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Cirque du Soleil: Varekai

Celebrating 20th Anniversary

Nicolette Naum and Stephane Roy
Artistic Director and Set Designer
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; 11:00 AM

The world Varekai means "wherever" in the Romany language of the gypsies, the universal wanderers.

This latest touring production of Cirque du Soleil pays tribute to the nomadic soul, to the spirit and art of the circus tradition and to those who "quest with infinite passion along the path that leads to Varekai."


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Nicolette Naum, artistic director, and Stephane Roy, set designer, for Cirque du Soleil were online Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the theatrical piece, its choreography, acrobatics, unique sets and the skill of the international cast.

"Varekai" premieres in Washington, D.C., for a limited engagement on Sept. 16 on the grounds of RFK Stadium and runs through Oct. 24.

Midway through the discussion, Nicolette and Stephane had to leave for another interview. Touring publicist Chantal Blanchard stepped in and finished the discussion.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Nicolette and Stephane, welcome to washingtonpost.com. We're glad to have you with us and look forward to your Washington show at RFK Stadium. Will the show be done in tents? How will all that work?

Nicolette Naum and Stephane Roy: SR: Cirque du Soleil will be performing one big top tent that will accommodate 2,600 people. Around the tent there are five smaller tents for VIPs, refreshments, socializing, entertainment, etc. It'll be like a little village all around, like modern gypsy. It'll have its own ambience and will no longer be like a stadium. It will reflect the theatrical, poetic, familial energy that Cirque du Soleil represents.

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Anonymous: Please explain Varekai, the show.

Nicolette Naum and Stephane Roy: NN: Varekai means wherever and it's about survival. It's about human beings that gather together into a forest finding a new place, searching for food, gathering together, and this family is expecting a huge event to happen and this event is the fall of Ikarus. It's the journey of Ikarus who lost his wings. In this journey all with all those human beings around he learns to walk. Everyone in this family shows to Ikarus what human beings can do and what can result when they put their creativity and energy together.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What different countries are represented by your performers? Is it true that your group was scouting the Olympics for future performers?

Nicolette Naum and Stephane Roy: SR: In this show Varekai there are acrobats who were in the Olympics in Atlanta or in Sydney and they're amazing. Last week we had members of Cirque in Greece at the Olympics interested in some of the athletes to possibly join us in the future. In Varekai, there are 25 performers who were in the Olympics in Sydney and Atlanta who are now working for Cirque du Soleil.

Overall, 40 countries are represented in Cirque du Soleil. Varekai represents 13 countries.

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Washington, D.C.: How does one become a member of Cirque? What skills do you have to have? Is it a big organization? Do you recruit?

Nicolette Naum and Stephane Roy: NN: The casting department travels around the world constantly. They go see the Olympics, they go see festivals, they visit athletic organizations. In all the shows we have high-level athletes, world champions. We have dancers, actors, musicians, performers who come from traditional circuses.

The performers in our show have their own specialties which can be tumbling, gymnastics, diving, sport acrobatics, just to name a few.

We are based in Montreal. People do apply with us. They send their resumes, videotape and we invite them to audition. We look for excellence in our performers. We look for something that is unique.

The whole company has about 3,000 employees. We have nine different shows going on now at the same times in various parts of the world. Four of them are permanent shows, three in Las Vegas, one in Orlando and we have five touring shows: One in Japan, one in Australia, two in Europe and us in America.

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College Park, Md.: How did Cirque evolve? As an alternative circus? No animals?

Chantal Blanchard: It started out in Baie St. Paul in Quebec with street performers who all worked on stilts and they were called the High Heels Club and it is now a big company that employs, as we said, 3,000 people from all over the world. We concentrated on human beings and what they can do as opposed to animals in the circus. In a sense, human beings offer more possibilities than doing a show working with animals. We like to say the impossible is possible.

The shows are a whole made up of the staging, the lighting, the costumes, the performances ... Because if you come to see a show there's no emcee. There's no spoken words. It's a made-up, invented language. So if there's a trapeze to set up, that set up becomes part of the show, the storyline, part of the whole emotion of the show.

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Arlington, Va.: I loved the Bravo series "Fire Within" that followed the development of the Varekai show. Do you have any quick updates about the performers we watched become part of the show, like Stella and Gareth?

Chantal Blanchard: Stella has moved on. She left the production in December. She's now settled in Los Angeles and she's working there. Gareth is back in the U.K. and he's also making a living there.

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Parker, Colo.: Listening to the music used in the performances, I'm impressed with the "world music" concept -- but I can't determine what languages are being used or specifically what countries are being represented. Can you shed some light on the music being used in the performances?

Chantal Blanchard: The language is an invented language. Sometimes you might recognize an accent that sounds Italian or Spanish or any other language but that's just for effect. The music is very world beat. Our composers are from the province of Quebec and Quebec, like the rest of Canada, is very much influenced by the planet -- the rest of the world. That's why there are Arabic sounds, Georgian sounds, African sounds, Hawaiian, from everywhere.

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Vienna, Va.: What is the culture of Cirque du Soleil like? How much of life is traveling, maintaining a normal life with family and physical training? Are you part of a union and what are some common issues (good or bad) that many in the organization face?

Chantal Blanchard: There are 200 people traveling together. Out of that there are 56 acrobats or performers and then there are 80-90 technicians, logistics people and then you have our administrative and tour services people. Then we have our kitchen with five cooks. We have a school for the performers' children. We have husbands and wives and kids in our touring company.

It is a little community. Nobody lives on site. We all live in corporate apartments. We try to become citizens of the cities we're in in the six to eight weeks that we're in the particular city. Back home at headquarters in Montreal, everyone lives like everybody else would in any other city.

We have no union.

One thing that you find out traveling with people from so many different countries is that everyone has issues but things always work out and it's very mind-opening to work around people from all these different cultures.

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Fairfax, Va.: Are audiences different, say in Europe as opposed to the U.S.?

Chantal Blanchard: We are fortunate enough that they do respond respond as enthusiastically and warmly as the people in the U.S. but we have to say that the American people are very loud and we love it. Yeah, definitely.

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