Behind the Scenes of Cirque du Soleil With Artistic Director Rachel Lancaster

We talk to "Kurios—Cabinet of Curiosities" artistic director Rachel Lancaster ahead of the show's Sydney season.

Kirsty Sier: You’ve worked on a number of shows with Cirque du Soleil during your 11 years with the company. How does "Kurios—Cabinet of Curiosities" compare with what you’ve seen before?
Rachel Lancaster: "Kurios" combines the high-level acrobatic and artistic aesthetic that you would expect with Cirque du Soleil but what is really amazing about this show — and about every Cirque show because it’s part of the ethos of the creators — is it has so many completely unique qualities. The style of it, the aesthetics; we have acts that uniquely individualise our shows so it creates a really special and really magical personality.

KS: Cirque’s productions are of behemoth scale, but require minute attention to detail. How long did it take to put together a show like this?
RL: Most shows are in creation for around two to two-and-a-half years. Just for an example of the level of detail in our shows, we have a thousand individual costume items and over 500 props.

KS: Not just about human strength and ability, "Kurios" is a show steeped in a world of fantasy and imagination. Where did the idea come from?
RL: The Cirque creator, Michel Laprise, set all of the team in creation a challenge, which is also the sort of tagline that goes with the show: "anything is possible". He really wanted the team to look at how they could think about or approach persuasions in a new way and they set a great example of that in our new show. For example, Cirque has a huge amount of technical capacity at its fingertips but there are a lot of solutions in "Kurios" that were actually very theatrical in how they’ve been solved. There are a lot of things that are, say, moved by bicycles or human power rather than relying on the power of automated technical wizardry. 

KS: Obviously, the physicality of these shows are a big drawcard for Cirque du Soleil audiences. What are the more impressive feats audiences will see in "Kurios"?
RL: We have a unique act that can be seen in "Kurios" — our acro net act, which is a giant trampoline that relies on the power of all seven artists in the team pushing it to get elevation. During the act there are performers who spend more time in the air than in the other Cirque Du Soleil shows and experiencing that within a big top, where you sit very close to the stage, is an incredible moment. You can literally feel the air time with those artists, so it takes your breath away. It’s really good fun; it’s amazing, playful, cheeky acrobatics and performed with so much heart.

KS: Part of your job as artistic director is to take care of performers and make sure they are able to perform their best each night—a big task considering the production has already been running for three years. What is involved in keeping performers fit and engaged?
RL: The motivational aspect behind my job is a huge part of it. We’re really lucky to work with a lot of elite athletes and circus performers of many different genres and I think what keeps them interested—as well as me—is that we’re always pushing for how we can refine or what we can do better. So something that may have been a double is now a triple or a quadruple, or they’re always looking for how they can improve personally. And then, from my aspect, I’m always looking for how we can tell a story better or artistically how can we problem solve so something is more seamless. Our whole team on tour, down to the people who take care of the tent, the front of house, they all do incredible things.

KS: How much is routine a part of the daily life of these performers, who for all intents and purposes live their jobs while on the road?
RL: Routine plays a big part of it—particularly if you work in any physical discipline, it’s essential. We have quite a big support network, with two full-time physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, pilates coaches and massage therapists. We’re all there, ready to support the performers, because the performers have to be in the best possible physical and mental state to really approach what they’re doing. Within that as well, lots of people will have their families on tour. A lot of people have children and partners, so there are things like home-schooling as well as their own physical training to fit into their day-to-day. It’s not an easy life to choose, because we do nine-to-10 performances a week, which takes up a lot of people’s time and attention. The patterns people develop both around preparations for the show and recovery post-show are really important, but it's also imporant to have that structure with their families or friends with them. It really helps to feel more like they have a normal life. We’re on tour for 365 days a year, it’s not, say, ten weeks, and then you’re at home for a few months, so I think that for all employees on tour its one of the really key things that keeps people at a high level, while being able to stay themselves and support the show. 

KS: Many of the costumes—such as the belly of Mr Microcosmos, which contains its own ventilation and lighting systems—are both aesthetically and technically complicated. What is involved in maintaining costumes such as this?
RL: We have multiple crossover teams in the show because so many of our costumes, like the Mr. Microcosmos one, cross over to the land of wardrobe and prop and electrical maintenance. We have one of our wardrobe employees responsible for all of those huge props and she will collaborate closely with other people in the technical teams to make sure all the elements are working and functional. Because the costumes are always unique, the maintenance is particularly challenging.  

KS: Cirque du Soleil transports its team and set from location to location on the road, sometimes as far as the distance between Sydney and Brisbane—not your ordinary road trip. How does such an active troupe of performers fare on the road?
RL: All of our set goes by road, all of our humans go by aeroplane. We have approximately eight containers of stuff that travels with us so pretty much everything you see in the big top, from the floor to the chairs, is packed into containers and transferred by road and rail. During the transfer is when the artistic team get a little breather with a few days off.  

KS: Why should people go and see "Kurios"?
RL: I think "Kurios" is really magical. It really captures the essential spirit of Cirque du Soleil; it takes you on a journey and can really make you forget your-day-to-day life. The ethos behind the show, that "anything is possible", is the main story of the show as well. The scientist character, The Seeker, is looking for a similar but alternate universe where everything he’s trying to make happen can happen. At the end of the show, his takeaway is that he can make those things happen on Earth, he doesn’t have to travel anywhere. It’s a very simple message, but it’s really delightful. 

Catch "Kurios" at The Entertainment Quarter until 29 December 2019. Book tickets at cirquedusoleil.com/kurios

Kirsty Sier
About the author

Editor of Where Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast)