Cirque's 'Varekai' gets new wings for arena tour

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The Broadway musical "Pippin," whose national tour swings into Pittsburgh in January, was rebooted with a 21st-century circus aesthetic inspired by Cirque du Soleil and featuring acrobats from the international troupe.

Paving the way were Cirque experiences such as "Varekai," seen here in 2006 as a tent show and reworked for venues such as the Petersen Events Center in Oakland, where it lands today.

With an award-winning hit taking on Cirque's trademark story-circus attributes, the question was put to Fabrice Lemire, the artistic director of "Varekai": Which comes first for a Cirque du Soleil show -- the story, the acts or the music?

Cirque du Soleil: 'Varekai'

In "Varekai," the main character, Icarus, appears to fall from the sky using a net. That takes a certain type of solo talent, so that's how the role is cast. Qualities of the performers influence the character. (Video by Michael Henninger; 3/27/2014)

As in the case of "Pippin" and in other productions that have incorporated the troupe's talents, the creative team is gathered and a theme emerges.

"Cirque has a huge impact on this discipline, and now everyone is taking notice," the ballet-trained Mr. Lemire said. "The format of a nontraditional circus, with a storyline ... people have come to me and said, 'Oh, this is so unique, they put this in a [Broadway] show.' And I think, 'It might be new to you, but I am certain somewhere in the world somebody has used these elements.' Everything is laid out on a big table, and you assemble the puzzle the way you want, with your vision. What we have right now is that 'Pippin' is such a successful and beautifully done work, they are thinking it's unique. It's not."

He recalled seeing a Paris opera in the late 1980s that had a huge carousel-like structure in the center. As musicians entered, the gazebo was lifted to the top of the arena and the musicians had to climb up ropes and trapezes to reach their spots.

"I had never seen anything like this before," he said. "They played both acts on the ceiling of this arena. If it happened somewhere else today, they might think it was brand new. This beauty of the arts, I always feel that's what makes [a Cirque show] unique, and then you also allow yourself to be influenced by the performers."

'Cirque du Soleil: Varekai'

Where: Petersen Events Center, Pitt campus, Oakland.

When: 7:30 p.m. today-Friday; 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $40-$170; 1-800-745-3000 or; more at

In "Varekai," he explained, the main character, Icarus, appears to fall from the sky using a net. That takes a certain type of solo talent, so that's how the role is cast. The qualities of individual performers then influence the character.

Mr. Lemire sees his role as helping that artist find his inner Icarus. "I would say, 'Here is your intention, here is your role. How do you get to this the way you want that fits the concept? And I will assist you to get there.' "

Icarus resembles the mythological character only in that his wings give out. We follow his journey as he becomes grounded in a forest teeming with wonders. "Varekai" -- a word said to mean "wherever" in the Romani language -- debuted in 2002 and is billed as an "acrobatic tribute to the nomadic soul." Mr. Lemire describes the story as one of Icarus' adaptability. He falls into this strange land and is shocked at first, then propelled by curiosity and enthralled by his encounters.

Mr. Lemire said there are "massive differences" from the perspective of someone who oversees the artistry and performances, but the changes may seem subtle to an outsider.

There is a new lighting design and the spacing has been adjusted from stage to the ceiling grid for arena venues. Some changes brought in by Mr. Lemire, in consult with the show's creator, Dominic Champagne, include moving the musicians.

"Where the band was, that was way far back to my tastes, so we've moved them within the forest. It's a good way of reminding everyone that they are watching a live show with live music," said Mr. Lemire.

"In the tent, it's more intimate, you're right there," he added. "We try to give this experience back to the arena audience so it's harder work for the performers, mostly for the clowns, who feed on that dialogue. Also, you have an opportunity with the ensemble to have a larger perspective of what is happening on the stage. So this adaptation is a different look while keeping the concept as close as possible to what it was in the tent."

Mr. Lemire brings his own unique perspective to the job. Before joining Cirque in 2008, he was trained as a dancer in Paris and was awarded first prize for male dance from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris. He became a principal dancer, guest artist and choreographer in productions touring North America, Europe, North Africa and Asia.

He came to Cirque du Soleil as a dance master and an assistant artistic director for the resident production of "Zaia" in Macau, then moved to "Quidam" while the show was touring South America. He joined "Varekai" two years ago.

The son of scientists, his parents insisted he and his siblings enroll in some kind of physical activity growing up, and he gravitated to dance. The storytelling and theatrical nature of the art form sparked his creativity then, as Cirque does now.

"If this was just a circus, I wouldn't be that inspired, I wouldn't have room to express myself," he said. "The word 'theatrical' is so present in everything we do, I can really get inspired and excited by it."

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