Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai comes to Dubai

Come with us as we take a behind the scenes look at the rehearsal for Cirque du Soleil's Varekai, the huge new show coming to Dubai.

Acrobat Kerren McKeeman practises her trapeze act. Antonie Robertson / The National
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You know that feeling of inadequacy you get in the gym when someone next to you is rowing like an Olympian, or killing it on the elliptical trainer by going 10 times faster than you?

Watch Kerren McKeeman launch herself into the air as if gravity were a mere theory, and you can multiply those feelings by a thousand.

The tiny, birdlike trapeze artist, who looks as if she might be turned away from fairground rides for not meeting the height requirement, swings, spins, dangles by one leg, and drapes herself gracefully over a contraption hanging from the roof of Dubai World Trade Centre’s arena, looking for all the world as if she is in the most comfortable spot on the planet.

She is rehearsing her routine while I watch. But tonight she will do it all again, in costume and full make-up, as 5,000 people look on with bated breath. She is part of Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest theatre-production company and a global phenomenon worth more than US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn), which has brought its show Varekai to the city.

The National was given a rare glimpse backstage to see first hand the gargantuan effort it takes to take the show around the world.

For the rehearsal, McKeeman is in workout gear as she practises for her solo performance.

The 35-year-old American, from New England, says she always dreamt of joining the circus. As early as 18 months old, she remembers trying to clamber out of her crib.

“I was climbing things from the minute I was born,” she says. “At school, I had a very inspiring gym teacher. She was a professional mime artist and started a juggling club after hours. I started juggling but figured I wanted to be up in the air.”

McKeeman first encountered the trapeze at a youth camp at the age of 14 – and was instantly hooked. Together with 10 fellow pupils and their gym teacher, they formed their own circus.

“I think I always loved being up [in the air],” she says. “There is this real peace, like you are untouchable and anything is possible. There is a sense of freedom.

“I love it so much that love overtakes the fear.

“My wish is that I can connect with the audience enough so they feel they are flying with me.”

It’s a nice thought – but it is just as likely that they are looking on in admiration and thanking their lucky stars that they have both feet planted firmly on the ground.

She is right, though, that there is something magical in the air when Cirque takes to the stage.

Perhaps it is because it evokes a sense of romance and nostalgia, as it harks back to a grand era of public entertainment when thousands would pour into big tops to watch extraordinary feats taking place.

Or perhaps it is because we all secretly dream of running away and joining a travelling circus, after reading childhood stories about those who did just that.

At any rate, a peek backstage does nothing to dispel the mystique or romance of this grandest of modern circuses – and it also evokes a sense of wonder at the sheer mind-boggling scale of it all.

Varekai, like many of the 30-plus shows Cirque du Soleil operates around the world, requires two planes to be chartered to transport its freight.

The show’s crew of 95 – including 48 artists, many of them former athletes and gymnasts – travel with an enormous circular stage, complete with five trapdoors, a lifting mechanism and two turntables, which has to be assembled at each venue, a process that takes about 12 hours.

Then there are the 330 bamboo trees (actually made of metal), a precarious wooden stairway designed to look like the “spine of an immense bird”, three Russian swings and a hot-air balloon, all of which have to be painstakingly rebuilt wherever Varekai lands (Beirut last week, Istanbul next month, Europe next year).

And let us not forget the six washing machines, two tumble dryers and 2,000-item wardrobe, including 600 costumes, plus duplicates of everything, that travels with the crew.

On laundry days, the beleaguered wardrobe team wash up to 20 loads. Using local laundry services to clean the delicate, hand-painted fabrics is too risky – although a team is on hand to stitch and mend if disasters do happen.

Former fashion designer Luana Ouverney, 30, from Brazil, the production’s head of wardrobe, says the worst incident she has had to deal with involved a multicoloured costume for a temporary artist, the dye from which bled in the wash.

As all of the outfits are specially made in Montreal and customised to perfectly fit the artist, a process that takes up to three months, it is not easy to find a last-minute replacement.

Ouverney originally started working with Cirque du Soleil as a “local”, one of the many helpers hired to help out in each city Cirque visits.

Three-and-a-half years after joining the circus, she will soon leave and return to Brazil.

“It is not easy to live out of hotel rooms and suitcases,” she says. “Of course I have good friends here – but it is not an easy life.”

Her temporary office backstage is a hive of activity as the four members of the wardrobe team work among the feathers and frills with a fierce intensity and concentration that does not waver, despite constant interruptions.

One person is carefully and laboriously curling one of the dozens of wigs on display into tiny ringlets. Another is stitching a lizard costume for a male performers, head bent over a sewing machine, a cupboard with hundreds of giant, coloured cotton reels close to hand.

There are dozens of black trunks, with labels such as “shackles”, “balloon”, “flex” – and one simply marked “slippery”.

Colourful costumes hinting at mystical creatures – a wing here, a tail or Medusa wig there – hang from impromptu washing lines and flutter from clothes rails in the breeze from multiple fans.

There is a sense of controlled chaos. In the midst of the backstage hangar are huge mats where some of the performers are balancing on their hands or swinging from equipment, watched by coaches and their youngest, newest recruit – one-year-old Max, the son of hand-balancing artiste Alona Zhuravel and Russian swinger Dmytro Liubashenko. The tot looking thoroughly delighted by his live entertainment as he crawls on a mat.

Varekai – which is set in an enchanted forest, complete with fantastical creatures, and based on the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who wanted to fly – is in its 14th year but still sells out wherever it is performed.

New shows that join it in the Cirque du Soleil roster take two years to develop – others, such as Quidam, Saltimbanco and Alegria, are retired after long runs to make way for them.

Future plans include a permanent home in Dubai by 2018 and in China by next year.

Cirque du Soleil is a global phenomenon that has made its Canadian co-founder, Guy Laliberte, a former busker, stilt walker and fire-eater, a billionaire.

The 57-year-old started out as a street performer but since forming Cirque du Soleil in 1984, the acts he develops have been seen by more than 90 million people worldwide.

Back on the stage during the rehearsal in Dubai, in front of rows of empty seats awaiting an the audience, acrobats are somersaulting and flipping in the air in an act called synchronised tumbling. Not far away are Cedric Belisle, 26, and Andrey Kislitsin, 28, who are improbably spinning inside a steel ring known as a roue Cyr, their limbs seemingly feather-light, their movements precise to within a millimetre.

Moving their hands a mere centimetre either way could change the axis of the wheel and send them tumbling. They do not, of course – the wheels keep spinning.

Let the show begin.

• Varekai is being performed twice a day in the Dubai World Trade Centre Arena until September 26, except on Wednesdays.