past failures in order to find his future? This is where Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Varekai picks up. On stage at Estero’s St. Germain Arena from September 24-29 (tickets cost $37-$147, 239-948-7825), Cirque shows through an amazing display of acrobatic and emotionally charged circus acts that the fall is not necessarily the end, but the beginning of a new journey.
Part of Cirque’s arena shows, Varekai first made its debut in 2002 under the Big Top. Written by longtime Cirque hand, Dominic Champagne, who also wrote and directed Zumanity and Love, Varekai made the transformation to the arena touring group in December 2013 under the watchful eye of artistic director Fabrice Lemire, a six-year veteran with Cirque and the man who oversaw the transition of Quidam from Big Top to arena as well. And though there are parallels between Cirque shows, with some technical and acrobatic acts overlapping in some way, shape or form, each show is also wholly different on its approach, story and the way acts are presented. And Varekai is no different.
The two-hour show is packed with acrobatic and technical circus acts that blow the mind. The Russian Swings, the finale and one of the most physically impressive routines, is specific only to Varekai and quite the feat of daring do. Along with juggling, aerial acts, clowns and a rather interesting act called “Slippery Surface,” Varekai also is a story of personal evolution.
|Varekai reintroduces the audience to the Icarian Games act, an ancient discipline of the circus arts that is rarely seen in today’s contemporary circus culture. The human body becomes catapult and catcher in an elaborate, explosive and highly choreographed presentation of strength, balance and agility|
As Lemire put it, “it is very much about adaptation – how you let go of the past, how you look forward, and standup and walk again.” Quite literally in the case of Icarus in this performance, who crashed deep in a forest at the summit of a volcano, where a kaleidoscope of color, sound and intriguing characters clash on a journey of self-discovery. Meaning “wherever” in Romany, Varekai pays homage to the quest and the circus tradition; it’s the intersection where acrobatics, emotion and story meet.
“Varekai it is very much about that mythology, Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and burned his wings. But it’s also a personal interpretation of adaptation and evolution of life,” said Lemire. “Anyone can relate to this story – even though he [Icarus] is new to this land and this portion of the forest, it is all about how quickly he can turn around and let go of his past, move forward and adapt into the new surroundings and the unknown,”
In buildup to the return of Cirque du Soleil to the Paradise Coast, we spoke with artistic director Fabrice Lemire about the show, its message, and the scene behind the scenes.
NI.COM: What makes Varekai different from the other shows in Cirque’s portfolio?
LEMIRE: Every show has a recipe for success: high level of acrobatics blended with a message and emotion. This is what makes Cirque what it is – it is not about the trick for the trick but using the technical elements to bring emotion to the technique and the trick.
Part of this recipe is the acrobatics, the aerialists. Anything that defies gravity, that is the wow factor of Cirque – we all know what it is like to jump and land on the ground, but to fly across the room is something that stirs in human beings; it’s a dream, not possible. But in these shows, you can.
I think the act that makes Varekai stand out is the Russian Swing. The act has two swings manned by pushers launching fliers into the air, who do some aerial acrobatics, and land on the other swing, or sometimes in the hands of two catchers on a platform, and are pushed back into the air. This is specific to Varekai, the closing number, and quite impressive and very difficult because it is a group number – mostly men from Russia and Ukraine.
|Varekai‘s final act, the Russian Swing is propelled by two large swings, from which acrobats are hurled high into the air, alighting on their partners’ crossed wrists or on a landing canvas. In feats of outstanding audacity, the acrobats even soar from one moving swing to the other.|
What do you take from the message of Varekai?
It is very much about adaptation, about what people do day to day, how you adapt to your new surroundings – a reflection of adapting.
And of course there is a love story – Icarus falls in love with the character called La Promise [the Betrothed]– who evolves from act to act. She is at first a green caterpillar, but when she peels off this first skin to reveal herself to him, that beauty allows him to move forward and adapt to this new society. It really is about adaptation and the ability to reach out to what’s available in front of you to continue on in life.
It has a very nice flow of emotions for the entirety of the two-hour show between the acrobatics and the characters, the humor of the clowns – it is so well put. It is very much a conversation between acro-emotion – I think it is very clever the way it is written. The public loves the way this show is presented because of that dynamic – the back and forth of the emotions.
| In Varekai, a juggling virtuoso manipulates bowling pins, soccer balls, hats and ping-pong balls|
with his hands, feet, head and even his mouth.
What goes on behind the scenes to create a show like Varekai?
I always want the audience to remember one thing: when they see the beauty of performer on stage, to remember how much work that goes into it. There is so much work behind the scenes, the amount of hours of practice to do a simple passage on the Russian Swing for example – a jump from one swing to the next – is immense. Because the fliers jump where the pusher pushes, it is all about trusting the pusher to give him enough, but not too much push, so that he can land on the other swing in motion on the other side of the stage. There is so much mathematics and brain exercise going on – it is amazing to watch these performers integrate into the act. I am watching this day after day, and oh my god, there is so much work to ask them to readapt as the show is running, performing in different cities.
During the show, there may be one or two aerialists flying across the stage, but behind the stage, there are five or six people making the action happen. From the performer to the rigger, to the automation programmers, to the stage manager who is calling the shots, there is ongoing communication going on with all these key players. It is something I always like to share, because it would not be possible without all those elements, all in line – night after night.
And the show is huge; there are 85 to 90 people – [of which] 50 are performers and musicians – from 18 different nationalities, moving from city to city. We all travel together, stay in the same hotel as the people you perform with – you can’t hide. You are in such proximity in this small community that you have to work it out. And throwing 18 different nationalities into the same bucket, and have them work in harmony, it is a process and adaptation – it is very demanding. You have to be open and welcome differences to help everyone adapt.