Jill had the pleasure of interviewing the lovely Rachel Lancaster, the artistic director of Cirque du Soleil Kurois: Cabinet of Curiosities.
How long have you been with Cirque?
I joined Cirque in 2011.
How did you get to this point to be the artistic director?
I was originally a dancer based here in London. I was dance captain, then rehearsal director on tour, and then, as I was deciding to stop performing, a couple of friends of mine who already worked for Cirque put my name forwards, so I started interviewing while I was doing my master’s. They phoned me halfway through and they asked, “Can you come to Madrid for an interview next week?” and I was like “Okay!” and then a month later I was starting with Cirque.
There are so many elements that go into the show – the acrobatics, set, costumes, music. How do you keep up with all of it?
Well, I don’t do it all by myself – I have a team of stage managers, acrobatic coaches, wardrobe, and physios – that’s just the artistic team – as well as all the artists and musicians. And then there’s also quite a large technical team as well that help take care of the rigging, the sound, the carpentry, the props. One thing that’s quite unusual with Kurios is we have a lot of items that are a fall between costume and props – so they’re props but people are wearing them.
How is a new show born? What comes first, the story or the acts?
I’d say they grow simultaneously together. That’s one of the things Cirque spends a lot of investment and time in. It’s a two to two-and-a-half year process from a concept to first performance. There’s a role called director of creation, and that person hires the stage director, the costume designers, and the acrobatic designers, and it’s very much a brainstorm of those five or six people. The stage director will very much have the show concept and idea and introduce it to the other designers. But at that point they have to build the acrobatic skeleton and the story together, because if they don’t grow and evolve together, it’s very hard then to tie them back.
When you say “acrobatic skeleton“…
So that’s a bit like the acrobatic blueprint of the show. They’ll have an idea of the story, and they’ll say “Okay, so, we’re gunna open with a big group number, and then we’re gunna move to something that’s more of a duo that’s a bit more intimate, then a solo, and then, okay, time for a clown act.” So just for the rhythm and the pacing of the show, they really try and tie that back to the show concept at that point. Often it’ll end up with, like, twenty pieces of paper and they’ll keep [mimes rearranging them] juggling and go “Does that version make sense?” And then once you start to know what the technical requirements are – because obviously of our acrobatic acts have a lot of technical requirements – you might go “I wanna go from that to that,” but then it’s going to be [technically] impossible. That’s what’s quite unique with a Cirque creation. You’ve got a vision of where you want it to go, but there’s a lot of moving parts all the time. You have to find the way to marry them as seamlessly as possible.
Is it difficult to create an overall theme with all of the different acts?
I’d say there’s a lot of challenges along the way. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s not impossible either. Michelle Laprise was the conceptor for the story for Kurios (they call it the mise-en-scène . The concept and the story is very much his baby. His challenge to everyone is anything is possible. So if he was getting “no’s” he’d be like “But keep trying. Keep trying. Keep trying.” He would be really pushing prop people to solve the problem, not come back with “no” – “no” is not an acceptable answer sometimes. But when you got two-and-a-half years to create something, you can keep pushing. And it really created something incredibly unique and very beautiful.
How do you create a show that resonates with a worldwide audience?
We do use some text in the show, but I would say most of the storytelling within the show is nonverbal communication. Most of the verbals you hear are recognized languages in the show, but it jumps between French, English, or whatever nationality of where we are. There’s one section we translated into Japanese when we were in Japan. So I’d say it’s always malleable, but the main body of the storytelling is nonverbal and physical performance, so that helps. And also in this show, the majority of people are people, rather than things or animals or creatures. That makes life easier.
What do you hope the audience takes away from this show?
I think the thing that is really magical with this show is we take you on a journey through the Chercher’s eyes. (The Chercher is the main character, which is ‘to seek’ in French.) And his journey is that self-belief of anything is possible. He’s researching how to make connections, how to do something. All the way through the show he’s playing with experiments and ideas. The show opens with it not going quite to plan, but instead of him being angry, for him he’s solved one more problem, so he’s closer to finding the answer. And so right from the beginning it’s a very positive show, and it’s very much about trying to create that notion of belief that anything is possible. You keep going, you keep trying, and if it doesn’t work the first time, try it a new way; if it doesn’t work the second time, try it a different way. And that’s really magical. It’s a got quite a simple message, in a way, but it’s a very joyful and positive one. With the type of performance and extreme high-level acrobatics, it really challenges you to just let go and go with it. It really it does a great job of capturing that sort of childlike wonder of “Oh my God, I’ve never seen this before on stage.” This show captures that beautifully. So you generally end up with just a lot of very excited people by the end of the show. That’s our goal: to take people out of their lives for two hours, be absorbed in our world, and emerge at the other end feeling more positive, feeling that things are possible.
Do different countries receive the show differently?
No. I’ve been with the show through North America, Asia, and Australia before we moved to Europe, and our reactions are pretty consistent from continent to continent. That’s what I mean: it really captures that childlike curiosity and discovery. One of my favourite moments when we were in Japan, a very close friend of mine brought her grandfather. She wanted to bring her three-year-old nephew but he was sick. Her grandfather was in his nineties, and he was crying at the end of the show, and he said, “I didn’t believe things that beautiful existed.” It’s a really magical show, and that ability to just catch people is very unique. It’s very special. It meets you where you are; it doesn’t matter if you’re three years old or ninety. There is something that will hopefully engage you and just take you on that journey.
What has your experience with Cirque taught you?
I’d go back to anything is possible. Sometimes you end up in situations that you’re like, “I don’t know how I’m gunna solve this.” But the type of people that the company employs…the requirement is really just to keep the show facing forwards and evolving and moving along. It definitely comes with a certain type of a mindset, and my God it’s a solution-oriented group of people. Normally we’d be moving with our big top, and say our site guys have three days to take the big top down and put it back up again to be ready for everyone to go in there to build the show. We’re constantly changing. It’s constantly moving. Going into the Albert Hall…it’s a very different venue. There are a lot of problems to solve quickly to get us open on time and make sure the show can happen in this beautiful space. Everyone is just focused on problem-solving to get the show running and ready for the beautiful audience that can fill the space.
ABOUT THE SHOW
Cirque du Soleil Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is having its European premier at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s on from January 13, 2023 to March 5, 2023.