THE MAGIC OF MEXICO
Cirque du Soleil's LUZIA Comes to Atlanta

By Bret Love

The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus once billed itself as "the greatest show on Earth." Given the fact that the iconic company took its final bow in May after a 146-year run, it's safe to say that the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil has laid claim to that title.

LUZIA, which premiered in 2016 and makes its way to Atlanta this month, is Cirque du Soleil's 38th original production since the company was founded in 1984. Subtitled "A Waking Dream of Mexico," the show incorporates an array of South-of-the-border influences to create a spellbinding artistic vision rich with light ("luz" in Spanish) and rain ("lluvia").

We recently sat down with Artistic Director Gracie Valdez to talk about the production's genesis, her history with the company, and what makes Cirque du Soleil the greatest show on Earth.

Before joining Cirque du Soleil in 2008, you co-directed a modern dance company and coached competitive dance teams. How do you think that experience prepared you for what you do now?

Any experience managing different personality types and performers from different backgrounds can help shape the skill set needed to be an Artistic Director at Cirque du Soleil. My previous experiences leading groups of performers through the creation of shows supported the development of my managing style…but let's be honest, nothing is as unique as working in the circus.

Before you got the job as Stage Manager, were you one of those Cirque du Soleil fans (like me) who'd seen every tour? What was it about the company that made you excited to work with them?

I grew up in the LA area. My family took me to the Cirque du Soleil Big Top shows on the Santa Monica Pier every time they would come through. I was just blown away– for me, there was nothing like attending a Cirque du Soleil show live. I didn't realize until way later that I could even work for them. To me, it was a dream come true as I think it's the world's best live entertainment company.

Cirque du Soleil seems like it would be a dream job for just about anyone in the artistic fields, so I'm guessing the competition must be difficult. What sort of process did you go through to become a stage manager?

I was fortunate to have a mentor in the dance world who became an Artistic Director for one of the touring productions and introduced me to the idea that I could join Cirque du Soleil on the management side. I applied and had the experience to back my profile up. Soon enough I was packing my suitcases and running away with the circus!

Can you talk about a few of the Cirque du Soleil shows you've worked on, and what you learned from those experiences?

Through the years I've worked on three different Big Top shows– KOOZA, TOTEM and now LUZIA– and also on IRIS, which was a resident show in Los Angeles. What I've learned is that every cast is different, every environment is different, and you have to be flexible and adapt. Every show comes with new apparatuses and acrobatic disciplines you have to get familiar with, all of which have intricacies you would not have thought of. You learn about the things specialists from each of these disciplines need to be able to fully motivate and support them. For example, I've worked with a swinging trapeze act on KOOZA and IRIS, a duo fixed trapeze act on TOTEM, and a dance trapeze act on LUZIA. Even though these three disciplines are all performed on a trapeze, the type of acrobatic vocabulary performed and the requirements are completely different. I'm learning every day and getting more versed in different types of performances in order to be able to understand and creatively feed the artists.

You joined LUZIA last year, at what is described as "the last steps of its creation process." What was it like being part of the genesis of this show, and seeing it develop from creation to full-blown production?

A show at Cirque du Soleil evolves a lot in the last stages of its creation process, as the creation team is putting the final touches to the staging and linking all the elements together. It was amazing to see all the small details that were thought through and developed by close to 100 people, who came together to support the vision of the Director and the Associate Director. I was impressed by how many changes would be made from one day to the next based on the inspiration of the creators, and their capacity for finding creative solutions to bring the show together.

I've read that LUZIA was inspired by the richness of Mexican culture. Can you talk a bit about how those cultural elements influenced the show, and give us an idea of how this is different from previous Cirque Du Soleil shows?

In LUZIA, Mexican influences are brought to the stage in a subtle way through all elements of the production- the costumes, the props, the set design, the music, the action, and the lighting design. All references might not stand out or seem obvious to all audience members, but are all rooted in some sort of historical significance. I think that's what makes LUZIA unique; it's based on one single region of the world, which gives the production a unique and multi-layered flavor. LUZIA is very human in scale. The audience feels a connection with the characters inhabiting the imaginary Mexico we are taking them to. It's filled with true emotions that are felt and shared. Another strength of LUZIA is the fact that all acrobatic disciplines featured are taken to another level, either technically or artistically.

What are some of the more unique acts in this show that you think audiences will be talking about after leaving the Grand Chapiteau?

All of our acts are quite surreal in their presentation and unique, but here's two that I think audience will never forget. We are taking the Cyr Wheel (a giant metallic hoop in which an acrobat rolls) a step further by presenting it for the first time under pouring showers. At the same time, a trapeze artist flies through the rain above the audience. The image is so strong, it's absolutely magical and soul-touching. Another show-stopper is a male contortionist: Although this discipline might sound familiar to Cirque du Soleil fans, they have never seen someone this flexible. They'll have to see it to believe it!

I use to run/direct my own improv comedy company, and found it to be like herding cats. What's it like managing a team of stage managers, coaches, and cast members on a huge international production like LUZIA?

Every day is different and brings its own set of problem solving. We are dealing with live entertainment, so some variables can always change, which keeps the job always fun and challenging. Thankfully I'm surrounded by a highly skilled and experienced artistic team, and we work together to constantly challenge the content of the show to maintain its quality and keep the morale of the artists.

Cirque du Soleil's LUZIA will be at Atlantic Station from September 14 until November 14. For more information, please visit cirquedusoleil.com.

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