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Cirque du Soleil returns to circus roots with Kooza

Kooza, the Cirque du Soleil show coming to Singapore, is a stripped-down show focusing on old-school traditions of the circus

Cirque du Soleil's touring production of Kooza is a throwback to a more traditional circus show, with a focus on old-school clowning and death-defying acrobatics.

In Kooza, the clowns pull audience members on stage and take the mickey out of them and also play tricks on each other.

Often known for the technical virtuosity and dazzling pyrotechnics, Cirque du Soleil is eschewing special effects in Kooza in favour of a more stripped-down, no-frills show that concentrates on the performers.

The show is about the journey of the Innocent, a naive and childlike character who unknowingly enters a fantastical world ruled by the Trickster, a genie-like being dressed in a striped suit.

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In this world, there are clowns, as well as contortionists, tightrope walkers and two daredevils running and jumping on the Wheel of Death, a 725kg rotating contraption that looks like two giant hamster wheels connected by an axle.

Dean Harvey, the show's American artistic director, spoke to The Straits Times in Perth, where Kooza was showing before it comes to Singapore on July 12.

The 53-year-old says: "There is plenty of humour involved in this production and it's not just about being silly but showcasing the true art of clowning."

  • Fun stats

  • 1 More than 180 million people have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since the circus was founded in 1984.

    2 Cirque du Soleil will present 18 different shows this year - nine are touring and nine stay put in cities such as Las Vegas.

    3 All shows take place in a special mobile village that takes nine days to set up. The highlight is the Big Top, a yellow-and-blue canvas tent where the show takes place. It is 17m high with a diameter of 50m, and comprises 18 pieces of flame-retardant vinyl canvas.

    4 The rest of the village includes a gym, dressing rooms, a physiotherapy room, the kitchen and offices housed in steel containers.

    5 Kooza is the fifth Cirque du Soleil show to come to Singapore. The previous four were Saltimbanco (2000), Alegria (2002), Quidam (2005) and Totem (2015).

    6 Kooza is the 21st show in the Cirque du Soleil canon.

    7 Approximately 190 people travel with the tour. They include more than 120 members of the cast and crew, as well as their spouses and children.

    8 There are more than 175 costumes and 160 hats in the show and close to 1,200 items in all, including shoes and wigs, in the show.

    9 About 300 measurements of each performer are taken at costume fittings.

    10 At 11.8m, the Kooza stage is the highest one designed by Cirque du Soleil. It is a three-storey castle-like tower called the Bataclan.

  • BOOK IT / CIRQUE DU SOLEIL - KOOZA

  • WHERE: Bayfront Avenue beside Marina Bay Sands

    WHEN: July 12 to Aug 20, Tuesday to Sunday, various timings

    ADMISSION: $88 to $318 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza

Playing one of the clowns is American actor Michael Jay Garner, 43. He says: "Clowns connect with the audience in a way some of the other acts can't and in Kooza, it's a testament to all the grand traditions of the circus."

To him, traditional clowning is not just about being funny but "translating universal emotions through facial expressions and body (language)".

In line with its emphasis on a more down-to-earth performance tradition, Kooza is also light on special effects, artistic director Harvey says.

He adds: "We rely heavily on the artistes themselves and the artistry behind their acts."

Kooza will run in Singapore till Aug 20 at the signature yellow- and-blue Big Top tent on Bayfront Avenue, next to Marina Bay Sands. Tickets start at $88.

Since its premiere in 2007, the show has been seen by more than 7.5 million people in more than 56 cities in 18 countries. The show will be the fifth Cirque du Soleil production in Singapore.

Unlike other Cirque du Soleil shows, the stage is kept simple with a single major set, a travelling three-storey tower called the Bataclan.

The production has 50 performers of various nationalities and backgrounds. Some were elite athletes before joining the company while others come from circus families.

Take, for example, Spaniard Roberto Quiros, 47, who along with his elder brother Vicente, are sixth-generation circus performers. Together with two other daredevils, they are part of the stomach- churning double high wire act in the show, where they skitter and ride bicycles across the wires that are 4.5m and 9.7m above ground.

"I grew up in the circus so it's the only thing I know," says Roberto. He started training on a low wire at the age of seven and only plans to stop when his body tells him "that's it".

The head coach at Kooza, Canadian Allister Booth, 43, says the high-wire men are among the most seasoned performers, but they remain the hardest workers.

"They train a minimum of three times a week on stage and practise on the low wire every day. It's such a precision-based act that they need to be 100 per cent confident," he says.

Booth oversees all of the acrobatic performances, but adds that for the most part, the performers are in charge of their own workout and practice regime.

"They are elite professionals at the top of their field," he says.

It is no wonder then that Colombian Jimmy Ibarra likens walking on one of the wheels on the gravity- defying Wheel of Death to walking on the street.

The 36-year-old, who is surprisingly laidback considering his dangerous career, chuckles and adds, "when I train, I try to feel the same way when I walk on the street as on the wheel".

 

He and another performer balance walking, running and even taking great leaps while the wheels continue to rotate at speeds of up to 40kmh.

"It's a dangerous act, but what we try to show the audience is that we know what we are doing."

He knew that the Wheel of Death was the circus act for him after setting eyes on it at the age of seven.

He later stepped on the wheel at the age of 14, trained hard and subsequently joined Cirque du Soleil in 2007.

Other performers such as Laura Kmetko, 33, were sportsmen before switching to the circus line.

The petite Australian, who is part of the Charivari and Teeterboard acts where she is flung into the air and executes somersaults, was a gymnast competing nationally before she joined Kooza in 2013.

"It's a dream job. I am doing something that I am trained in while learning new skills," she says.

In the meantime, non-acrobatic performers, such as the clowning Garner, have also perfected their craft through steady practice.

He says: "What we do can look easy as we are not doing anything dangerous. But clowning skills take as many years (to cultivate) as learning to do flips in the air."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2017, with the headline 'Send in the clowns'. Print Edition | Subscribe