With any Cirque du Soleil show, audiences have come to expect its signature style of pageantry and physicality. The new show Axel certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s everything audiences have come to expect, with a twist that creates a new level of visual interest – ice.
Cirque du Soleil Axel is staged November 7-10 at the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena. Axel creates a stunning production with gravity-defying feats and a new element of ice skating combined with live music and multimedia projections that mirror the flavors of a graphic novel.
Axel sheds its theatrical roots for a new brand of fantasy driven by the art and the concept of an arena-inspired rock concert. As the show’s title character, Axel is a musician and artist who falls in love with Lei. The show follows the journey as Axel chases Lei and chases his dream of becoming a star.
“It’s different because…the company evolved from the big-top shows I’ve been doing for years… to a permanent show in Vegas, and now we’re moving into more arena tours. We decided with this show to embrace the arena tour, trying to do something that is really designed for an arena,” says creative director Patricia Ruel.
“Having 3,000 people at such a distance made the approach of the design very different. The viewing angle is so different from what we’re doing in big-top. When you’re in big-top, you’re more frontal to the stage. In arena, you’re looking up and down, so the way we create acrobatic acts in relation with the venue is why it looks so different–because the venue looks so different.”
Ruel says the show embraces that rock star persona, putting Axel center stage as the main vocalist. He performs original songs that embody the feelings of his character. “Axel is a young artist, he’s multi-talented. We see the character doing a lot of drawing, and we get to travel through his imagination and through his drawings,” she says.
“He’s creating characters that will take life inspired by the graphic novel. He’s drawing superheroes, and there’s a villain. And the beautiful girl he’s going to fall for. The visuals of the show are very bold, young, and inspired by the graphic novel.”
In the more traditional Cirque model, a great deal of the action is usually overhead. Axel brings much of the movement to eye level. It’s a thrill for audiences but poses a challenge for the artists who must learn to overcome the distraction. “It gives you a very different perspective. It’s unique to have that sight line with the acrobatic acts. When they are up in the air, they are right in front of you,” says creative director Patricia Ruel, noting the staging is vastly different for the acrobats as well.
“For the performers who are doing balance acts, the distraction is very different. They have to learn adaptation skills, so they don’t lose their balance. For most of the artists, they adapt pretty well. For skaters, they are used to skating on white ice and we put video projections onto the ice. What we learned is we need to not put too much black because when they do big tricks it affects their perception. It’s been interesting. We try, and we learn.”
Though the skating and acrobatic worlds don’t often intersect, Ruel says the team trained ice skaters in acrobatics and developed an immersive training regimen for aerialists and other acrobats to adjust their performance to the ice. “The ice is a beautiful canvas. We are very lucky and excited to have that kind of environment. It’s new for me, but we have skating designers on hand, and we also try to move the narrative with a mix of ice skating and acrobats. For that particular show, we decided to bring all of the acrobats three weeks before the training to put them in a skating bootcamp. That was funny because you think that an acrobat can do anything, but they discovered they have very different muscles in their legs, and when you start skating four hours a day, it hurts.”
“We have 17 skaters in the show, pair skaters, freestyle skaters, different fields in the skating world. Then on the side of the acrobats, we looked for acrobats with skating ability. It was harder to find than we thought,” laughs Ruel. “When I spoke with the acrobatic choreographer, she said they all come from gymnastics and when you do gymnastics, your mom never let you go skate in case you break something. The same thing for the skaters. They are not doing crazy things, so we tried to push them in a different direction and teach them different skills. This will bring something that is more Cirque du Soleil. We try to push further by not creating a new discipline but pushing the boundaries of the actual discipline to look at it in another way.”
As in any sport, athletes must warm up properly before attempting the physical maneuvers to prevent injury, but with Axel, it also helped to keep the bodies limber. Performers from acrobats, aerialists, contortionists, and musicians brave the cold as they learned to adjust to the temperature and its effect on their muscles. Contortionists must compensate as the cold impacts their flexibility. Even the players in the live orchestra struggle to maintain control of their instrument in a harsh environment.
“It’s funny; the first day they were learning to bend on the ice, and now they are doing all the acrobatics on skates. It’s really something different,” notes Ruel. “Another big challenge with the cold is we have two contortionists. Contortion, when you’re cold, your body isn’t that flexible, so that was a big question of how do we warm these people, and then we can remove clothes and go into the arena.”
Reenvisioning the staging of Axel to complement the arena footprint allowed for live music to help define the story. According to Ruel, the musicians also struggled to adapt to the show’s new icy element. “The cello player was like, ‘Can I get gloves with my costume, because I’m freezing here?’ It’s a lot of learning, but we have a beautiful creative team that reacts well, and the artists were very flexible, so we make it happen.”
As far as the logistics of an already-demanding show, Ruel says incorporating ice doesn’t guarantee additional time to set up and break down the set. It’s all about continuing to find new and innovative ways to push the boundaries, and that’s what the spirit of the Cirque du Soleil is all about.
“When we have eight hours [for] set up and four hours [for] teardown, we have to be very clever with how we design this show. It’s more like an arena concert using LED lighting instead of creating something more theatrical with curtains, when we install a show for two months,” says Ruel. “This is my 8th creation I’m doing with Cirque. I love to see what we can do as a creative team and how can we push further. It’s not just a circus. Now that we have the whole ice, we decided to put forward all the musicians and try to bring the audience into our show. I think the music has power and that brings more people into the action.”
Cirque du Soleil: AXEL Showtimes
Thursday, November 7, 2019 | 7:30 p.m.
Friday, November 8, 2019 | 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, November 9, 2019 | 11:30 a.m.
Saturday, November 9, 2019 | 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, November 9, 2019 | 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 10, 2019 | 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 10, 2019 | 5:00 p.m.
Purchase tickets here.