Cirque du Soleil… on ice? Inside New Jersey’s Coming Wild New Show
Cirque du Soleil’s latest extravaganza, “Crystal,” skates at the Prudential Center on Thursday, marking the circus’ first show on ice.
It always presents amazing feats of acrobatics and gymnastics, which the public expects. What few would have expected, however, is to take those exploits and put them on skates.
“Crystal” features tap dancing that, on ice, looks like a recipe for disaster. And before watching a tape of the show, which will be in Newark for five performances until Sunday, it seemed implausible. After watching acrobats balancing on stacked chairs – on ice – and tappers, it still seems impossible, but it does indeed happen.
The fiery-haired main character, Crystal, is a college student whose family irritates her, so she runs away.
“She’s out of place, or she’s misunderstood, or she doesn’t quite fit the norm,” says Cirque du Soleil artistic director Robert Tannion. “And, and so it’s a really good setup. We engage with this character that we can relate to because at some point we all think “yeah, I don’t quite fit into this group, or nobody understands me.”
Tannion joined the company three years ago when “Crystal” was already operational – until the pandemic.
Choreographer, but also actor and dancer, Tannion ensures the smooth running of the production, which is no small feat. It’s a complicated show with dozens of performers skating and an extensive backstage staff that includes coaches.
The plot has Crystal falling through ice and encountering a shadow world, which leads her towards self-discovery.
“She basically sees her own reflection, and that starts a connection with the second character who is called Reflection and who is really kind of an oracle, the guide, who shows her the other side of herself,” explains Tanion.
The Crystal House tableaus, the moments under the ice, the ballroom dancing, a scene in an office, and the courtship all play out and have plot significance. If the plot isn’t crystal clear to viewers, that’s okay. Most people flock to Cirque du Soleil for the feats of the acrobats.
One of them, Nathan Boyle, joined Tannion in a Zoom with NJ Advance Media. Both Australians, he and Tannion chatted from different parts of Boston, stopping before Newark.
Before tackling this, Boyle hadn’t skated. Skaters were brought in for this show and the actors learned to use their highly trained bodies in new ways. Now he does ice flips. He was, however, already a clown – professionally.
“I studied at the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne,” says Boyle. “So I have a bachelor’s degree in circus arts.
When he arrived in Montreal to prepare for “Crystal”, Boyle underwent three three-hour training sessions a day.
“Before that, I could stand on the skates and not fall,” he says of his skills on the ice.
And now? Boyle has some gasp-worthy moments, like hanging perpendicular to the ice. His colleagues also pull tricky maneuvers. It’s unusual to see someone running – not gliding – on ice.
“I have to be able to stop, start and pull, like having someone’s hand on my shoulders,” Boyle says. “Those are basically my requirements for skating. But they were brilliant in the way they managed to integrate the acrobats on the ice. So we have cleats to be able to walk and run on the ice. And then that means that there is no physical barrier between the acrobats and the skaters.
This show, the 42nd of Cirque du Soleil, combines several disciplines. There is synchronized skating and free skating mixed with traditional acrobatics like the swinging trapeze. At one point, the performers juggle on the ice to klezmer, the traditional Jewish music of Eastern Europe.
Another first for the troupe was to have covers of songs recorded for this show. Three musicians also play live. The padded costumes, which allow the performers to sit on the ice, were custom made, as are all aspects of this show. Cirque du Soleil’s Montreal headquarters employs 300 artisans, including shoemakers, lacemakers, seamstresses and carpenters.
“Crystal” has performers of 11 nationalities, and Tannion wasn’t even sure how many languages are spoken among the cast, although he speaks English, Spanish and French to them.
As scintillating as Cirque du Soleil is, there is still the street performer feel that underpins it all. This is fitting given that this circus was born out of stilt walkers, jugglers and fire eaters performing on the streets of Quebec in the early 80’s. They became Cirque du Soleil (Cirque du Soleil) in 1984.
Over the years, more than 180 million people around the world have seen the performances. And since “Crystal” debuted in 2017, the tour has made 103 stops. The Prudential Center becomes the 104th location of this interrupted tour, but only the fifth American city since its resumption.
There are no plans to stop.
As the artistic director notes, people crave shared experiences. Lately, far too much of what we are collectively experiencing is miserable. Tannion mentions the massacre at Uvalde, Texas, and how a few happy hours can provide much needed respite.
“At least the other shared experiences we have instead of a shared grief moment could be a shared positive experience,” he says. “I really think we can’t underestimate the power of sharing this moment to dream together or share something together.”
Jacqueline Cutler can be reached at [email protected]. To find NJ.com on Facebook.