The Associated Press
Published Thursday, June 23, 2011 8:57AM EDT
NEW YORK - Director Francois Girard sits in an orchestra seat in the massive Radio City Music Hall and looks up at the massive challenge facing him.
The stage he has to fill these days is more than 100 feet wide and 66 feet deep. The proscenium arch soars more than 60 feet into the air. It is among the largest indoor theatres in the world.
"You can see how a human body could get lost in this space," Girard says.
That's an obvious issue for the writer and director of "Zarkana," the latest Cirque du Soleil show that opens later this month. So mammoth is the stage that it threatens to swallow up a million production of 11 acts and 75 performers.
Girard insists he's more challenged than frightened by a space he acknowledges is "a monster." In fact, he says he and his team have been inspired by the arena's ghosts and Radio City has become a central character in the show.
"I feel at home right now," he says.
Girard has taken a break to sit among the 6,000 seats he hopes to fill each night when the show opens June 29. From the corner of his eye, he keeps tabs on a juggler practicing on one side of the stage, a group of trapeze acrobats on the other and new projections of clouds scudding along the back wall.
"A show like this is a place where so many disciplines are meeting," he says. "It comes from everywhere and has so many layers to it, which keeps me interested. There's not a boring day at the office for me."
One of the more quiet yet profoundly beautiful acts is performed by Erika Chen, who using only her fingers and nails swirls dark blue sand into striking images projected onto a screen at the top of Act 2. Self-taught, the 27-year-old Singapore native used to work at Deutsche Bank in asset management until she discovered sand painting on and fell in love. Cirque made her its first sand painter.
"It still feels surreal. I can't believe it's happening," she says after rehearsing to ensure her six-minute act is smooth and dynamic. "I'm just thankful. It feels like a dream."
Four years in the making, the rock-opera circus "Zarkana" is slated for a four-month ride in New York, followed by stints in Madrid, Spain, and Moscow. The hope is that it will return to Radio City next summer -- and maybe every summer.
This isn't the first time Cirque du Soleil has tried to tame the Big Apple. Last year, its variety show "Banana Shpeel" -- featuring a visually brilliant but disappointingly spotty program of acrobatics, juggling, dance and mostly tiresome slapstick -- flopped at the Beacon Theatre.
This time around, the creative team is careful to be humble and respectful of the city. Girard calls New York "a mecca of theatre" along with London, and knows there's plenty here to attract summer tourists other than whimsical circus acts.
"It's a highly saturated world, where if you want to be heard you'd better be clear and loud. That makes it both very exciting and challenging," says Girard, who directed the films "Silk" and "The Red Violin."
The other thing making Cirque executives soft-spoken is another rock opera with crazy stunts -- the million "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." Girard has gotten no vicarious thrill by watching that musical's troubled birth. "When a show runs into difficulties and technical problems, it is sad. But I wish them well," he says. "It's so hard to make a show. We should be supportive of their efforts."
This is Girard's second Cirque -- he also put together "Zed," the Tokyo resident show -- and he began with an attempt to assemble as many cool circus acts as possible. Then he wrote a story trying to incorporate all the elements, settling on creating a magician named Zark, who has lost his love and his powers. At the opening of the show, he wanders an abandoned theatre and later the show makes nods to its famous home, including to the Ziegfeld Follies.
"Zarkana" -- or the land of Zark -- will have plenty of clowns, acrobats and a Wheel of Death. One high wire act features a father and his three sons, while another has a father, mother and daughter performing on ladders. There are seven musicians, hundreds of costumes and one trapeze act has a spider theme that would make Julie Taymor shudder.
Canadian singer Garou plays Zark and the music for the spectacle was created especially for the show by Nick Littlemore, an Australian musician and producer who has worked with Elton John.
Work on the show began in Montreal -- headquarters of Cirque -- but moved temporarily to Orlando, Fla., because creators needed a stage big enough to practice the show from top to bottom. That was found at Amway Arena, the former home of the Orlando Magic that is slated to be torn down, and Cirque took it over for a few months.
Back at Radio City, Stephane Roy sits in the balcony and surveys his hard work. As the set and props designer, Roy's job has been to make the Art Deco monster place look smaller. Of course, since it is a protected city landmark, he could not alter the stage or the building.
"This is a cathedral," he says.
Roy, doing his fifth Cirque show, used a series of three differently sized arches -- decorated with snakes, branches and flowers -- to make the stage more intimate. The back wall is also studded with LEDs for videos and the stage itself is hand painted.
"This is, for me, the biggest project that I've ever done," he says.
The latest move into New York is part of an expansion of the Cirque du Soleil empire. By October, the hyperactive circus company will have 22 live shows around the globe, including the new million "Michael Jackson, The Immortal World Tour."
Chen, the sand painter, is asked if she'll go back to the lucrative -- if duller -- world of international finance if "Zarkana" doesn't excite enough New Yorkers or tourists.
"No," she says firmly. "This is my dream. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."
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