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December 14, 2018

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Cirque du Soleil:

New ‘One Drop’ director Hassan El Hajjami brings water to his village

‘One Drop’ Rehearsal With Leona Lewis

Tom Donoghue / DonoghuePhotography.com

Director Hassan El Hajjami attends “One Night for One Drop: Quest for Water” rehearsal Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, at Aria. Singer Leona Lewis is the guest artist at “Quest for Water” on March 18 at the Smith Center.

‘One Drop’ Rehearsal With Leona Lewis

Launch slideshow »
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Jennifer Love Hewitt poses for a photo with Love cast member Hassan El Hajjami.

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John Mayer with the Walrus (Hassan El Hajjami) at Love in The Mirage.

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Hassan El Hajjami of Love and Paul Stanley of KISS.

This year’s annual Cirque du Soleil one-night-only spectacular “One Night for One Drop: Quest for Water” has several new elements. It’s the first time that performers from other Strip productions will join Cirque artists. It’s the first time that British singer-songwriter Leona Lewis joins the cast along with young dancer Miles Brown of ABC’s “Black-ish.”

And it’s the first time that former “The Beatles Love” at the Mirage dancer and choreographer Hassan El Hajjami will be the show’s artistic director, and because he speaks from experience of caring for his grandmother in a water-less village in Morocco, the show will be named “Quest for Water.” In fact, in his contract with Cirque, he won the right to a funded water system for her village so that the residents there would have running water.

About 100 artists — 50 from Cirque and 50 from other Las Vegas shows, including “Jubilee” at Bally’s — will team up as the cast for the March 18 performance at the Smith Center. It’s an all-volunteer cast and crew with rehearsals now under way at the “Zarkana” stage at Aria led by Hassan, whose stage name is Haspop.

They move into the Smith Center with only two days before the performance for dress rehearsals March 16 and 17. Leona flew in last week for her song rehearsal, and at the preview performance I talked with Hassan and Jerry Nadal, senior VP of Cirque’s Resident Show Division, who revealed that the new show “Toruk” inspired by James Cameron’s Oscar-winning “Avatar” might be headed here.

This is quite the journey from a tiny, no-water village in Morocco to Las Vegas, Hassan. We, too, are a city in the desert!

Yes, it is. I have a story. When I was young, I was visiting my grandmother in Morocco. I was shocked by the fact she didn’t have water at home. I had to walk with her to the well every day to bring water back home. I was shocked because I was living in France, and it’s the same in America — we have everything. You have water, you brush your teeth, you wash your food, you do dishes, you bathe, everything.

In Morocco, she didn’t have any access to running water in her home. Her quest, my quest for water, became the theme for this new fourth “One Drop” show. She lived in Moulay Yacoub, a smaller village in the center of Morocco. We had a donkey, and I walked with her three miles to the well. It was six miles back and forth every day.

You were born in France, lived in Morocco and made it to America and Cirque?

Yes, born in France, and I live in America. I came to Cirque for “The Beatles Love” show at the Mirage. I was cast in 2005. I performed 2,000 shows from 2005 to 2009 and ended my run there in June 2009. Afterward, I went to Los Angeles, where I did “America’s Got Talent,” then “France’s Got Talent” as a hip-hop dancer. I went on tour because I was very popular in Japan, Hong Kong and Venezuela.

Cirque called me back to take part in an earlier “One Drop” show and for the opening of “Zarkana” here and their show at Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. Then back to Paris for the big TV show “The Star.” I was the coach and judge of 14 kids who had to sing and dance with a celebrity.

You were selected from your submission for this year’s “One Drop.” How do you make it different from the past three years? Is that the biggest challenge?

What I put onstage is my personal story. I think it’s powerful. All the directors have very different views. I’m French-Moroccan, so I think I have this side of a French-Moroccan view with European theater, too. We’re going to see how powerful I can make the message within the entertainment.

I’m confident but very stressed out! I’m going to put all my energy and effort to have the best show so I can help to have clean water for the charity and the children.

Your village back home in Morocco now has water?

My contract with Cirque when I was working at “Love” was I was able to provide for my family. We have running water in the house there now. My grandmother passed away three years ago, but she got to use the running water.

So that is the dream, the vision of the new show? Your personal experience sparked it all? Nine-year-old hip-hop dancer Miles Brown, who plays Jack Johnson on ABC’s “Black-ish,” emulates your own story?

That’s the vision of when I was a little boy walking for water. I put some dream sequence into it because the child is going to fall down the water hole. He gets to see the world of his imagination, and he’s going to go through a troubled world. Maybe he’s going to come back. We will find out on March 18 what’s going to happen.

You saw “One Drop” last year under another director, and now you’re moving out of a Cirque home-base theater and into the Smith Center. There are a lot of different things this year?

For me it’s a challenge to have the Smith Center because it’s not a Cirque stage. Fortunately, I’m from Europe where the theater is a black square, so that part is normal. So far we have 100 artists, and half of my cast is from Cirque, the other half is from other Las Vegas shows. We did a workshop audition. We selected 50 from the 300 people who came. It’s a mix and match of artists, including with a “Jubilee” dancer right after their show closes Feb. 11.

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"One Night for One Drop: Quest for Water" rehearsal Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, at Aria. Singer Leona Lewis is the guest artist at "Quest for Water" on March 18 at the Smith Center.

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“One Night for One Drop: Quest for Water” rehearsal Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, at Aria. Singer Leona Lewis is the guest artist at “Quest for Water” on March 18 at the Smith Center.

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"One Night for One Drop: Quest for Water" rehearsal Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, at Aria. Singer Leona Lewis is the guest artist at "Quest for Water" on March 18 at the Smith Center.

Is difficult to take people who are not Cirque and put them with Cirque?

They have the opportunity to work with us and to be able to test Cirque: How it goes, how we work on staging and choreography. I think it’s a big experience for them, and they can be seen by casting people from Cirque and maybe get cast from their current job to be put into a Cirque show.

There are different disciplines between Cirque and other shows. Everybody has been doing well, though. We have a nice cast. That’s why we did this audition, to find the best. I didn’t take an artist just because they are an artist. I chose them because they have charisma and express something I would like to have onstage.

It’s like more like expression. You can be the best at what you do, but onstage it’s very different. You have to have this explosion of happiness and shine. You have to shine onstage. I’m very picky on how I choose my artists.

How many choreographers for this year’s “One Drop”?

So far four because I’m also a choreographer. We have an African choreographer, we have an aerialist choreographer and dance hip-hop choreographer and me. I do a little bit of everything.

I always think for “One Drop,” it starts out sad because you drive home the terrible realization that there are people in the world who do not have water, not even access to it. Does it end on a happy note here?

It ends on a happy note, but you’re going to feel the sadness in some of my tableaux because that’s the reality. I’m not going to shy away from the reality of what’s happening today.

How bad is it for somebody who turns on the tap and realizes that there’s no water? How bad is it to live without water?

I was living with water in France and America, but when I was in Morocco, I was asking, “How is it possible that you don’t have any water at home?” I was shocked. It’s so bad because you usually have water at home, and that’s it. You can do whatever you want.

My grandmother was old and walking to get water. It was bizarre. When I see my own kids opening the tap, I ask what they’re doing and to calm down because we don’t have water in Morocco. I explain to them how it’s bad to not have water. You have to be careful how you use water today.

That’s the message, but it does end on a happy note. Leona will sing for the last song, and it’s going to be a happy song.

* * *

I asked Jerry Nadal about the process of selecting an artistic director to take control of the entire show.

“Our assigned producer really knows all the casts and crews of Cirque here in Las Vegas. Now that we’ve done this three times, there is a lot of interest in it. We had 12 submissions this year for directors, and we ask them to come up with the show concept.

“We interview everybody, and they lay it out. This year, Hassan’s just jumped to the top of the pack. It really resonated. We thought that we could easily see his story being on the Smith Center stage.

Other than the fact that it’s his personal story, what is the setting?

It’s set in a village where we have one of the “One Drop” projects running. It’s village daily life. It’s a take on “Alice in Wonderland.” Hassan told us when he was a kid, they were constantly drilling wells looking for water. But once a well is drilled out, they don’t fill it in after it’s empty.

So you’ll see an image at the beginning of the show where all these women are standing around a hole. He told us there’s a lot of wailing because a kid fell into the well, and, more often than not, they died.

And that explains Milesfrom “Black-ish”?

Yes. He’s the kid, and he falls down the well, then it’s his story. He tries to get out of the well coming across all these areas, stories and regions. It allows us to go after telling the story of what things are like with and without water.

It’s interesting that it is 50 Cirque characters this year and 50 people from other shows in Las Vegas. Is this the first time you’ve gone outside the Cirque family?

We’ve had other guest artists over the past few years, but not to the extent that we do this time. There’s a lot of interest in the project for people who live in Las Vegas who want to donate their time. That’s huge.

How much money have you raised to date from these “One Drop” one-night-only shows?

In three years, we’ve raised $17 million. This year, our goal is $7 million. Last year we did a little over $6 million.

Hassan told me that one of the contract points in his agreement was that running water came to the village where he went and lived with grandmother.

Yes, absolutely. Once again this is a very ambitious undertaking. It’s more ambitious than staging one of our own Cirque residencies. There’s more time to do those. This is all volunteer, and we get to rehearse it in bits and pieces and dribs and drabs because everybody is working on other shows.

We really only get two full run-throughs with everybody together at the same time, and then, bang, we’re on — it’s show time. It’s nerve-wracking every year, but the payoff is fantastic. It’s worked somehow really well the past three years.

It’s always been a success, so why the decision to leave a Cirque theater and go to the Smith Center?

We really wanted to broaden the regional appeal of the foundation. I think by keeping it at one of our theaters, it’s still MGM and so centric. By putting it at the Smith Center, we have more people interested in buying tickets as it has become a community event.

It allows us to talk about the One Drop Foundation outside everything else that we’re doing and all of our own trappings. We’ll bring the artistic and creative down there with us to do it. It’s a magnificent space, as you know. I can’t wait to see how they’re going to fully utilize it. I know we will.

There’s a sadness about rehearsing in the “Zarkana” theater as it’s about to end its run and become a convention center. “Zarkana” vanishes from your Las Vegas lineup. Will there be another Cirque show for Las Vegas?

I’m sure at some point down the road. We’re refreshing the shows now, and I think as other contracts expire, we’re always in discussion with MGM about what’s the next thing coming? Is that still making money for us? The rest of the lineup is doing very well, so nothing immediate.

But that’s not to say … not maybe in Las Vegas, but with MGM going to Springfield and Washington, D.C., we’ve been talking to them about other opportunities in other places that they’re going. They’re a good partner for us, but we’ll probably see another show here at some point. We’re exclusive in North America to MGM.

What’s the newest Cirque show corporately?

Toruk

We have “Toruk: The First Flight” based on “Avatar” as an arena show. You sit in that arena, and you don’t know where all this stuff is coming from. The projection mapping and changing scenery, it’s as if the movie has come to life. Its director, James Cameron, was very involved in the process

Is there a possibility that it could come to the new T-Mobile Arena?

MGM executives have gone to see it. It could easily get I think a two-week booking here. It’s too big for Mandalay Bay, so it would either be MGM Grand or the new arena because it takes up the entire space.

Your founder, Guy Laliberte, sold Cirque last year, so a new corporation owns the company. Is Guy still involved?

Yes. We have other owners running the business piece of it, but they very wisely kept him on the creative end, which is really what he loved anyway. He’s been around for all of it, which is great to have.

When you’re on a new show, you see him a lot. People on the new shows will see him more, or when we’re refreshing a show, he’s around more for his creative input. For the “One Drop” shows, though, he says he never wants to see it until it opens. That can be a little gut-wrenching.

Have the new owners given their blessing for the “One Night for One Drop” shows to continue here?

They completely support it, all of the One Drop initiatives, in fact. They came and saw the show last year and are very supportive of it.

Cirque du Soleil’s “One Night for One Drop: Quest for Water” is at the Smith Center on March 18.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years 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 Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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