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Circus Thu Jul 30 2015
Cirque du Soleil is coming to Chicago this August with their production KURIOS-Cabinet of Curiosities, a show which promises to touch on Cirque du Soleil's roots, to convey a message of optimism to all ages and to give us a good dose of steam punk mechanics. They'll be setting up the Big Top right in the United Center parking lot and keeping it there for six weeks. I had a chance to talk with Michel Laprise, director and writer of KURIOS, to ask him about his work with Cirque du Soleil, and his vision while creating the show.
The show has a steam punk façade, but underneath the rich imagery of brass geegaws and quaint contraptions is a message of optimism about the power of human creativity in our age, says Laprise. "I use the old principle of Shakespeare that if you want to talk about an era, don't do it right now. Your reference point should be with some distance and in another country. So we invented our own steam punk in a Victorian era; it's Paris 1900--the Universal Exhibition--when everyone got excited about the new discoveries! But we are in fact talking about our own era."
It seemed as if we were visiting the early 20th century during our interview, as we sat down in the recently remodeled Chicago Athletic Association Hotel on Michigan Avenue. The lobby was so vintage that it was like entering a private gentlemen's club, the kind where men had their midday Scotch and smoked a pipe. Seating himself in the plush armchair beside me, and raising an impressed eyebrow at the ornate fireplace next to us, Laprise launched right in to the pleasantries. Within the first five minutes, he had consulted me about his wardrobe (he had just hopped off of a plane and wanted to know if a Hawaiian shirt would work for the interview), handed me his cellphone so I could read a fan email that had touched him, and promised to give me a virtual reality tour of his show before I left. Clearly, Michel Laprise was a man who was excited about life. He said as much when describing a day of work, and also leaking some interesting info, "I just started two new shows with Cirque du Soleil and I'm hoping it's going to be as fun as KURIOS is--because during the whole creation we worked hard but we laughed all the time. It's not a job. I go play. I never say the office. I say 'creation studio'. It changes the way you see things--it changes your whole attitude about it."
Laprise's optimism is infectious and permeates everything he does, which may explain his great success in the theater and circus world. He started out as an actor, moved in to directing and eventually became an artistic director of spectacles, such as Madonna's Super Bowl halftime show in 2012. It was in 2001 that he came to Cirque du Soleil as a talent scout, but found himself soon involved in upgrading the audition process and eventually landing in the events department, where he produced corporate shows and attracted many performers due to his artist-friendly approach to creation, which he maintains in KURIOS."I am very pro artist. I think Cirque du Soleil exists because of the artists. For KURIOS, I put the artists back in the middle of the process. I ask them often to contribute and they really own the show."
This is saying something, when you consider that there are 46 cast members from 15 different countries. What makes Laprise most proud is the low rate of injuries among the performers, which he attributes to their professionalism, "Our artists love to be there and are focused. We have almost no injuries." He has a photo on his 'creation studio' door that indicates the house counts and the injury counts of KURIOS. It says 'House counts 100 percent: Injuries 0'. "When the Big Top is full of people and the stage is full. This is a dream, " Laprise explains.
But what is a KURIOS? And how can a cabinet full of stuff tell us anything about our own times? Before museums became a thing, there was a period where it was fashionable for educated households to harbor collections called 'cabinets of curiosities'. The cabinets were full of artifacts that represented a microcosm of natural history, culture and travel. Curios were the objects that were carefully stowed there. Laprise found that idea fascinating, so he used the metaphor to make a tale of humanity chock full of characters like the Seeker, Mr. Microcosmos, Mini Lili and Klara the Telegraph of the Invisible.
"I want people to come out of the tent thinking everything is possible because of human creativity and human invention and the pure power of joy. All the problems we have we can deal with and solve," Laprise explained. His optimism extends beyond technology and scientific discovery, to the idea that humanity can be explained and bettered by what our technology says about us. He marvels over the impact of 19th century inventions on mankind, like the gramophone, "It was the first time in human history that music could travel. You could be in a humble house and have a symphonic orchestra playing. You could have your grandma, who is not able to get out of the house, listen to her favorite singer. It's tremendous."
While paying homage to the past, Laprise is very conscious of the roots of Cirque du Soleil and strives to stay true to them with the creation of KURIOS, where the performers welcome the audience outside the Big Top and tip their hats to circus tradition in telling ways throughout the show. "The idea was to go back to the essence of Cirque du Soleil. We were born in the streets. A street performance is the only performance where the audience pays after the show, so you have to be very good. When I did the show I thought 'What if we were in the street and there was a hat?' When you see the opening act there is a hat in front of the performers. To me it changes everything, because when you are performing in the street you don't have your resume or your press kit. You have just what you have now and you have to prove yourself to the audience every single time."
Laprise says the optimism towards the future in KURIOS appeals to all ages, but he appears to have a soft spot for teenagers, "The show is very human, so it's for everybody, but I'm glad the young kids love it and they get it. This new generation is fantastic. I like teenagers because they are really demanding, so to me they are my best audience. If they like it, everyone will like it. They don't bullshit and they are really sincere. I don't know if it is hormonal but they are very political in a good way and they want to change the world."
After our talk, Laprise lived up to his promise and gave me a tour of the technology of the future by popping a virtual reality rig on to my head so I could see a 10-minute preview of KURIOS. I was immediately plunged in to the world of the Big Top where I sat within arm's length of the characters as they juggled and played live music. The real room I was in faded in to the background for a few minutes and I entered Laprise's circus universe.
Someday soon, maybe the circus will travel to your living room, giving your housebound grandmom a chance to see her favorite acts, but until then, you might want to see KURIOS-Cabinet of Curiosities in real time on a 360-degree Big Top stage (called the chapiteau in French) where Laprise says the magic happens because "When you step on the stage of the chapiteau, you see there are people all around you, so you can't be closed. It's beautiful. Every modern circus artist should experience it because after a while you learn to open up. If you learn to do that, than you can do everything. It's a growth moment for an artist."
KURIOS-Cabinet of Curiosities is at United Center, 1901 W. Madison St., from August 6 until September 20. Tickets range from $35 to $145. Even better, as part of Cirque du Soleil's ongoing social circus mission to encourage and promote the potential of youth, you can purchase tickets for the CircEsteem Benefit on August 13 or 27. One hundred percent of the ticket sales for the show will go to the Chicago youth circus at CircEsteem, helping them continue to offer scholarships to low-income youth.