When the MSC Meraviglia is christened June 3 in Le Havre, France — receiving a blessing from Italian actress Sophia Loren, no less — a group of 15 performers will have already spent more than a month on the docked ship flying through the air, juggling, perfecting acrobatics and, just as important, getting their sea legs. As Cirque du Soleil takes its act to sea through a new partnership with MSC Cruises, there’s no use rehearsing on solid land.
The maiden trip leaves June 4 from Marseille to Genoa, Naples and Messina in Italy; Valletta, Malta; and Barcelona. Fares start at $589.50. The seven-day cruise will be a two-ring circus of sorts: The 5,700-passenger ship will be the first to host not one but two distinct Cirque du Soleil shows six nights a week in a $22 million theater called the Carousel Lounge, which was designed specifically for aerial feats. “Viaggio” is the first show; “Sonor” will not begin until June 18. While the entertainment company has performed on cruises before, these are the first original Cirque du Soleil productions at sea, in the first such venue built specifically for the needs of circus performers.
Over the next three years, six more Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows will launch in custom-designed theaters on three sister ships of the Meraviglia, thanks to a long-term partnership between the Montreal-based performing company and MSC Cruises, which is based in Geneva.
Creating a cruise show brings up some unconventional theatrical considerations.
“You have to keep that high level that Cirque offers of acrobatic performance, but you’re not on flat unmovable land,” said Susan Gaudreau, show director of Cirque du Soleil at Sea. “It upped the level for us a little bit.”
Plus, space on a cruise ship is limited. The intimate Carousel Lounge can accommodate 413 spectators, a fraction of the big-top settings that can seat up to 2,500. The setting called for added creativity.
“The trapeze wouldn’t work because the ceiling is a lower height than what a big top is,” Gaudreau said. They had to find other ways to move performers through the air, such as using aerial tracks and creating a carousel that transports them.
That wasn’t the only challenge. Gaudreau and Marie-Hélène Delage, creative director of Cirque du Soleil at Sea, knew that they were limited to one theater, one cast and one crew, but they needed to create two unique shows with their own costumes and concepts.
“We wanted them to be as different as possible,” Delage said. “Not only in aesthetics but also in the acrobatic performance.”
That meant they needed to find a range of abilities in anyone they hired, so that they could call on a particular circus talent in the first show — say, juggling — and then another in the next show — say, aerial work — to keep the productions distinct and audiences enthralled.
“If you came to both shows you would not even recognize the same artists; you wouldn’t even know it was the same team of designers that created the two shows,” Gaudreau said.
She said that the shape and size of the venue helped her dream up each show. “Viaggio” is the tale of a painter following his muse and discovering a world of color and imagination, and Gaudreau was inspired to use the Carousel Lounge’s expansive LED screen as a blank canvas to paint his masterpiece.
The story of “Sonor” was inspired by the theater’s immersive sound system, and the narrative about a hunter pursuing his prey is driven by rhythm and music.
“The sound system was so amazing I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to do something with sound.’ That was my main trigger,” Gaudreau said.
The Carousel Lounge isn’t just the stage for the show. By day, the space will be open to passengers, who can drink coffee and gaze out the lounge windows that give way to 180 degrees of horizon views. In the afternoon, the lounge will close so that artists and crew members can rehearse before each 40-minute production. The show packages, for which passengers will pay a surcharge, include either a three-course-meal (at roughly $39 to $43) or cocktail (at about $16 to $19) and are tailored to each production.
While audiences shouldn’t expect any heavy nautical themes at the shows, Gaudreau says they should look for a wink to the unique setting: “We call it ‘a little kudos to life at sea.’ ”
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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