Luxe Life Blog
‘Zarkana,’ Part 2: Audience doesn’t speak language, but understands it
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series ahead of Thursday’s first night of preview performances of the new Cirque du Soleil acrobatic spectacular “Zarkana” in Aria at MGM’s CityCenter. Today, we meet two of the stars and on Thursday talk with the creative directors. Part 1, an overview of the extraordinary production, was posted Tuesday. Robin Leach flew to New York just before “Zarkana” packed up and began its trek here.
When Cirque du Soleil introduced its amazing show “Zarkana” to New York, cast members spoke English, but audiences found it difficult to follow the story. So the performers created their own circus language, and now audiences love it.
I was really intrigued by this invented language, which, although I’d never heard it before and don’t speak one word of, I fully understood what it was saying. You will, too! I had to ask Paul Bisson, who plays the title role of Zark the magician in search of his magical powers, how he remembered the words to a language nobody speaks and how he sings to the music in a language nobody recognizes.
He told me: “When we first started the show in June 2011, it was in English and a little difficult to follow the story because it is not a Broadway show. Finally, they decided to do what we call Cirquish, a combination of circus and English. I had been in another show before and I wrote lyrics, so they asked me to write. It is easier for me to remember those, but I also did rhymes.
“The rhythm of the melody of the words finishing by the same sound makes something. You don’t understand what people are saying onstage, but your ears hear something and go, ‘Oh, OK, like an instrument.’ It is cool because the audience can do its own story within our show.”
If he forgets his lines one night, nobody will know, and he can improvise with other strange words to cover. It all sounds crazy, but it works.
Paul continued: “It was important, though, that the Cirquish lyrics were really written and followed because we have so many technical, lighting and computer cues from the stage managers that build the show. If I say something different, it misses. They have to understand this language. They have all the lyrics that have been written, and they have to follow. When we sing it, they give the proper cues.”
I asked if the people in Russia thought he was speaking bad Russian and in Madrid bad Spanish. Actress Evelyn Lamontagne, who plays the whip-lashing temptress, said: “Sometimes they think we are speaking Italian or sometimes Portuguese. Friends of mine thought we were speaking Spanish the whole time.”
The unique concept means that Las Vegas audiences will see a show where they won’t understand one word. “But they can make their own story in their minds to accompany the thrilling onstage action,” Evelyn said. “That’s the purpose. When the lyrics were in English, people had so much to see what we were doing onstage, they got lost trying to follow the language. Then when we switched to a language they didn’t speak, they understood the show much better because they built their own story around the action.
“ ‘Zarkana’ is an acrobatic rock experience. It’s the most rock show of Cirque. It blends circus arts and creates a surreal world where physical virtues rub shoulders with the strange so you can do what you want to do. It frees the imagination while we are required to sing something to keep the cues on target.”
Paul added: “As an actor/singer with those Cirquish words, I am always improvising. I can feel it at the moment. I can play with it, I can slide the melody, but if it were in English, I would have to follow it word for word. Musically, it is more interesting with Cirquish.”
Paul is familiar with Las Vegas. He starred as Quasimodo in 1999’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Paris when it opened. Evelyn was the acrobatic character of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” in “The Beatles’ Love” at the Mirage.
I asked her what she loved about “Zarkana”: “Everything! I love it all. I love my role of a little girl who thinks she can rock the world and everybody will listen to her. I like that every day is different. Every day we play within each other, so improvisation is part of it, too.
“Creating this character, I watched a lot of cartoons because on the huge stage, you need to be a little exaggerated, as well. There is a lot of amusement, and it’s all imagination. It is so different than ‘Love,’ which is more acrobatics, and here I am more acting.”
Both performers have been with “Zarkana” since it was created. Paul commented: “This show compared to other Cirque shows has off-the-wall characters, so we can improvise. Each show, I will play with her and interact with her; we do something different each time. This is rare because you usually have a really specific track to follow. Of course we have a track because we cannot be on the stage if we don’t, but with the interactions, it is always something improvised.
“If there is a big technical problem, you won’t see it. I can be onstage all by myself, but I have the bandleader talking to me. They say, ‘OK, Paul you need to stay on the stage for 1 or 2 minutes, the curtain is not going to drop.’ Sometimes if I have somebody that I know in the house, I will put his or her name in the song!”
Both artists told me the staging is so overwhelming, it would be impossible to pick a favorite act. They said they still marvel at the skills after two years.
Evelyn said: “The clowns always get a huge ovation because they work with a different audience every night. The singers improvise each night, too. The last act -- the banquine -- always has audiences in disbelief. They all say it’s not possible to do what is done.” (This is where 16 artists create mind-blowing human pyramids in spectacular synchronized sequences.)
Paul interjected: “As Zark, each time I am onstage, it is a new life for me. I still haven’t done the same thing two times in a row. I give everything I can to make people understand that I am presenting something they’ve never experienced before. The banquine really impresses me every night.”
The Aria theater is much smaller than their past run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall: 1,800 seats vs. 6,000. They are looking forward to being closer to the audience. “We can play not as big as we had to in Manhattan,” Paul said. “Audiences will see our facial expression better. As actors, being close to the public is a gift. It will be an added rush.”
The cast is looking forward to a long run here. Evelyn laughed: “In Moscow, we were in minus 30 weather, so we will be able to get our two days off and go out to Lake Mead, Red Rock and take a road trip to Los Angeles. “
Paul summed up: “At Aria, we will do two shows a night for five nights a week, so a total of 10 shows. It was super great in Moscow, Madrid and New York -- traveling all around the world. For some people, though, that have a family; they are happy not to be living out of suitcases all the time.”
On Thursday, our three-part series concludes with my interviews with the creative and directing team as previews for “Zarkana” begin at Aria.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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