HONG KONG—Crowds cheered at the Asiaworld Arena, with young and old members of the audience clapping and audibly gasping at the high-flying trapeze acts of Cirque du Soleil’s colorful “Saltimbanco.”
Just hours before the performance, members of the Philippine media were able to glimpse the acrobats rehearsing the more difficult stunts, get the lowdown on casting choices and witness the meticulous makeup process.
“‘Saltimbanco’ is about evolution and bringing people together,” explained Cirque publicist Maxime Charbonneau at the Hong Kong venue. “The storyline behind the show is the creation of this metropolis that is Saltimbanco through the evolution of these different individuals. When the show starts, every single character—we call them the Multicolored Worms, they have costumes that are very similar but at the same time a little different—they evolve into the Masked Worms; they start to have their own individuality and character.”
“Saltimbanco,” from the French saltimbanque or “street performer,” features 51 acrobats from 21 countries.
“On the second part of the show, you discover the baroque characters that are all unique,” Charbonneau said. “They have their own costumes and headpieces. They’re amazing. Some of them are more childish, sexier, more provocative, more dandy. They all have their own personalities and they kind of form that world that is ‘Saltimbanco.’”
Created in 1992, “Saltimbanco” was inspired by people moving from the countryside to the city, he added. “The formation of the megacities was kind of the idea behind this production.”
The Manila performances are ongoing until August 19 at the SM Mall of Asia Arena. Charbonneau described it as Cirque du Soleil’s smallest touring show, remaining “simple, but in a good way.”
“Over the past five years, ‘Saltimbanco’ has visited 35 to 40 cities a year,” he said. “We’re looking at almost 200 cities. It’s the only Cirque du Soleil show that’s been in over five continents. It’s been to Morocco, South Africa, the Middle East. Bringing shows to arenas has been a very good decision for the company. There are great territories that we’ve never been to before.”
With its assortment of gymnastic stunts and comedic acts, the show follows a variety of odd-looking characters, some of whom speak gibberish. But Charbonneau reiterated that it was much lighter than many Cirque du Soleil productions.
“I’ll be very honest with you. Don’t try to follow the story too much! You’re here to see great acrobatic acts. There are funny characters as well. There’s no big apparatus or technology involved in the show,” he said.
Many of the acrobats are in their 20s. Cirque du Soleil’s casting department works full-time, recruiting talents all over the world. Potential performers are discovered at events like swimming, diving, cheerleading and dancing competitions.
“When we recruit artists, we bring them to Montreal,” Charbonneau revealed. “We’ll give them a general training. We may already have a specific role waiting for them. Or we’ll send them back and say, ‘We’ll call you back when we have something for you.’”
Artistic director Neelanthi Vadivel said her role was to maintain the artistic integrity of the production, as well as to maintain the original concept in place. She has to make sure, however, that the show evolves, and that the artists have new challenges.
“The original structure, the heart of the show, the inspiration—my job is to really be the guardian of that,” Vadivel said. “We make sure that it’s never compromised. Over 20 years, a lot has changed; technology changed, the technical skill of the artist themselves changed. This is a show that’s very organic and has grown and evolved through the years. My role as artistic director is pushing those buttons.”
Meeting of cultures
“Saltimbanco” easily embodies Cirque’s values, according to Vadivel. “Cirque is a very multicultural company. ‘Saltimbanco’ was created in that spirit, and the concept is that the meeting of peoples and cultures. It’s really about urbanization…it’s about peoples working and living together. It enables a lot of communication and energy!”
She said the original composer left a lot of room for improvisation, so musicians added their personal touch to the score. “The composer left it very flexible and malleable,” she said, adding that the result is “a good mishmash of rock-and-roll, world music and opera.”
Like the other artists, the band is also in full makeup and clad in outlandish costumes. One of the musicians is guitarist and keyboardist Adrian Andres, spotted backstage preparing for the show. He showed off a tattoo on his forearm that read: “Kapayapaan ng Isip.” Andres’ mother is from Pangasinan, while his father is from Batangas.
“I was born in Toronto, and when I turned 17, I moved to Los Angeles,” Andres said. “I’ve been there for, like, 20 years. Cirque was looking for musicians, and I just auditioned. Soon after I auditioned, they called. The amazing thing about this job is it’s very consistent. You know where you’re going to be. The places that this has been, it’s amazing. We go to Australia, to Russia, the Philippines… It’s amazing!”
The “Saltimbanco” designs remain unaltered after two decades, but their components have undergone changes.
“The designs themselves stay the same,” head of wardrobe Tanya Jacobs said. “One of the things that Cirque du Soleil does is, when they design the show, they keep the costumes true to the original designs. It’s important to do that because it keeps the show together. Everything has its purpose.
“What has changed is the quality of fabrics. We’ve evolved; we got better fabrics to do the same thing. Some fabrics that aren’t being made anymore, we had to find substitutes and we had to handpaint them.”
Jacobs added that the use of bright and vivid colors was unique to this Cirque du Soleil presentation: “It’s an explosion of colors! When you watch the show, there’s always somebody that you relate to, whether it’s part of the costume or what they’re doing onstage. There’s something to draw you in, that you’re going to like.”
Call 3201111, visit cirquedusoleil/saltimbanco or hoopla.com.ph.