When Cirque du Soleil launched sea-based productions, its gravity-defying acts had to adapt to a moving stage, particularly in rough weather. Frances Marcellin finds out how the team crafted ship-specific shows
In the early 1980s, a troupe of performers inspired by circus artistry performed for the first time on the shores of the Saint Lawrence River near Quebec City. The show was received with excitement and jubilation by local crowds and Cirque du Soleil was born.
In 1998, the company created its first water-based spectacular: O in Las Vegas. Now, two decades later, its artists are performing at sea for the first time – in the Mediterranean to be precise – on one of the most advanced cruise ships in the world, the MSC Meraviglia.
Cruise ships have sometimes had a questionable reputation for theatrical prowess, but that is changing. As demand for cruise holidays increases – from about 18 million global passengers in 2009 to 26 million in 2017, across all demographics, from millennials to families and retirees – the level of accommodation, technology, facilities and entertainment is scaling new heights.
As cruise ships evolve into holiday destinations in their own right, some are becoming theatrical hotspots too. These days, passengers can watch RADA-trained actors performing Shakespeare on the Queen Mary 2 or watch Magic to Do on Princess Cruises – a musical from Oscar and Tony-winning Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. They can also catch a West End-standard performance of Mamma Mia! on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas.
Cirque du Soleil is presenting two new shows, Sonor and Viaggio, at sea for the first time. The former features beatboxing and takes the audience on an auditory adventure with dancers and acrobats. Viaggio creates the vivid world of a painter’s imagination as he encounters his muse. Exuberant and moving, it is full of colour, surrealism, aerial wizardry and compelling performances.
But making a world-class Cirque du Soleil at Sea show required adaptation during the creative process to work on a smaller, more intimate stage – and ensuring that even in the roughest waters, the show could go on.
Cirque du Soleil artists in Mystere at the Treasure Island theatre in Las Vegas perform on a stage 121ft by 70ft with 1,541 seats; its technical grid is at a height of 80ft. By contrast, the circular stage at the Meraviglia’s Carousel Lounge, which was specially designed for the Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows by architect Marco de Jorio, has a diameter of 26ft with a 16ft height clearance and 413 seats.
The traditional set-up of the backstage area had to be adapted to work with the scope of the performances and the cruise ship layout, and was one of the largest differences for the cast and crew. “To maximise the space available on board and create the 360-degree stage, we needed to design a unique backstage solution,” explains Gennaro Parlato, MSC Cruises’ show and multimedia technologies manager. “Unlike any other theatre, the backstage preparation area for performers is located on upper decks, accessed by a unique lift system.”
It took the team three years of development to understand the parameters at sea properly: the size of the theatre itself and the way the aerial wires work. It was a challenge to use the space differently.
Rather than feeling limited by the venue, Susan Gaudreau, the show director of Cirque du Soleil at Sea, embraced the intimacy. “In a larger theatre you don’t have that intimate connection with the audience, so as a director it was a gift,” she enthuses. “We’re pushing the boundaries of how you look at and experience an acrobatic performance.”
Gaudreau, a dancer and choreographer, has worked on three cruise ships as a performing artist. This experience helped her plan a show that worked with a moving stage: both the mechanical movement of the carousel and the ship’s movement on the water.
“Mostly I wanted to have acts that wouldn’t be hindered if there was a large movement on the sea, so that was one consideration when I was designing the storylines,” she explains. “I wanted acts that would be consistent with a moving platform.”