As someone whose website declares him to be the “world’s greatest show-maker”, one would expect Franco Dragone to be prone to bombastic self-aggrandisement.
In fact, the opposite is true. In person, Dragone is discernibly modest, seeming almost embarrassed by this online statement of grandeur.
“This slogan was invented by our marketing people,” he explains in his Belgian accent. “No, I don’t believe that I am the world’s greatest show-maker. But I believe that we, as a company, we could well be.
“But it’s true that we have played with big things,” he adds.
These “big things” are some of the most extravagant and spectacular theatrical shows ever produced.
Dragone was raised by Italian immigrants in the industrial Belgian city of La Louvière. In the early 1980s, he relocated to Montréal in Canada, where he teamed up with the circus impresario Guy Laliberté to produce Cirque du Soleil.
But after years of unqualified success, in which Cirque’s mix of street entertainment and daredevil circus skills was watched by millions and became a global phenomenon, he quit in 1999 to form his own company, Franco Dragone Entertainment Group.
He went on to produce more awe-inspiring shows, such as Celine Dion’s Las Vegas concert series A New Day, another Vegas spectacular Le Rêve and, most recently, The House of Dancing Water, an aquatic spectacular that was held in Macau.
Only last week, he signed a contract to produce the opening and closing ceremonies for the Fifa World Cup in Brazil next year.
But before taking on this giant football tournament, he agreed to work as the artistic director for a new stage show, Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation, that will celebrate Abu Dhabi’s most historically significant building. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the construction of Qasr Al Hosn. Completed by 1763, its purpose was to defend the only freshwater well on the island of Abu Dhabi. Then, in 1793, the fort became the permanent residence of the ruling family. In recent times it has been screened away behind hoardings for a restoration project, which, combined with the fact that its presence is now eclipsed by the skyscrapers lining nearby Airport Road, perhaps conceals its importance. But in the days before oil wealth transformed the landscape, the white fortress was the greatest building in the nascent coastal town.
So, to celebrate the fort’s rich history and its integral role in the birth and growth of the city, the Tourism and Cultural Authority is organising the Qasr Al Hosn Festival.
Over 10 days of celebrations, visitors will be able to enjoy an interactive exhibition, a series of educational talks and traditional craft demonstrations. But the main event will be the staging of Dragone’s new production, Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation. The show fuses traditional Emirati cultural performers with spectacular acrobatics, dance routines, special effects and state-of-the-art video projections.
Dragone’s involvement began last year, when three representatives of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority called in on his company’s headquarters in La Louvière.
“It all started when these three women dressed in beautiful abayas came into my office in Belgium and they talked to me about the festival,” he recalls. “I immediately loved the idea of working on a cultural theme, instead of only doing acrobatics and things like this. My background is more theatre, but illustrating and evoking the culture and life of yesteryear for the young generation seemed like a fascinating project.”
So, after assenting to their requests, he set about creating the show in his signature grand, theatrical style.
In preparation, a giant tent has been set up in the grounds of the Cultural Foundation, adjacent to the fort, and an international cast – including numerous Emiratis working behind the scenes on hair and make-up, costume design and calligraphy – are perfecting their routines.
While some would have thought that organising such an elaborate production with this disparate group of performers was the main challenge, Dragone says it was not his most pressing concern. “Of course, it was a challenge to work on such a big project in such a short time,” he admits. “But the main challenge was not to betray the values [of the UAE] – to be modest in front of this culture. It’s not my culture, so I need to go into it in a lot of respects and try not to just repeat clichés.”
So does he avoid the falcons, camels, oil wells and other motifs that are all too common in any representation of this nation’s past? “No, I don’t ignore them. We will have falcons, camels and horses in the show. I realise these images are part of the life here,” he says. “But it is my job to use these clichés and expand on them. You know, everyone has seen a camel before. But no one has seen a camel walking on clouds.”
Although the show is repeating a familiar tale to many, Dragone denies it will be a standard chronicling of the history of the fort and the UAE. “All theatre is a metaphor. Realism in theatre kills theatre. The last thing I want is the show to be like a speech at a conference,” he says. “It’s an epic, allegorical image, with performances and technology. It’s a metaphor about the life here but not in a documentary way. This is a show that will educate people and entertain them, but most of all it will provoke their imagination.”
Whether Dragone is the world’s greatest showmaker or not, one would expect his company to achieve its mission.
• Qasr Al Hosn Festival runs from February 28 to March 9. For more information and to buy tickets for
Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation, visit www.qasralhosnfestival.ae
Watch for a special supplement on Qasr Al Hosn, produced by The National’s History Project, in the paper next week
‘The way we are telling the story is to excite emotions’
For the crew members of Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation, working on the project has been an enthralling but exhausting experience.
The production manager Nick Levitt is tasked with overseeing the budget for the production and managing the technical and creative teams.
“We started preparing last October and, looking at the time frame, it seemed quite daunting but it is incredibly exciting because we are trying to achieve great results,” he says.
“It’s a great opportunity working with Franco Dragone. I love how he interprets a story and how symbolically he tells it. It is visual poetry, and integrating that with unusual performers is a fascinating way of working.”
Levitt previously worked as the production director on the official ceremony for the UAE’s 40th anniversary celebrations in December 2011. Before that, he held the same position at the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
As with any major production, the staff are toiling lengthy hours to refine the show, but Levitt believes the hard slog will be worth it.
“[The show] will be an incredibly emotional evening,” he predicts. “It will be an emotional roller-coaster as [the audience is] taken through the story, which is both fascinating and unique. The way we are telling the story is to excite emotions. There will be laughter and tears.”
The show designer Ray Winkler also predicts a memorable event. “The show is geared up for the audience to expect the unexpected. We are ultimately producing a show that will not be seen anywhere else,” he says. “Franco has assembled a stunning visual experience pieced together like a pearl necklace – truly spectacular and completely unexpected, which is part of the joy of what we do.”
Winkler has a master’s degree in architecture from University College, London, and has a CV that boasts concerts by Madonna, Lady Gaga, U2 and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Beijing Olympics and the UAE’s 40th anniversary spectacular.
He also agrees it was a privilege to work with Dragone. “Franco has created some of the world’s biggest shows. I know him very well and admire the way he works. When he asked me to be a part of this show last year, I immediately said yes,” he recalls.
“Franco is a visionary. With Cirque du Soleil, he transformed the genre of live entertainment and always remains one step ahead. It is about understanding the poetry of his work.”
Facts and figures
- The cast is made up of 70 international performers, including musicians, dancers, acrobats and gymnasts.
- Cast members come from the UAE, the UK, Poland, the US, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Lithuania and Ukraine.
- Six of the cast members had worked on Franco Dragone’s water-based show in Macau, The House of Dancing Water.
- More than 20 million kilos of sand were moved over two weeks to level the site for the tent.
- The tent is 75m by 75m and 18m high.
- The show utilises state-of-the-art video projection. The screen brightness is three times greater than cinema screens.
- The show features 11 screens, including one giant backdrop that is 12m by 30m in size.
Follow us @LifeNationalUAE