Aqua show La Perle by Dragone set to make a splash in Dubai
From the outside, it looks like any other generic office-type building. But stepping through a set of double doors off the lobby is like walking into Q’s training laboratory in a James Bond film.
Inside are an array of freakishly-contorted bodies and scary-looking contraptions – a high-tech warehouse dotted with dozens of muscled athletes grappling with vertiginous bars, aerial artists elegantly spinning in the sky and divers crashing from great heights into a submerged pool.
Welcome to the temporary home of La Perle by Dragone, a theatrical, Vegas-style spectacle that will take up permanent residence at a purpose-built theatre in Al Habtoor City later this year.
For now, they are here in Dubai Studio City, in a “training and formation” phase at the Middle East’s largest studio space – the same one used to film parts of blockbuster film Star Trek Beyond in 2015.
The show is the work of Franco Dragone, the acclaimed theatre director behind some of Cirque du Soleil’s biggest successes as well as his own Dragone brand. It is said that when he was approached for the position five years ago, no interview was necessary.
Training began at the space in September, with a cast of 65 performers from 23 countries slowly assembled and joining this preparatory stage.
Dubai-based directors are in the process of preparing about two-and-a-half hours of stunts and spectacles, before Dragone himself arrives to sequence and curate the routines into a 90-minute show, which is expected to “soft launch” before Ramadan.
“We’re preparing the ingredients – then he comes in and paints the stage with light,” says general stage manager Samuel Orme, a West End veteran who is working with Dragone for a third time following stints in China and Macau.
As is Dragone’s speciality, much of the show will take place over water, with a 2.7-million litre “aqua stage” that can be drained in less than a minute for land-bound stunts.
Billed as “Dubai’s first permanent theatre show”, the 1,300-seat venue will host more than 450 performances a year.
“Shows don’t become stagnant – they’re not like film, they’re live, they change every day,” says artistic director Tara Young.
“People become stagnant – and it’s my job to make sure they don’t.”
With its bungee ropes, slack lines, tumble track and even a diving pool with boards at a height of 11 metres – 14m lower than the stage show – the space resembles a gigantic adventure playground.
For Swiss swing-ring specialist Jeremy Willi, it is a field of dreams. The 23-year-old gave up a job in computer science to join the Dragone team, and is buzzing when we interrupt his workout.
“The biggest challenges for us is the mix of different techniques and styles we need to learn,” he says. “We don’t just want people to see the technique, we want to tell a story.”
Willi’s story is not uncommon. Of the 65 performers – who were chosen from auditions in Australia, Cuba, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany – fewer than half have stage experience. Much of the cast was drawn from the worlds of athletics and gymnastics.
Nicolas Rojas, a former boxer who became a tumbler at 19, says his life was changed the day he saw Dragone’s House of Dancing Water in Macau.
“I went five or six times – something in my mind changed,” says the 26-year-old Spaniard.
“I promised myself I would be there, on the stage one day.”
His dream came true when he got the call, and he joined the La Perle team in October.
What’s amazing is that despite all the death-defying stunts going on, the mood is remarkably calm and businesslike. The performers train from 9am until 5pm, five days a week.
Spreadsheets pinned on the walls dictate who is learning and what skill.
“It’s like a factory of activity,” says Orme. “There’s a huge amount of concentration and focus because of the danger involved – everyone is in the zone doing their own thing.
“That’s the circus element – circus always has an element of risk and danger, and the audience senses that it’s real.”
Fear is part of the job description for Elisa Tauro, a 27-year-old Canadian “flyer”.
“One man will throw me and another will catch me,” she says. “It’s fun – it’s a rush.”
Again, the opportunity to collaborate with Dragone convinced Tauro to move to Dubai.
“To work with Franco was a dream,” she says. “He has a special touch. He’s able to combine such a high level of acrobats in an artistic way. He creates shows, not just stringing things together like a circus.”
A centrepiece of the training space is a circular apparatus for parkour stunts, complete with Korean cradle stations, which will be lowered into the venue from a height of 30 metres. To one side stands a looming, six-metre-tall puppet – dubbed by the crew as “Dubai boy” – which takes seven people to control.
“Look at the scale of it – Broadway is small in scale to what we do,” says Young, gesturing enthusiastically at the space.
If anyone can make that call, it is Young, who worked on more than a dozen Broadway shows in 25 years before joining Cirque du Soleil, and later moving to China with Dragone.
“Dubai is such a unique place – we don’t see risk, only opportunity and excitement,” says the 48-year-old Canadian-American.
“This wouldn’t happen in New York – there wouldn’t be real estate for it – they built us this incredible theatre, we’re training in the middle of the desert – that wouldn’t be possible in Manhattan or London.”