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Brief Encounter with ... Cirque du Soleil's Michael G Smith

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Michael G Smith is the artistic director of Kooza, Cirque du Soleil's latest show to play at the Royal Albert Hall.

Billed as "an adrenaline rush of acrobatics in a zany kingdom", Kooza opens tomorrow (8 January 2013, previews from 5 January) and runs until 10 February.

How did you get into working with Cirque du Soleil?
Simple, I applied online - I went to Cirque du Soleil's website, and six weeks later I was a director.

What were you doing before?
I was working on a show in China and the people I was working with said I should apply for Cirque du Soleil. As I have no background in circus at all, I had never thought of applying for Cirque du Soleil even though I have seen the shows at the Albert Hall and really loved them. I didn’t think I would be a potential candidate, but I was wrong about that. Cirque du Soleil are interested in people who have come from very eclectic backgrounds who have a lot of experience in multicultural environments. So that was a big plus in my favour - and I speak French.

Was there a particular Cirque performance that inspired you?
Actually there was. I saw Alegria at the Albert Hall (in 1999), and though I didn’t really know Cirque du Soleil at the time, I fell in love with the show.

Kooza has a huge team of about 53 performers, does this include back up performers in case of injury?
It does. We carry more artists then we use in the show. Well, I will use everyone in the show, but I don’t use them for any specific act. Audiences come with very high expectations, so if we have injuries and accidents, which of course we do as it’s dangerous stuff, the quality of the show can’t go down because of that.

We also travel with a troupe of physiotherapists and masseurs and coaches. That’s my support team that help manage the artists’ strength and conditioning coaching, specific discipline coaching, physio, all that. We travel with a team that give the artists as much support as possible.

As the show goes along, is there room for you to make changes to it?
Oh, absolutely, and it’s the policy of the company that no show stays the same. If a show is stagnant it’s not working for us. And the artists are very much involved in finding out the different things that they can do on an apparatus. We have a lot of people from sports backgrounds - it’s not traditional circus at all. There are a lot of gymnasts, so they think very differently from myself, coming as I do from a theatre background. The difference between what we do and a piece of musical theatre is that in musical theatre the music comes first and dictates the mood and emotion, but here the music comes last - we put the music in after we have got the images we want to create, and that’s an essential part of the process for Cirque du Soleil.

You have been quoted saying that Kooza is about “more circus and less theatre”
I think that a lot of the shows are wonderfully theatrical in their presentation and yet the links between the acts become important in maintaining the emotional connection with the audience to keep them in the universe has been created for that particular show. With Kooza, the shows before became so theatrical with so much production, moving stages, things coming from the ceiling, that the mandate was ‘let’s go back to the original form of circus with its fear and wonder’.

A scene from Kooza

Kooza is not surround by a huge amount of theatrical production. All the equipment used by the artists in an act is hanging visually; we are not trying to hide it or anything like that. All the equipment for every act is set up by the artists, not in black outs with technicians coming on. And that’s in a sense how traditional circus works. There’s something wonderfully unpretentious about Kooza that separates it from the other shows.

Is it difficult adapting the show to the Albert Hall?
We normally travel with our Big Top, which takes up 60 trucks. So it’s huge, we are a travelling village. The only place we don’t use the temporary venue is at the Albert Hall, so it’s a unique space for us. We have to adapt the show, and yes it’s a huge challenge, because we have to re-light it and the sound will have to be redone. That is very important for us, particularly in Kooza because we have two very high risk acts, their points of reference have to change as the lighting changes any shadows that might be coming across their face.

It’s very important we have the time to get them orientated to the new space. They’re not used to performing with audiences at the same level as them, as in the Big Top they’re low. We have an even bigger challenge because our set is the heaviest set Cirque du Soleil has ever known – it’s too heavy for the floor of the historic Royal Albert Hall. So when we come in we have to build a floor on top of their floor to support our set. So it’s going to be complicated, but incredible. It’s a beautiful venue.

What’s your favourite part of the show to work on?
Anything that flies. It’s the idea of achieving the impossible. I would like people to leave the theatre thinking they too could achieve the impossible, and flying is just magical. I love anything aerial.

Going forward, would you ever work on a traditional circus?
No, I would never want to work with traditional circus, never ever. I don’t like anything about the genre, and I hate the idea they work with animals. Cirque du Soleil is the company for me.

- Michael G Smith was speaking to Callum Brodie


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