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UP FRONT: THEATER

Balancing to a new beat

Cirque du Soleil's arena-size `Delirium' has circus acts, yes, but it's really about the music.

September 14, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

MICK JAGGER and Bono headlined the summer's top-grossing concert acts, followed closely by a character named Bill, who spends most of each performance suspended from a red balloon watching Senegalese drummers, whirling dervishes, floating chanteuses, trumpet players and men on stilts pumping out New Age melodies to a driving urban beat.

It's not exactly standard arena-rock fare, but "Delirium" has become a starless wonder bested in recent months, according to Billboard, only by the Rolling Stones, U2, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. One of 13 current Cirque du Soleil productions, "Delirium" is the company's first foray into the 10,000- to 15,000-seat arena market.

As expected, the touring show, which begins a two-week run at Staples Center on Friday, includes acrobats and aerial artists, but unlike Cirque's much smaller big-top attractions, "Delirium" gives the circus acts a supporting role while thrusting 11 musicians, 18 dancers and six singers into the spotlight.

Gilles Ste-Croix, vice president of creation for Cirque du Soleil, said, "We've always had wall-to-wall music in our shows, but usually it's just this overall landscape that helped carry the emotions. With 'Delirium' we decided to put words to the songs as a different way of presenting our music."

Cirque partnered with concert promoter Live Nation, betting that a music-driven spectacle branded with the Cirque imprimatur could draw crowds despite the absence of established marquee talent.

"People are used to having a star in front of them when they go to an arena," Ste-Croix said. "We knew we'd have to blow up the scale and do a multimedia presentation that was large enough to bring something new to the table.

"We still have circus performance, but not as much as you'd see in a Cirque show under the tent, so in that sense 'Delirium' is a new product."

Multimedia artists Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon were hired to create "Delirium" two years ago on the strength of their 20th anniversary outdoor spectacle for Cirque, "Midnight Sun," which played to 200,000 people on the streets of Montreal.

"After we did that show, [Cirque Chief Executive] Guy Laliberte told us he wanted to celebrate the music of Cirque du Soleil," Lemieux said by phone from the Montreal headquarters of his and Pilon's 4D Art production company.

"Guy said, 'Choose for yourself what is inspiring and, please, change the arrangements, add some lyrics, make songs out of it, do something different.' "

The duo combed through 20 years worth of music written for Cirque by Rene Dupere, Benoit Jutras and Violaine Corradi, picked 20 compositions and recruited Robbie Dillon ("Zumanity") to set lyrics to the melodies. For 10 months, while Quebec producer Francis Collard rearranged the material, Pilon and Lemieux sketched costume concepts, shot footage for the stage projections and designed tableaux for the performers to inhabit.

"It comes very natural for us to imagine dream worlds and images when we listen to the music," Pilon said. "That is very easy for us. The hard part is bringing them alive as close as possible to what we originally imagined."

Citing influences including Pink Floyd's "floating pigs" rock shows, art-rocker Peter Gabriel, French poet-filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, experimental animator Norman McLaren and "all the surrealists," co-directors Lemieux, trained in theater, and Pilon, a former photographer, storyboarded the entire show.

To cast their ensemble, they relied on Cirque's enormous database of audition tapes. "There's thousands of artists on video they shot themselves or that people sent to them," Lemieux said. "It's all computerized so to find a specialist who can do a certain kind of dance movement, you just push a button and there's 300 performers to choose from."

Armed with a precisely detailed DVD that outlined each sequence in the production, the directors held rehearsals for two months in an airplane hangar outside Montreal.

Most of the 44 troupe members, drawn from 20 countries, had never worked in a Cirque show and were unaccustomed to belting out ballads while floating across stage in a harness. "The artists knew we'd demand things from them that they'd never done, and that's part of the excitement," Pilon said. "They were very game."

BECAUSE the performers are relatively unknown, "diva tantrums were a non-issue," Pilon said. "We didn't really have a star, so there was no singer saying, 'I won't sing that song.' Or 'I don't want to sing after her,' or 'I don't like that costume.' We had this incredible freedom to make everything for the sake of the piece. The show itself is really the star."

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