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January 23, 2018

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‘Zarkana,’ Part 3: Cirque du Soleil show focused on acrobats debuts at Aria


Cirque du Soleil

Zarkana” by Cirque du Soleil.

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of our series tied to tonight’s first preview performance of Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic spectacular “Zarkana” at Aria in MGM’s CityCenter. An overview of the extraordinary production was posted Tuesday, and interviews with two principal players were posted Wednesday. Robin Leach flew to New York just before “Zarkana” packed up and began its trek here.

“Zarkana” is the biggest of Cirque du Soleil’s productions to date, and writer and director Francois Girard, known for his previous movie and onstage opera successes, says he’s worked for a year on the Las Vegas version of the show, which has thrilled 1 million-plus people in New York, Moscow and Madrid.

I met Francois and artistic director Ann-Marie Corbell, who lives here in Las Vegas, when I saw the show at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. They head a creative team of 14 designers responsible for lighting, choreography, acrobatics, rigging, costumes, makeup, sets, props and musical composition.

Francois told me: “The casting of the performers played a big role in the storytelling. Our casting machine at Cirque is very important, with a lot of people traveling the world to find exceptional acts. We have adjusted the show to a 90-minute format for Vegas. There will be no 15-minute intermission and a minor trim to the running time of New York. It makes it more efficient and more exciting.

“The life of ‘Zarkana’ had nothing to do with the closing of [‘Viva Elvis’]. We were in New York, Russia and Spain, so it was a corporate decision at the top of Cirque and MGM to bring it to Vegas. Our contribution is to make the show as strong as possible. We are here pushing the performances, the poetry and constantly improving everything. We worked on some new music with a Vegas twist, too, for a straps act.

'Zarkana' at Aria

Launch slideshow »

“This is the most rock show of Cirque. It is meant to be loud. The writing of the music was a large part in the writing of the show. It is music wall to wall. It works for me where the acrobatic skeleton would be as essential as the musical skeleton, and this is the foundation of the show for me. The invented Cirquish language is a combination of things. You can hear a little bit of English, a little bit of Italian, a little bit of Spanish. It is almost rock opera, non-lyric based, but there is a meaning about everything that is sung.

“We started out with English, but it was not fully executing, so we went to the invented language. We will not go back to English for the Vegas run. We won’t convert it or translate it. We have the right balance now. This show is character-based and not story-based. It is a formula that has been well proven from the early days of Cirque.

“There have been all sorts of experiments, but as soon as you start pushing a story, you clash with the flow of acrobatics. We had to give room for characters to grow, so no matter what we did, the acrobatic always came first. The work of the team is primarily to put the acrobats in the best light.

“The acrobats come first because this is a circus show, and the prime content is acrobatic performance. Then I come with a team of designers, and we created characters. We tried to bring the world that would support the performance the best, but at every given moment, my work and the work of my colleagues is to make the artist and the acrobats shine in the best light.

“When Guy Laliberte first invited me to come and work at Cirque, I was not of that culture, so the first thing I did was to see all the shows. The conflict between narratives and acrobatics became really clear for me. Now, I am a storyteller. I do theater and I write films.

'Zarkana' Arrives at Aria

The singer and actress Cassiopee gives an interview as the Cirque du Soleil show Launch slideshow »

“If you take the example of ‘Love,’ what Dominic Champagne did was impeccable. He didn’t get caught in the life story of the Beatles, and they created a show that, in my sense, is one of the strongest of Cirque’s shows. ‘Mystere’ is the quintessential character-based show. It is a show that pops characters out, they live, they have their circulation, they have an arc, and it is a flow. Also, the crucial and great lesson from ‘Mystere’ is how the acrobatic and drama merge into the invisible border. There is a flow in ‘Mystere’ and ‘Zarkana’ that merges dramatic and acrobatic in the least visible way.

“Our biggest challenge was starting out at Radio City Music Hall. It’s a beautiful theater, but let’s say it is unforgiving, it is the most difficult theater in the world for its size. Radio City is a wonderful legend. It has lots of ghosts and is a legendary place. I am really pleased that we played there, but it is a very difficult venue. It is a theater too big for theater.

“We will be able to do everything that we did at Radio City in Vegas. I think Aria will be a much easier venue for the intimacy. It is smaller seating [1,800 at Aria vs. 5,000 at RCMH], and people will be a lot closer to the action.

Ann-Marie said: “You are trying to single out acts, but the process is to fuse them into one experience. If there are 10 acts in a show, it’s our job to make it one journey whatever the number. Cirque always leaves the audience with an impression of a world that exists even beyond the live experience.



“Five years later, you remember it is a world of poetry and human performance, and it relies on the wow factor of certain acts, but it is a successful merging of a number of acts and artists, music, set design and theater poetry that makes it a memorable experience as a whole.”

Francois, who says $55 million was spent on the first staging the show, added: “When people see ‘Zarkana,’ I want them leaving with their heart engraved with the esthetics and the human energy from the show. There is an emotional space, in awe of the artists and their performances, but if we got them to a place that they haven’t visited before and some of it can stay with them, then we really succeed.

“It seems to me that ‘Zarkana’ is a great fit for Aria. There are no other places that have that stage opening, so it is a good physical fit right there. Nobody has pulled off the scale of this production anywhere before. It’s very defining. We are pushing the limits of what an indoor theater experience can be, even beyond the border, in my opinion.

“It has been a very expensive show and very expensive to travel. There are touring shows, tent shows and permanent shows. This show was meant to be in between that with a permanent-like apparatus that you can collapse and fit into 54 trucks. That’s not too bad, but when you put it onto 747s, it becomes hard.

“We have been very successful at filling all the theaters with our large touring show, but it was difficult, and it needed a home. I am the first one happy to see that we lived the experience, and I am the first one happy to see that the show has a permanent home in Vegas.”

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.

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