It's been a year since Dubai's permanent aerial and aqua show La Perle was first performed at its custom-made, 10-storey high, state-of-the-art theatre in Al Habtoor City.
Conceived by former Cirque du Soleil artistic director Franco Dragone, La Perle has firmly placed Dubai on the theatrical map, and to date more than 315,000 audience members have attended more than 400 performances of the unique 90-minute show, often hailed as Dragone's ultimate masterpiece.
Waterfalls cascade mere inches from the audience, fires light up the periphery of the stage, motorcyclists defy gravity as they spin inside a metal sphere suspended in the air, nimble acrobats soar into the caverns of the theatre only to dive from jaw-dropping heights into a submerged pool, not to mention the acrobats who appear out of the dark depths of said pool as if through the ministrations of magic.
Over the past year, the show has been continually tweaked and improved by Dragone, who has assembled a cast of world-class artists to entertain night after night. On its first anniversary, we pay a visit to the theatre and catch up with three members of La Perle's cast who have made Dubai their home.
The ‘death rider’
Rafael Nino Jnr’s performance roots go back six generations, so when he decided to break free from the family tradition his father was devastated. “My father wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but I have always been an adrenalin junkie, always interested in stunts, scary tricks and everything that makes you feel dangerous. Something in me just pushed me towards that,” says the 29-year-old Brazilian stuntman.
Having trained as a professional clown, Nino Jnr’s career could have taken a completely different route. As a child he had a gift and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the best in the business. “It sounds funny, but clowns are a big deal in the circus world, in my world,” he says. “It made it that much harder for my family when I didn’t want to do it any more.” What he really wanted was to become a rider in the Globe of Death – a notorious circus and carnival stunt where riders loop their motorcycles vertically and horizontally inside a metal sphere.
Nino Jnr’s daredevil obsession began when he was 14, when he got his hands on a scooter, hiding it from everyone. He’d ask for tips and training from every globe rider he came across. By the time he was 16 and against his father’s wishes, he ditched the clown outfit and joined another circus as a rider. The stint was short-lived because his father would have none of it. But he eventually came around. “He said to me, OK, if you want to do this, prove it. Get good at it. And just do it.” Nino Jnr mastered his riding. He left Brazil, and began his career as a globe rider in China, performing in Scandinavia, Spain, Russia and all of Europe, before settling in Australia.
In 2011, he was part of a six-man globe riders team that broke the Guinness World Record for the number of people in a globe. They trained for two weeks for the performance, but only ever had five riders in the globe during training. They added the sixth during the live show.
“We had only one shot to do it, no point in training and having someone get hurt. You just have to take the leap.”
This readiness to embrace risk and achieve the impossible drew him to La Perle, where he is the captain of the show's globe-riders, often nicknamed the "death riders".
"In La Perle, we are doing something that hasn't been done before. The globe is hanging, and it splits in the air, and still we ride. The crazier, the better; we changed globe-of-death history. It's a very big deal for me," he says. Nino Jnr and his team have never had an accident. "We're that careful, we're that professional, we know each other and can read each other," he says. "And the crowd love it. That's why we do it."
Working on a Dragone show is the pinnacle of his career, and his family are immensely proud. “This is a dream for all circus folk, to work with Dragone. My parents boast about it, ‘Look at what our son achieved’. It turns out leaving the clowning was the best decision I ever made.”
He takes his life in his hands during every performance and leads his team into a metal sphere where they spin around until they are but a blur, a cacophony of revving engines, swirling colours and extreme danger. “I am meant to be doing this. I was born to ride motorcycles. For me, there was no other choice.”
The longest Danik Abishev had ever lived in one place is five months, and that was in London. Born into a circus family, travelling the world – and packing up to move on – was all he knew. That all changed when he joined La Perle. "This is the longest that I have stayed in one place in all my life. I was worried I'd get antsy," says the 32-year-old house troupe acrobat who specialises in hand-balancing.
Abishev says the emirate he has called home f or almost two years has exceeded expectations. “When Franco creates a show, it’s never what you think it’s going to be; this absolutely blew my mind,” the acrobat says. “If there was another show like it I would probably get bored staying in one place, but this is constantly changing, new acts coming, new special effects to work around, new moves to learn. You’re always learning as an artiste here.”
Abishek was born to circus performer parents from Russia. His father, a former wrestler, is known as a porter – a circus strong man who is able to lift, throw and catch the other artists. Abishek’s mother was a horse rider who performed tricks on and off the horse as it galloped around the circus tent. With his parents and two older sisters, Abishek was part of an international family circus act going wherever the next show might take them. How does he feel living this
nomadic, performance-driven life? “I have nothing else to compare it with,” he says, shrugging. “Others think it’s amazing, being born in the circus and seeing the world, but I can’t really say it’s good or bad – it’s the only thing I’ve known.”
A talent scout saw Abishek's YouTube videos and called to ask whether he was afraid of heights. Thankfully, he isn't and so his La Perle journey began. "I asked how many people would be involved in this show he was scouting for and he said 60 to 65. I thought, 'Wow', that's one of the biggest casts I've ever worked with."
Working for any other circus or show, Abishek says, would involve learning one act and performing it over and over again. "Here, it's different. Franco's speciality is that he does interdisciplinary training or cross-disciplinary training so artists become experts in different things. We all learnt how to dive, dance, add humour, perform while wet, scuba dive. It's such a gift for an artiste to always grow and learn in this way."
Working with Dragone is the highest accolade you can reach in the world of circus performance, and everyone, Abishek says, wants to perform in one of his shows. "Still, I had no idea that La Perle would end up being the most incredible thing I've ever worked on," he says.
“I didn’t realise how huge this was or the scale of it – 65 artists, 70 to 80 tech people and the five scuba divers underwater at all times to ensure the safety of the artists. They’ve all become my family, and my job is where I get to go play. How lucky am I?”
The music that accompanies the performances is as much a character in the telling of this awe-inducing tale as the dozens of acrobats, divers, actors, hand-balance specialists, extreme motorcyclists and artists.
Composed by Michael Brennan, a long-time collaborator of Dragone’s, the music is integral to the telling of the tale. This is why musician Olivier Milchberg, 54, needs to have an eye on what’s happening on the stage every minute of the show.
Milchberg is the show's soloist. He plays the flute, the bouzouki – a kind of Turkish banjo – the guitar and his favourite, the Bulgarian kaval – a flute-like instrument popular in Turkey and the Balkans that's similar to the Arabic nai. Milchberg sits, nestled high up in the custom-built theatre, in a dark corner balcony with a fellow musician, a band-leader who launches the recorded tracks in synchronisation with what's happening on stage in between playing the keyboard and the electric mandolin, and a percussionist drumming away in a nearby booth. "There are fixed melodies composed by Michael Brennan that I play often during the show, but I also have a lot of freedom and am very happy to have it," Milchberg says.
“I can improvise following what happens on stage, so for example, when there are some people flying and jumping in the water, every day it’s different because sometimes they take a short time, sometimes a longer time. I follow with my flute, I try to make the musical phrase end exactly when they jump in, And it’s very challenging and interesting.”
It is this constant need to challenge himself that brought the French-Argentinian Milchberg into the world of Cirque du Soleil 10 years ago. He describes the move as “life-changing”.
Music comes as naturally to him as breathing. His father, Jorge Milchberg, moved to France from Argentina where he formed Los Incas, the first South American band to tour in Europe.
Paul Simon, from the American folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, attended one of Jorge's performances then approached him and asked to sample one of his songs, which in 1970 became the hit El Condor Pasa (If I Could), from Simon and Garfunkel's final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Milchberg Snr then embarked on a touring and recording session with Garfunkel, and his son tagged along. He has been touring and recording with his father since the age of 18. “My father is my master, I learnt everything from him,” Milchberg says. “When I was a child, there were always musicians in the house rehearsing. I learnt just from watching them and listening to them, they taught me.”
Fifteen years ago Milchberg discovered the kaval, and its oriental sound appealed to him. By then, he had built a studio in the south of France with his father, a place international musicians would visit to record.
“My father is a huge champion of traditional music. He says, ‘You can compose around it, but the roots have meaning’. In the recording studio, I met a singer from Iraq, a musician from Palestine, and I began to lean towards this oriental touch in music.”
His mastery of the kaval and the bouzouki, which is played like an Arabian oud, made him the perfect "world musician", and brings an oriental feel to La Perle.
"This is an amazing work environment to
be in as an artist," Milchberg says, specifically addressing life in Dubai, a melting pot of cultures and musical influences, and a place where he can make music with global artists.
"Meeting musicians, that's really my passion. As long as I can meet musicians to make projects and make music from around the world, and then during show time play the instruments I love, being part of La Perle is the perfect job."
A year of La Perle in numbers
315,000 visitors from 178 countries
37,980 minutes of show time
42,780 minutes of rehearsal
365 technical checks
211 music checks
200,000 lighting changes
50,000 projection changes
33,000 underwater cues
6,000 times performers have appeared out of the water
15,000 times performers have flown in harnesses
40,000 kilogrammes of dry ice used
9,000 metres of bungee material used
13,000 scuba tanks filled
3.5 million litres of water used for waterfall effect