You might think the Puget Sound region doesn’t need any more rain. But when Cirque du Soleil rolls into Marymoor Park next week, it will bring a new big top experience: rain on stage.
The Canadian company’s latest show, “Luzia,” combines Mexican myth and aesthetics with actual water cascading down onto trapeze artists and jugglers in a show that took months of training and design. It also brings hometown performer and acrobat Kelly McDonald.
“I love it, I absolutely love it,” said McDonald, recently in Seattle for press interviews. A Seattle native who trained in gymnastics before moving into circus, she auditioned for Cirque du Soleil two years ago. “To be able to premiere a show that you were involved in the creation of is just amazing. … And it’s great to come back home and show something that I’m proud of.”
If you know anything about circus, you’ll know just how proud McDonald and the rest of the Cirque cast and crew should be about the one feature that truly sets “Luzia” apart: the rain. In several of the acts — including a trapeze duo with Cyr wheel, which McDonald understudies — 1,500 gallons of water shower down onto the stage, draining into an enormous reservoir underneath. The aerial straps act also dips the performer into that pool. Not only does the water need to be filtered, sterilized, heated to a comfortable 82 degrees and recycled for each performance, it’s a big challenge for the performers — as anyone who has tried to grasp a metal object with wet hands will know.
“It’s like, (on trapeze) you don’t even want sweaty hands, why are you raining on me?” said McDonald with a laugh. “But it’s learning what you can do under the rain, so you’re learning more wraps, or doing swings (where) you can hook more of your body onto the apparatus.”
McDonald’s dance trapeze — a static trapeze that spins on ropes that meet at the top — was designed specifically to cope with large amounts of water, incorporating wood for better absorption. The Cyr wheel — a person-sized metal hoop that spins and rolls on the floor with an acrobat inside — is covered with bicycle inner tubes to stop it from slipping. Shoes have extra-traction soles; costumes have to be dried between shows.
But it’s worth it.
Cirque du Soleil is always an extravagant spectacle, but this time the fantastical world is linked to the real one: the colors, sounds and stories of Mexico. High above the stage is a 23-foot glowing, rotating disk, a symbol of the sun, moon and Aztec calendar. A huge curtain, some 36 by 90 feet, is made of punched-out papel picado in traditional Mexican cut-paper designs. Near the beginning of the circus, a running woman ‘transforms’ into a monarch butterfly with 20-foot silk wings; another woman’s white dress suddenly opens out into 98 blood-red flowers, each individually motor-powered. Large animal puppets bring the jungle onstage: a man with a crocodile head, a woman in an iguana shawl. Clowns pose as scuba divers, hoop divers are dressed as hummingbirds, the color palette goes from hot pink to marigold yellow to cobalt, and the music includes cumbia and norteño.
In the center of all this is McDonald’s Adagio act, which the Seattle artist co-created with the Cirque team — a rare opportunity in this mega-machine of the world’s most famous circus company. Having impressed an audition panel in 2015 with a sensuous acrobalance duo she created with acrobat Grzegorz Ros, the pair were asked to join “Luzia” and expand the act with two more male acrobats. The result, after seven months of preparation, is a slow, intense scene at a 1930s cabaret bar where McDonald, in pink corset, is delicately flung and balanced through the air by three linen-suited hotel porters. The quartet is often moving on one of the two giant treadmills that give the show’s tumbling extra speed.
It’s an act that requires a great deal of trust, said McDonald, which begins with the performers getting to know each other’s personalities and abilities, and then takes a whole lot of experimentation.
“Once you get to know each other you pretty much start playing,” said McDonald. “You come up with ideas, practice basic skills first and build up from that. It comes from the imagination, not just a book of skills. We want to make something that people haven’t seen before. You’ll start holding hands, then swinging, then somebody will say, ‘What if we let go of this arm? What if we throw the upper body this way?’ and working with coaches and spotting belts we see which way we can fly, really. Not everything works, and that’s why the process takes so long.”
You also fall, McDonald said, which is why you train with a ceiling harness, spotters and lots of mats. And then you put it on the stage and adjust it to fit the scenery and space.
“It’s a fun process — I continue to learn new things while we create too,” she said. But by the time the act goes on stage, there’s no falling. “Those are skills we’ve done hundreds of times, and we know how to make the little adjustments to make it a catch every time.”
Other acts include a group pole routine (also featuring McDonald), a male contortionist, a swing that goes 360 degrees in the air with acrobats in lucha libre costumes, hand-balancing, jugglers at a soccer match and a double Russian swing act.
Since its premiere in Montreal last April, “Luzia” has been wowing crowds in San Francisco, San Jose, California, and Toronto. It recently extended the Seattle run by three weeks due to high ticket sales, and reviews have been stellar. The Montreal Gazette applauded both the “high-octane tricks” and the “spectacular and cohesive theatrical experience.”
And McDonald’s Adagio is at the emotional center.
“We’ve created a big environment in which this very tender but very emotional quartet takes place,” said artistic director Mark Shaub. “It’s one of the acts that have more of a story to it, because whenever there’s people working with their hands manipulating someone, it does kind of evoke a relationship.”
“And there’s no rain in it.”
Cirque du Soleil Luzia
When: March 31-May 21.
Where: Marymoor Park, 6046 West Lake Sammamish Parkway NE, Redmond.
Tickets: $25-$180, VIP $280-$290.
Parking: $5 cash.
Kelly McDonald’s original act that won her a place in Cirque du Soleil: bit.ly/2nQ6Md0.
The “Luzia” Adagio: bit.ly/2mNKfM4.
The official Cirque du Soleil preview: bit.ly/2mqvtiW.
By the numbers
73 (20 performers): Company in 1984.
4,000 (1,300 performers): Company in 2017.
18: Shows toured in 2016.
17: Acts in “Luzia.”
1,112: Costume elements.
140: Pairs of shoes.
65: Transport trucks.
8: Days of Big Top set-up.
174: Overhead “rain” nozzles.