CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Show Review and Interview
By Marla Santos
Photography By Jeremy Daniel, Richard Termine
WELCOME TO ZARKANA—Where the ground rains up and love falls from the sky
Much has been written about Zarkana, the newest resident Cirque show at Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter in Las Vegas. I read many of the media reviews before seeing the show, but I would suggest that you not do the same. Just go and see Zarkana and enjoy the show. The Aria Resort Theatre itself, is simply magnificent. As you can always expect with each Cirque show – the best in quality sound and lighting is utilzed on an enormous stage that is surrounded by its plush interior. The front rows of the orchestra section have seats that look like couches, in which four seats fold down per section, and are extremely comfortable and roomy. There is a ledge in front of you that is a handy spot for purses and drinks, yet there is still ample room for the clowns, dressed all in white, to mingle with the crowd, as they do in each Cirque show. Soon the lights dim, and the transformation that only Cirque du Soleil can produce, begins.
The storyline involves a tortured magician named Zark, who has lost the love of his life, and his magic. He returns to the abandoned theatre where he was once the star, and is greeted by a world of strange creatures and stunning acrobatics. Zark embarks on a quest to regain his lost love and redeem his lost powers. Zarkana is a fusion of the words “bizarre” and “arcane,” meaning a fantastic secret journey into the bizarre. It suggests an irresistibly odd and delightfully strange aura of this place and its inhabitants, with surreal sights, echoing sounds, and of course, there’s always the clowns.
Cirque du Soleil storylines can be confusing at times, with some shows clearer than others. Zarkana’s storyline tends to be confusing and I think I would have appreciated the show even more without trying to follow the story. With so much activity taking place on the stage, you can easily miss something within the storyline, simply because your eyes are on another part of the stage.
Vira Syvorotkina – “Sand Painter”
A hush came over the audience as Vira, a Russian sand painter, performed her awe-inspiring art. Using just sand and a light table, her hands move the sand to tell a story through drawn images in the sand. This was a new addition that is unique to Zarkana. The art of sand storytelling was a favorite of the 1920’s Chautauqua circuit and was sometimes used for teaching religious parables. In Zarkana, she chronicles Zark’s progress, and the rare art form is seen on an overhead video screen. STRIPLV spoke to the artist Vira Syvorotkina through Kristina, an interpreter and Cirque performer.
Vira is a very artistic person with two university degrees in the arts. She also does body painting, as well as costume design. She and her husband were refurbishing their house and she was 9 months pregnant when her husband brought her a glass and sand. She had seen a girl on YouTube do something similar, so she decided to try it. Four years ago, when her baby was born, it was also the birth of her interest in the art form, and she bought a professional light table immediately.
STRIPLV: Did you know about Cirque du Soleil?
VIRA: I definitely knew Cirque. A lot of people know Cirque, and it’s the dream of an artist and the highest plane an artist can go to.
STRIPLV: Were you able to make money in the sand art, before Cirque?
VIRA: When I was doing the sand art in the Ukraine, I was getting paid a lot, but when I got the proposition from Cirque, I didn’t think about the money. It was just a special opportunity.
Cirque moved Vira’s whole family, which now consists of her husband and two children, helping with the visas and with other problems when they first moved. Cirque puts their performers in housing for a couple of weeks and then it’s up to each performer to find their own housing.
STRIPLV: Your defined artistic talent is very different than the other performers that utilize large motor skills. Are you treated any differently?
VIRA: I’m treated very warmly here and feel like I’m part of a family. I do also hang from a harness and jump out of a box. I’m very happy.
KRISTINA BESSCHETNAYA – “Ragdoll”
Continuing to speak with interpreter Kristina Besschetnaya about her association with Cirque, I found that she and her whole family were involved. Kristina serves as a translator, because she is fluent in both Russian and English, and there are so many Russian performers in the show. She was the interpreter for Vira, who speaks fluent Russian and has yet to learn English. Kristina is also in Zarkana as the character “Ragdoll,” one of the white costumed performers. Her father and her husband are both a part of the “Banquine”.
The 15-person Banquine team involves human pyramids where they serve as one another’s net. Those on the ground support those in the air, with the flier vaulting up to the top of a three-man human pyramid. Kristina’s mother is part of Cirque’s management team, handling merchandising, supervising, coordinating, acting as guardian for minors on tour, accounting, and now a production person.
STRIPLV: How did you become involved with Cirque du Soleil?
KRISTINA: I joined Cirque as a family member when I was six. My dad got offered a job in Quidam, a touring Cirque show. My mom and I joined him and I did all my schooling on tour. My dad was training me, and when I was 16, I got a chance to audition and I became part of Quidam, also doing aerial hoop. As the show was transitioned into arenas... you are in a city for a week at a time and you basically have no life because it’s training, shows, shows, move, training, shows, shows and move. My dad’s act got a proposition to move to Zarkana, and they had a position for me, too.
STRIPLV: Where is your dad, and also your husband in the pyramid?
KRISTINA: My dad is in the middle and he throws people in the air. He’s very strong.
STRIPLV: When you were a little girl, was your dad gone a lot, practicing?
KRISTINA: He went to a physical education university where people trained for the Olympics. He’d start training at eight in the morning and go until Midnight.
STRIPLV: What does your husband do?
KRISTINA: He’s thrown in the air, a flier, as part of Banquine. I used to get nervous, and I watch every night still, in case he should fall. But they’re so good now that I can relax a little.
The staging was a feast for the senses – very grand and over-the-top. This is expected for a Cirque show, but the digital technology in Zarkana is imaginative and absolutely amazing. The set has three hand-sculpted arches, a design by Stéphane Roy that evokes a grand theater slowly being reclaimed by a ravaging jungle. Each arch represents three of the four mutant sirens (all performed by chanteuse Cassiopée), and all try to seduce Zark and divert him from his quest. The first and largest arch represents Kundalini, a snake woman whose world is populated by dozens of slithering snakes. The arch is decorated with 150 feet of hand-painted resin snakes that slither in the trees and open their mouths. In her final scene, Kundalini is waist deep in a mound of coiling snakes. This got my attention right away, as snakes are very high on my “fear” list. The second arch represents Mandragora, a plant creature whose vines have overtaken the abandoned theater. The third arch was decorated with technological gears and pulleys and represents the third woman and the Mad Scientist whose experiments unintentionally pickled her. Thus she’s called the Pickled Lady. The fourth mutant is Tarantula. Dressed to represent a black widow spider, she descends from ropes that imitate a spider’s webs, while the acrobats use the web for their incredible feats.
There are elaborate digital video projections that accompany most of the acts – from feathers and roses to spinning planets and glaring eyeballs. Members of the cast, wearing tattered white outfits, move around the stage to fill up the space. As I mentioned, there is a tremendous amount of activity going on.
Zarkana has been described a “Rock Opera,” the most rock music oriented show of Cirque du Soleil, with the music much louder than the other shows. A rock opera is a work of rock music that presents a dramatic story told with multiple songs in the traditional manner of opera. “Tommy”, created by Pete Townshend and The Who was probably the first and best-known rock opera. Depending on your propensity for music, there have been many famous rock operas like “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, “The Wall” by Pink Floyd, or Queen’s “A Night At The Opera”. Elton John was the first choice to score the music, but due to his busy schedule, he referred them to his protégé, Australian musician Nick Littlemore, who composed the Zarkana soundtrack. Littlemore’s credits include the Australian pop-rock band Empire of the Sun and the electronica duo Pnau, who remixed Elton John’s songs for the album “Good Morning to the Night.” Pnau is a dance music duo consisting of musicians Nick Littlemore (vocal, production) and Peter Mayes (guitar, production). When Elton John heard their Pnau record, he was blown-away and immediately signed them to his management company Rocket Music. Pnau is pronounced “pah-now”, to sound like a gunshot. It’s a different sound, not like anything you’ve heard in other Cirque shows. Littlemore says: “I can’t explain the enormity of having Elton John come into my life. I feel like Handel’s scribe.” The songs are sung in Cirquespeak, a made-up language that combines Italian, Russian, Spanish, French and more. The music and songs are a constant backdrop for the featured acrobats, who perform amazing feats of circus-style acts.
Yes, much has been written about Zarkana, and there have been many opinions both pro and con, but did I really care that I couldn’t always follow the storyline? Did it matter, that when a mutant baby trapped inside a glass-enclosed water compartment was singing “Welcome to my funeral,” that I was completely lost? No, not really. I believe most people don’t go to see a Cirque show for the story. They go, because it’s about the gravity-defying and artfully executed acrobatics, that you can’t see anywhere else. People go to Cirque for that jaw-dropping experience that you can only witness in a Cirque show – the one-of-a-kind talents – such as the ladder trio that performs balancing maneuvers on ladders as you hold your breath in fear, the triple trapeze involving twelve acrobats, the hand balancing solo talent of poetry and grace, and of course, the Banquine, one of the most astounding performances of all. The Banquine is a team of acrobatic artists, in which men stand on the shoulders of other men, like pillared towers reaching up to the sky, only to place other men and women as a third pillar on top, along with perfectly synchronized throwing of their teammates into the air above the tower, as the flier gracefully leaps like a gazelle across the top of it all. Outstanding! Featuring the talents of 71 international artists, Zarkana transforms the grandest stage on earth into a place of true wonder as only Cirque du Soleil could imagine.