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October 30, 2014

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Q+A: Cirque’s new-look ‘Zarkana’ showcases amazing acrobatics, high-flying Atherton twins

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Steve Marcus

British twin brothers Andrew, right, and Kevin Atherton, Cirque du Soleil aerialists with “Zarkana,” perform under the monorail truss in Aria’s porte cochere Monday, March 3, 2014. The performance was promoting “Zarkana’s” reimagined show, which includes a new soundtrack and a new aerial straps act.

‘Zarkana’ Aerialists Perform in Aria Porte Cochere

British twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton, Cirque du Soleil aerialists with “Zarkana,” perform under the monorail truss in Aria’s porte cochere Monday, March 3, 2014. The performance was promoting “Zarkana’s” reimagined show, which includes a new soundtrack and a new aerial straps act. Launch slideshow »
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British twin brothers Andrew, left, and Kevin Atherton, Cirque du Soleil aerialists with “Zarkana,” perform in Aria’s porte cochere Monday, March 3, 2014. The performance was promoting “Zarkana’s” reimagined show, which includes a new soundtrack and a new aerial straps act.

The new-look “Zarkana” at Aria features 10 extraordinary, heart-stopping acrobatic acts. Each one is more edge-of-the-seat emotion than the one before. Just when you’ve finished sweating for performers achieving the seemingly impossible comes the next to drive your own fear factor even higher.

These may well be the largest number of amazing athletes ever put together in one show anywhere in the world. Cirque du Soleil has delivered a powerful punch with “Zarkana” by putting the spotlight solely on their remarkable talents and skills. My report about the changes to the show at Aria in MGM’s CityCenter was posted Feb. 27.

Thank heavens “Zarkana,” with its wonderful new rock score in place of the operatic dirges, has two performers who gently slow down the ever-increasing intensity of the death-defying and high-flying dramatics. Maria Choodu is the opening juggler, a seductive and clever way to open the show to lure you into the abandoned theater that’s coming to life with astonishing artistry.

She’s a magician in her own right making tennis balls do things no sane person would think of let alone try to learn. Rat-a-tat tat! She has them bouncing at sensational speed synchronicity off objects that defy the mind.

In between the Cyr Wheel Aerial Hoops and the terrifying trapeze comes Vira Syvorotkina and her canvas of blue sand. She tosses handfuls onto a canvas that’s video projected to a huge screen as she makes incredible images of a Las Vegas landscape, perfect portraits and adorable animals before the startling spider and web that introduces the real deal of the ceiling high flyers.

The Wheel of Death, the two-man high-wire act, the Banquine and the Russian Bar are all still there, but now you really see them opened up as the show’s stars and not hidden amid the clutter of too much stage activity. Instead of Zark, it’s now singer Briana Rossi and clowns Gabe del Vecchio and Stas Bogdanov who just signpost our way between the surprising scenes.

The miracles start with Victoria Dvoretskaya balancing on Dmitry Dvoretskiy, who climbs himself up two ladders that only have two feet, not four.

Then comes British twin gymnasts Andrew and Kevin Atherton, who are the newest addition to “Zarkana.” They perform as if they are one and swing out over the audience at high speed, each with just one strap wrapped around one shoulder. The audience is in a stunned silence of disbelief. The 38-year-old brothers, born within three minutes of each other, make more noise swishing through the air than the audience, who only break out into cheers with relief when their stunts are stilled.

Both Brits, who represented the U.K. in the Commonwealth Games in advance of the 2000 Olympics, are from just outside Manchester, where I lived in the early 1960s. They live here now. Andrew is married with a baby to a former hand-balancing acrobat from Cirque’s “Varakei.” Kevin’s husband also is a twin, Michel Laprise, the director of Cirque’s new touring show “Kurios” that was unveiled in Montreal on Wednesday.

I talked with the Atherton duo backstage after last weekend’s unveiling of the reimagined “Zarkana.”

I’m intrigued by the fact that you don’t look at each other, but somehow you know exactly where the other is. I know peas in a pod, twins, but how do you know where you each are without seeing or looking where you are?

'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

It’s kind of a difficult question to answer. Some of it probably is because we are twins, but we’ve basically performed together and trained together all of our lives. Just by the way we let go of a certain skill, we know where we’re going to end up without even looking at each other.

Do you count off 3-2-1 in your minds to connect?

Only on one routine. I found out just recently that I close my eyes, but I still feel the relationship with him. There’s only one moment in there where we actually count to get the same timing, but the rest of it, no.

Growing up, you were deliberately kept separate, and there was a period of time when you didn’t work together so that you had your own identities rather than being two identical people — one starting to speak and the other finishing the thought. But you reunited for Cirque? Was it like … riding a bicycle. Did it automatically click being together again?

We did gymnastics, which is a very individual sport. We both did it differently. We never really grew up together as far as we were always in separate classes in school and in separate gymnastics. But Cirque brought us together; they thought of us as a team of one. At first we hated it.

When you make a mistake in gymnastics, it’s your fault; you can blame yourself. For the first month of being together, we just blamed each other for every mistake. We don’t really fight, but we had little confrontations. When one is more outspoken, the other is quieter and just disappears.

This wasn’t a case of reuniting after so many years. In 24 years, we’d never worked together until Cirque. We never worked as partners. Any time we were together was on the Great Britain team, and we’d come together to root for each other. But we were still separate.

How did you wind up in Montreal at Cirque headquarters with this unique act?

The company has casting directors who go around the world. We were in China competing for Great Britain, and they approached us. We honestly had never heard of Cirque du Soleil. They asked us to check them out, but we never really thought anything of it. Then we were invited to our first Cirque show, “Allegra,” which was at Royal Albert Hall in London.

We just sat there together, didn’t speak to each other, but as soon as the first character came onstage, we both got goose bumps. We didn’t talk to each other all the way through the show, but afterward simultaneously we looked at each other and went, “ Wow, OK, now we know what we’re going to do after our championship gymnastics ends.” We didn’t speak it; we just knew it.

It wasn’t just that, though, because not only did we know we wanted to do Cirque du Soleil, we knew right away what we wanted to do. We started to dream the act that we wanted to do. But we still had several years heavily involved with gymnastics. We still hadn’t achieved all that we wanted to achieve. Eventually, we won the Commonwealth championships.

The nearest things to the straps back then were the balance rings. That was the highest we would go. We weren’t afraid of heights, but we were uncomfortable with them.

An Up-Close Look at 'Zarkana' at Aria

An up-close look at Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

How long have you’ve been with Cirque now?

We started formation training in the summer of 2000, so it’s 14 years. We took a complete year off last year. We did formation training the first six months but had to leave to perform in a Tom Stoppard play at the Chichester Festival. It was our first time onstage together because we’d never been onstage acting before.

They cast us because they wanted some comical Italian waiters who could do some acrobatics. That was our first experience onstage, but it was not pretty. We weren’t actors, that’s for sure! We knew we were going right back to Cirque after that even though we got lots of offers from agents, but we’re not actors. We simply didn’t like it.

Born three minutes apart, just how “twin” are you?

We’re very different. Our interests are very different. He’s more the artistic, and I’m more the academic, mathematical one. We finish each other’s sentences because we know what the other is going to start to say before he says it.

When you hang on the straps, turn upside down, fly balanced atop your heads, how do you prevent injuries to your shoulders, your biceps?

We’ve never had a problem in 14 years. We work very hard on our shoulders. Once we started, once we knew what we were doing, we said to Cirque that if they focus on our upper body, then we would work with them for a long time. But if they put us on our legs, then we’d ache most of the time; that was our strength in gymnastics. We never had surgery above the waist, but we’ve had it in our ankles and knees. It’s similar for both of us at the same time. If my knee goes, the opposite one on him goes. It’s the same with everything. Uncanny!

Oh, the mischief you could cause! How are you liking your new home in Las Vegas?

It’s cool. We had never lived here; we just visited many, many times and saw how crazy it can be. Living here is a little bit different. Now we’re settled and working. We’ve been to see all the other Cirque shows. Every show is different. You can watch the same show three times and see it differently every time.

Before we came here for “Zarkana,” we were in the “Iris” resident show in Los Angeles and before that in “Varekai.” The only time in the 13 years we missed a show was the night Andy’s baby was born.

Is the scariest part of your act when you are at the highest point over the audience?

No. The part where we have to really stay focused and concentrate is when we’re holding the other with just one arm and then with just the leg. We’re not holding on by the feet. That’s when we both have to focus because he checks my feet to make sure they’re in properly.

You can never fight before you go onstage, can you?

Oh, we have before. We don’t do it here, but in our first show, we used to let go, then nearly hit each other, then swing away. I think I said something nasty to him when we’re on top, and then when we came out, he was even nastier to me. We could hear us, but fortunately the audience couldn’t. You can’t take things like that onstage. We learned quickly it was a waste of time to argue like that, so no more.

At 38, how much physical life do you have left hanging from straps high up in the middle of the theater?

As long as they keep modifying the costumes — getting bigger and bigger! We look after ourselves; we really do. Once we knew this is what we wanted to do, we’ve stuck to training vigorously. It’s at least an hour per day. We used to do a lot more, but now it’s a lot of maintenance.

We watch what we eat, but it’s not that difficult because it’s a lifestyle we enjoy. But we’ll confess that once in a while, we like to go get our British fish and chips!

* * *

“Zarkana,” written and directed by Francois Girard with music by Nick Littlemore, plays two shows nightly Fridays through Tuesdays at Aria.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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