We get a behind the scenes peek at Cirque du Soleil's Dralion and a tour through the wardrobe department.
The dimly lit hall and the for-now-empty audience seating area of the Trade Centre Arena at Dubai World Trade Centre is in stark contrast to the brightly lit stage that is packed with about a dozen nimble-bodied and sure-footed young men.
While one of them props up a row of hoops ranging in diameter from comfortably wide to unnervingly tight, the others take turns bounding across the stage to leap through or over the hoops.
On the massive wall behind them, a couple of others are bouncing up and down on a giant trampoline in an increasingly gravity-defying manner, culminating with one of them literally waking up the vertical wall.
This 60-ft-tall and 26-ft-wide wall draws its design inspiration from samurai armour and is the backdrop of Dralion, Cirque du Soleil's latest show to come to the UAE.
While giving a small group of local journalists a behind-the-scenes tour of the show, the publicist Julie Desmarais reveals that it takes between 10 and 12 hours to put up the set and almost three hours to take it down.
"If you think that's a long time, then let me tell you that it's nothing compared with when the show was in a big-top tent," she laughs. "It used to take us 10 days to set it up and three to take it down."
Dralion premiered in Canada in 1999 at a big-top tent and since then has been adapted into an arena show, making it easier for it to tour the globe, which it has done many times over. To put on this show, which is one of Cirque's best-sellers, it takes more than 180,000 kilograms of sets, costumes, props, lighting and sound equipment and a team of more than 100 people from 16 different countries.
"Dralion portrays the fusion of the East and the West," explains Desmarais. "The name Dralion comes from 'dragon' and 'lion'. The dragon represents the East and the lion represents the West.
"It's amazing what these people can do. Even after seeing the show so many times, I am still mesmerised," she adds, as she looks at two Chinese acrobats casually having a chat on-stage while balanced on gigantic orbs.
"You have to see the skipping rope act," says Desmarais. "That's another amazing one. There is such a high level of acrobatics and so much energy in a Dralion performance. It's not just acrobats, though. We also have clowns, two live singers and a six-piece live band which improvises the music as the show goes on." According to Desmarais, for anyone who has not seen a Cirque du Soleil show, Dralion is a great place to start. It delivers exactly what the Montreal-based enterprise (which now employs 5,000 people worldwide, of which more than 1,300 are performers) set out to do at the time of its inception in 1984: the circus experience reinvented.
As I enter the wardrobe area of Dralion, I feel I've entered Aladdin's cave. Towers of plastic storage cases are labelled with intriguing tags such as feathers, foils and beads. Rail upon rail is overflowing with whimsical garments in every colour of the spectrum. On one side, someone is diligently sewing a slinky on to a hat. At the far end of the room sits Melody Wood, the head of wardrobe, who explains the method to this madness.
It was François Barbeau who created the fantastical designs for Cirque Du Soleil in 1998. These creations won him an Emmy in 2001 for Outstanding Costumes for a Variety or Music Programme.
Wood, who hails from England and trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, tried to get into Cirque Du Soleil for five years before she finally made it through. Today, it is her job to ensure each item is in order while on tour.
"There are about 1,500 pieces of costume altogether, including shoes, hats and accessories," Wood reveals. "But we carry a backup for every item, so in reality we travel with more than 3,000 individual pieces. We need to ensure that every single piece is in perfect condition."
She explains that the condition and integrity of each item is crucial for more than just appearance's sake.
"These artists are performing very tricky acts. A seam coming undone or a piece of elastic snapping can mean more than wardrobe malfunction. It can be dangerous," she explains.
That's why Wood and her team of three (each specialising in either shoes, costumes or hats, but also cross-trained) diligently check each piece before and after the show.
She rifles through the rails and picks out some of her personal favourites. A pair of bulbous, slinky orange trousers and a gauzy blue dress.
"You have to see the costumes on stage," she insists. "Here you just see a pair of trousers on a hanger. It's on stage that they really come alive."
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