Saturday, December 02, 2006

Royal Banquine

This week I read an interview with Mike Rich, the screenwriter for the new film, "The Nativity Story". When asked if there were any surprising discoveries when researching the subject, he replied:

"To me, the 'wow' moment is the mythological references to all three [stars believed to have been aligned at the time of Christ's birth]: Sharu is the Babylonian word for king, while Venus is the mother planet & Jupiter the father planet. Father, Mother & King."

He then went on to describe a scene when Mary visits Elizabeth, & elaborates on Mary's character:

"To me, the choice of Mary to bear the Son of God isn't because she is someone remarkably special, it's because she was representative of every man. She was every person. The mother of this child isn't because she is of overt riches or royal blood, it's because she is mankind."

Oddly enough, this segues remarkably well into the story of my Labor Week trip to Cincinnati I've been blogging about over the past month. The Quidam tour happened to be in Cincinnati at this time, so I attended 3 performances--Thursday evening & both shows the next day.

Quidam is the only one of Cirque du Soleil's (CdS) 18 shows that really interests, intrigues, & captivates me. My favorite score belongs to one of their resident shows in Las Vegas, Mystere, which I tied into my LMLK vol. 1 book. It's an overwhelmingly powerful soundtrack, but the show's story is a bit disjointed & uninteresting (though amazing to behold, as all CdS shows are).

Quidam, however, is an awesome presentation of music, acrobatics, AND story that lacks nothing in terms of 3-dimensional entertainment. The interaction between the key figure, pronounced "key-dawm", & a girl named Zoe typifies the calling of God remarkably well, stepping into our lives unexpectedly (the best Biblical analogy being 1Kings 19:16, albeit with a bowler hat in Quidam rather than a mantle) & empowering us to do the impossible (2Kings 2-6; Elisha performed more miracles in the Old Testament than anyone else, 2nd only to Jesus in the entire Bible; even after he died--see 2Kings 13:21). CdS describes the character as:

"a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past. It could be anyone, anybody. Someone coming, going, living in our anonymous society. A member of the crowd, one of the silent majority. The one who cries out, sings & dreams within us all."

But the lyrics to the chorus of the title song are even more succinct:

"An ordinary man, Quidam. I'm everyman. I'm anyman."

This may suit Rich's role for Mary as "every man", but it's the polar opposite of the CdS performers--they're anything but ordinary in their acrobatic abilities!

And I was so fortunate in that the particular show I attended on that Thursday night was also attended by the show's creators, Guy Laliberté (billionaire CdS founder/CEO) & Franco Dragone, & other VIPs. Whenever they periodically attend one of their shows, the performers pull out all the stops & go above/beyond their normal "above-beyond-ness"! The final act, named Banquine, transforms into Banquine Royale!

Banquine consists of 12 to 15 acrobats, called Les Égarés: "lost individuals who gather together in the streets & abandoned buildings of Quidam['s world]. They sublimate their suffering, transforming it into something magical & inspiring."

That's the official CdS description, but they dramatize Psalm 84 to a tee: "Blessed men go through valleys of weeping, yet they turn them into springs for others to drink/benefit from. They travel from strength to strength, performing for God." (My own paraphrase of vv. 5-7.)

Though named collectively, they're visually segregated into 3 groups consisting of about 9-10 men dressed in tattered gray clothes (whom I call "Gray Men"), 1-2 men dressed in white with bleached hair ("White Men"; one of whom does the primary stunts while the other plays a subordinate role doing supplementary stunts; sometimes even one of the Gray Men performs some of these stunts), & 2-3 ladies with curly blonde wigs, dressed essentially as models/mannequins from Frederick's of Hollywood or Victoria's Secret. I call them "Ghost Dolls" because unlike the Gray & White Men who are transformed from their colorful living world to the eternal world after their deaths in the middle of the show, the ladies are dead/white throughout the show, appearing every now & then amongst the living.

No formal listings of the character names or stunt names have ever been published by CdS, but here's a list of my nicknames for the various stunts they perform in their 5-10-minute segment (the names of 2 stunts, Flight & Colonnes, were mentioned by CdS artistic coordinator, Marie-Helene Gagnon, in a podcast earlier this year; photos are lo-res snippets from the official CdS video filmed in 1999 except where otherwise noted):

* Entrance of the Gray Men * All choreography, no stunts; sometimes includes a White Man. Here's a view from above the circular stage:

* Entrance of the Ghost Dolls * With the Gray Men lined up as porters, the ladies leap out diagonally from one end of the stage to the other, as if dancing across clouds!

* Entrance of the White Man * For his entrance, he leaps out as the ladies did, except with each leap he flips once. On the 5th/final leap, he flips several times!

* Twists & Splits * The White Man is tossed high into the air doing multiple twirls/twists that boggle the mind! At the same time, the Ghost Dolls do upside-down, mid-air splits!

* Dual Handstand Pyramids * A picture is worth a thousand words for this stunt. To form the pyramid, a White or Gray Man stands on a Gray Man's shoulders, & 2 other Gray Men do opposing handstands. The first Gray Man grabs the legs of the other 2 doing handstands, then stands on the back of their necks. The man atop does a 1-armed handstand upon the head of the other. All 8 men do this in perfect synchronization showing no sign of difficulty; & as if that were not amazing enough, the 34-foot-diameter stage begins to rotate so that the audience can see the formation from an alternate angle! Yes, it's real!

Both photos are from the Cirque Tribune gallery. This one shows the 2 men on top doing their 1-armed handstands in alternate positions:

* Doll Toss * Gray Men grab 1 or 2 Ghost Dolls near the center of the stage, swing them like a pendulum but in full 360-degree sweeps, then toss them to Gray Men awaiting at the front of the stage! As they were swinging the Dolls just prior to tossing them at the final show I attended in Cincinnati, an elderly, obviously wealthy man in front of me in the first row at the front of the stage, not knowing what was going to happen, exclaimed, "Jesus!" A typical reaction! This photo combines 2 shots from a handheld video someone in the audience made earlier this year & posted on YouTube. The one on the right shows the wind-up, swinging; the one on the left shows them in mid-air about to be caught:

* Flower-Rings * Les Égarés separate into 3 groups & perform variations of 2 formations. One (usually at the front of the stage) involves 3 or 4 Gray Men doing 1-armed handstands with their free hands joined in the center. They dramatically lower 1 of their legs to give the formation a blossoming effect, & either a Ghost Doll or White Man perches atop their hands in the center. The alternate formation (usually performed by the other 2 groups in the background) has 4 Égarés facing each other, interlocking their legs, then bending over backwards, again for the blossoming effect. It's breathtaking! This photo is from the Arena Pal site:

* Flash Dance * This is a brief choreographic sequence beginning with 2 flashes of sunlight, & ending with the manipulation of one of the Ghost Dolls.

* Doll Tower * After the dance, the Ghost Doll is lifted atop a pyramid of 3 Gray Men, the top one holding 1 of her feet with only 1 hand, & she does a standing split!

* 3-Man Flips * Both White Men & 1 Gray Man do a series of 4 mid-air flips powered by porters--human trampolines. After a brief pause, they do 2 more flips ending in a flat, horizontal catch, laid gently onto the stage. This photo is not an illusion--you're actually seeing all 3 of the men upside-down in mid-air after being tossed:

* Doll Contortions * In this brief segue, the Ghost Dolls dance with each other, & are manipulated by 2 Gray Men.

* Flight Exchange * One of the most dangerous stunts, 2, 3, or 4 of Les Égarés are simultaneously tossed to opposite sides of the stage, miraculously missing each other at the crossing point by only a foot! This snip from the official video shows the 2-man version, performed during the basic show.

Sometimes this stunt is omitted during an abbreviated performance because of its extremely risky nature. The 4-person version characterizes the rare Royal version. These 2 photos from the Quidam section of the Cirque Tribune gallery show a stage-performance takeoff, & a practice-session crossover:

* White Man Launch * Hoisted atop a pyramid of 4 Gray Men, the 3 porters at the base launch the 4th Gray Man, who simultaneously launches the White Man some 20 feet into the air! While flying around, he flips more times than I have time to count!

* Ghost Doll Colonnes a Quatre * A Ghost Doll is launched onto a standing tower of 3 Gray Men, ending in an upside-down split. This stunt characterizes the Imperial version of the act, & is usually omitted from the show (even this snapshot from the official video was edited into the film, & not actually performed before a regular audience).

* White Man Colonnes a Quatre * The primary White Man is launched atop the same standing tower of 3 Gray Men, flipping in mid-air, ending in a standing position perfectly still like it's no big deal--forming a Column of 4!

* Exit Dance * Les Égarés do some additional maneuvers while the crowd recovers from being awe-struck!

I posted a full review of all 3 shows on my Quidam fan site. Though I don't know all of the performers' backgrounds, I do know that they train extensively--several hours every day--just for these few minutes onstage, during which a minor mistake could cause an instant fatality (to the best of my knowledge, none of them have ever suffered any serious injuries). Some of the men have been performing in Quidam since its inception back in 1995. And one of the Ghost Dolls currently on tour, Veronica Gravolin (whom I was fortunate enough to meet briefly after my Friday night show in Cincinnati), won a silver medal with her Australian team at the 2004 FIG (Federation Internationale de Gymnastique) World Sports Acrobatics Championships (see the Robertson Gymnastics Honour Roll & the Australian Sports Commission's annual report for 2004).

The other amazing aspect to this performance is the live music, composed by Benoit Jutras, performed in-synch with the stunts, conducted meticulously on the current tour by Jim Bevan (whom I was also privileged to meet briefly). The song that accompanies Banquine is entitled "Misere", which oddly enough is not included on the original 1996 or current 2005 editions of the soundtrack. It is, however included on the 2001 edition (mastered from the 1999 video), & on the soundtrack for the CdS film, "Journey of Man" (where for some strange reason it's titled simply "Banquine").

Song of the week: "Misere/Banquine" by Cirque du Soleil (click the song title to visit Amazon; click here for a 29-second sample; 360kb).
G.M. Grena

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