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September 19, 2017

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Cirque’s reimagined ‘Zarkana’ at Aria — with new music, acrobatics — is ‘brighter, lighter and faster paced’


Tom Donoghue/

The red carpet grand opening of Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” at Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

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British twin brothers Kevin and Andrew Atherton in Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” at Aria.

'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

'Zarkana': Parties at Gold Lounge and Haze

Siegfried Fischbacher, Dot Jones and Roy Horn attend the premiere of Cirque du Solei's Launch slideshow »

New music and an amazing new acrobatic act are among the subtle yet major changes to be unveiled Friday night at the reimagined “Zarkana” by Cirque du Soleil at Aria in MGM’s CityCenter.

On Nov. 13, I reported that Cirque would temporarily shut the year-old magical circus show for a makeover. I was promised: “What was dark and mysterious and enthralled audiences in New York, Spain and Russia will give way to a lighter and more thrilling show for Las Vegas audiences.”

“Zarkana” closed at the end of December to take advantage of the preplanned vacation for cast and crew in January, with the scheduled opening Friday. The spectacle about an abandoned magic theater that comes back to life returns with four guides rather than the individual magic character of Zark, while lead singer Cassiopee’s role has been expanded.

Before Cirque moved 65 trucks of scenery, equipment and wardrobe here, the visually stunning production was praised by theater critics and seen by more than 1.5 million people in Manhattan, Moscow and Madrid. You can read our three-part series about the show posted Oct. 30-Nov. 1, 2012, and its all-star red-carpet premiere with Francis Ford Coppola, Siegfried & Roy and more on Nov. 9, 2012.

At the time, Cirque commented, “A historic aspect of our artistic philosophy is to constantly renew and refresh productions. On its return in February, guests will find an invigorated ‘Zarkana’ with many of the same features, but with new enhancements, making it even more exciting and vibrant.”

An incredible acrobatic act with British twins Kevin and Andrew Atherton is expected to be one of the incredible new highlights. The storytelling will be enhanced by new and expanded sand-painting art that has dazzled audiences since the premiere.

The heart-pumping Wheel of Death is another showstopper. It’s vastly different from the Wheel of Death featured in “Ka” at MGM Grand. In “Zarkana,” it is suspended by cable winch, whereas in “Ka,” it is ground supported. The “Ka” wheel is on a cantilevered stage over an open pit, while “Zarkana’s” wheel swings left to right without bounce, with smaller wheels making reaction even more important and performance more difficult.

I talked candidly with Diane Quinn, Cirque’s vice president of show quality and integrity, about the changes and the new-look “Zarkana.”

“Zarkana” was received very warmly, but you went ahead with your normal tweaking and improvements?

It’s always interesting when you’re doing touring shows, and that’s my background at Cirque. I do think that different audiences are looking for different kinds of experiences. When we talked with our Las Vegas audiences after we had opened for a few months, we realized that they wanted a different kind of feel-good vibe: a little bit lighter, a little bit more upbeat and maybe even a little more accessible than how the show had been designed for New York and overseas audiences.

You had that Cirque-invented language, which I loved but worried whether people would really follow the story. Sometimes you have to repeat the same lines differently to audiences here to make sure they fully understand the plot.

That’s a really interesting comment. Initially, we had done the show when we started in 2011 in New York in English, and then we realized that the show was going to be traveling to the international markets of Madrid and Moscow. We debated over this for a while and changed to the invented language. It worked well overseas, so we just brought that same language right to Las Vegas.

It was challenging for some people wondering if it was Italian or Spanish, so ultimately we made a change there, too. We continue singing in the invented language, but now there’s much less language going on in the show. For example, the clowns use some English and some Cirque talk.

I think change is exciting, and you’re putting a lot of emphasis on the new aerial act with unbelievable British twins.

That’s a big, big part of it, but let’s talk about the music first for a moment. We had very rock opera score, and again as we were looking at our other audiences from Madrid, Moscow and now here in Las Vegas, we wanted to tailor that a little more with the focus on the rock and less on the opera portion. Our amazing composer Nick Littlemore, who takes his inspirations from his compositions for U2 and Coldplay, wanted to give the audience a little time to catch their breath between the spectacular acts.

Originally, we didn’t have a lot of that. The theater is such a beautiful room, you need the music to wash over you, and that reimagined phase has been really important. Nick has rewritten more than half of the music, with a lot re-orchestrated and rearranged. The music is such an important storyline for all our shows, and this now really makes a bigger emphasis of what you see onstage.

Nick has worked with Elton John, Robbie Williams and Ellie Goulding, so he is far more a pop musician than an opera musician?

Correct. This is more his comfort zone, as well.

So that’s a 50-percent-plus change in the music. Let’s talk about the individual acts, and let’s start with these two characters with the aerial strap act.

Amazing act! They are English twins — Kevin and Andrew Atherton — two of the nicest guys. It was really important that we could bring them to Las Vegas from our touring show “Varekai” and then “Iris” in L.A. They add a more emotional interaction with the audience. It’s amazing when they go over the audience. They’re synchronized. You feel you are watching one person.

They know each other so intimately that they know where the other will be without even having to look. When you watch them, you immediately see they use their twin senses. They don’t even turn their head, yet they can envelop each other. It truly takes your breath away.

An Up-Close Look at 'Zarkana' at Aria

An up-close look at Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »
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Francis Ford Coppola attends the red carpet grand opening of Cirque du Soleil's "Zarkana" at Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

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Aaron Paul attends the premiere of Cirque du Solei's "Zarkana" in Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

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Jim Murren attends the premiere of Cirque du Solei's "Zarkana" in Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

So we have new music and new acrobatics, and I’ve heard that it will be more comedic without the need of Zark.

That’s the biggest thing. We decided to make the show more comedic. We made a very tough decision and removed Zark so that the audience can now really see the acrobatic numbers. We haven’t taken any numbers out; we’ve actually added to them. Now you will see nonstop acrobatics with the new rock music and visuals and set design making it one of the most gorgeous shows we’ve ever done. The sets haven’t changed, but it now really gets to be highlighted by these nonstop acrobatics. Brighter, lighter and faster paced.

“Zarkana” was derived from the words “bizarre” and “arcane,” so Zark didn’t come from the show title. Who now threads the storyline?

We actually use four characters — the two main clowns, the amazing female singer who is now prominently highlighted as we really focus on her playing several different roles and characters, and the wonderful sand artist. She’s captivated our audiences. We haven’t expanded her role per se, but it’s now really tailored to Las Vegas, so she’s been incorporated into the changes.

When the audiences see the show now, whether Zark is there will not resonate. People aren’t going to say, “Where’s Zark?” They’re just going to come see a show called “Zarkana.”

Cirque has never made any secret that it constantly tweaks its shows even when shows are big-hit smashes and run for 10 to 25 years. You constantly change and improve. “Zarkana” ran just over a year before you tweaked it, so it’s quite normal and not a drastic overhaul?

Part of what we do in the department I’m responsible for is we evolve shows. We don’t want them to ever be museum pieces. We want people to come back often and see the same essence of the show, yet see something new. “Mystere” is a good example, our original Las Vegas show. Years ago, we decided to revisit the show and made some big changes there because you always want something fresh.

It’s also good for the artists to do something new and work with some new music, especially if you’ve been in the show for five-plus years. We’re constantly tweaking when an artist leaves or an act departs and somebody new arrives. Here in “Zarkana,” we also had a chance to revisit the music in a more significant way than we normally would.

When you evolve, you normally don’t shut down shows. Did this extend past two weeks of the cast vacations?

No. We had our regular normal two weeks off for the artists, and then we did our two-week period for new rehearsals. If we hadn’t tweaked the music or changed the music so much, we wouldn’t have had to close it temporarily. It was important that the artists be allowed that time to work with that new music and really feel comfortable. But to do that, we needed to make sure we had enough rehearsal time.

So we just added two more dark weeks for the rehearsals with the new material. We reopened Feb. 1 and now after the ongoing tweaking, we’re fully ready to unveil the entire new show Friday. We had to all feel comfortable with all the changes that we’ve made.

Was your founder, Guy Laliberte, hands on with this particular show?

Whenever we make changes, he’s pretty hands on. Music is really important to Guy; it’s a big part of what he loves about Cirque. Whenever we look at music, he pays close attention. All of the changes that we made were all in consultation with Guy before we started making changes and during the process.

Does the cast love the new look, feel and sound of the show?

Yeah, it’s great. They worked incredibly hard, the technicians. And now all of those amazing movers, that’s what we call the characters in white, are more of the focus, which is fantastic. You get to see them and watch how they’ve evolved their individual characters. That for me has been a treat, as well.

Audiences are an incredibly diverse thing. You can have someone who loves the show, and you can have others who don’t. When we really started looking at our audience in Las Vegas, we thought that the best thing to do for them was to make some changes.

We’ve made the right decisions; we like what we’re seeing so far. It’s subtle and soft. There will be new artwork and new visuals coming in the next month, so it will look and feel different. From a marketing viewpoint, it will reflect a new look. For the show itself, we are now highlighting all the original acts, except we’re adding one. It’s nonstop acrobatics more than anything else. We have the same great female singer and band, same cast, so it’s “Zarkana” amped up.

I like hearing from the audiences what I’m hearing. I think we’re going to continue looking at all of our shows, and we’re always going to be tweaking stuff. It’s not necessary to make a big fuss about change. Sometimes someone is going to like something that we added, and sometimes someone is going to say how come you took out my favorite act? We just have to face that!

At the end of the day, our show is giving you what it gave you before, but more of what you love. People love Cirque for the acrobatics, and we have the best acts in the world — things you wouldn’t see anywhere else.

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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