WATCH: The wonder behind Dubai's stage show La Perle
La Perle’s stage is a hive of activity. With only a couple of weeks until opening night on August 31, the venue – nestled between The W and Westin hotels in Dubai’s Al Habtoor City – is teaming with nearly two dozen personnel, all working to fulfil one man’s indomitable vision.
That man is Franco Dragone, a former director of Cirque du Soleil, who is credited with fusing the high art of theatre and ballet with the audience draw of circus-style entertainment.
When you ask Dragone to produce a show, you don’t give him space in an existing venue. Instead, you construct a whole 10-storey building to hold his stage.
And in the case of the visionary Italian-Belgian artistic director’s latest show, produced exclusively for Dubai, you provide him with a few million litres of water.
Built in the round, the architect of the 1300-seater venue is Khatib & Alami, the Dubai-based firm responsible for the city’s famed twisted skyscraper Cayan Tower and Abu Dhabi’s Yas Links golf course.
Without 90-degree angles, the theatre experience is all-enveloping, with the undulating bronze-coloured edifice protruding over the stage, giving the impression of a futuristic opera-house interior as conceived by Gaudí.
The resultant layers, coupled with the smooth surfaces, allow it to act as a projection canvas for some of the show’s evocative imagery, incorporating the venue into the performance.
With the theatre custom-built for the show, La Perle’s executive producer Craig Hartenstine says that the design reflects the show’s aquatic theme.
“When I came on board for the show two years ago, this place was nothing but a concrete shell,” he says.
“It is just amazing how it came together. If you see the theatre from the top, you would think it’s so big. But as you go down and you take your seat, you will immediately feel how the theatre wrapping around you and how it is all so intimate – it is almost like being in a grotto.”
The 14 rows of seats are designed with a 270-degree seating configuration and split into gold, silver and bronze tiers – ticket prices range from Dh400 to Dh800.
As well being placed in the front few rows, the gold section also offers bigger chairs and more-generous legroom. For those looking for a more-luxurious experience, a Dh1,600 ticket is available with an access to a VIP lounge where people can unwind and eat before and after performances.
Reem Mohammed / The National
As for the performance action, it all revolves around the central aqua stage that resembles a luxurious spa pool.
Lit from beneath to turn it a Maldives-style turquoise, the only indication that it is two metres in depth is the eel-like movements of a scuba diver.
With “the wet stage” only 860 metres squared, the diver’s sudden disappearance is almost inexplicable. “Oh you saw that?” Hartenstine remarks. “These guys are an important part of the show. They are not only there for safety, but they act as guides to the performers during certain parts of the performance. They are stage directors, in a way.”
The American explains that the scuba diver has actually exited the aqua stage, which holds 2.7 million litres of water and is kept at a permanent 31.6°C, from an underwater entry way.
With the show’s boasting eye popping aquatic and aerial acrobatics, Hartenstine reveals that the cast and crew can enter the show from various angles from both above and underground.
Entry points also include those from as high as 25 metres above. All that altitude required a “technical cat walk” 35 metres above the stage for both the cast and crew.
That technical subtlety will also be seen when part of the theatre collapses and transforms into a 25-metre drawbridge (weighing 60 tonnes) that reaches to stage.
As for the water, keep your eyes peeled as La Perle’s state-of-the-art draining system, which will transform the stage from wet to dry in a manner of seconds. The water is then stored in a gigantic holding tank from where it will be recycled.
With La Perle reliant on the visceral and emotive reactions from the audience, Hartenstine is tight lipped when it comes to explaining certain facets of the show. While details of the script are tightly under wraps, Hartenstine is happy to describe the elements on the stage without revealing their role in the production.
When I arrive, I can see the pool surrounded by a large circular gilded-metal contraption that holds colourful stones.
“Is that a crown”? I ask. Hartenstine ponders his response: “That is one of the apparatuses for the show’s acrobatics.”
What about that weird looking piece of silver machinery on the edge of the stage that resembles a half set up drum kit? “That’s another piece of the technology that we have in here,” he says. “That is a robot that we have that is performing as part of the show.”
Hartenstine apologetically says: “What you are doing is pointing out a lot of the interesting elements of the show that you just need to see. I can’t give it away.”
Reem Mohammed / The National
He does, however, concede that the giant copper-bronze ball perched at the roof of the stage is indeed a globe.
Surveying all the action from a makeshift command-post halfway up the theatre is Filippo Ferraresi.
As the director of creation, the softly spoken Italian describes his role as “to fulfil and execute Franco [Dragone]’s ideas to the stage”.
Alongside his seat lies a large black leather swivel chair – Dragone’s perch. During the six months’ worth of near-daily rehearsals, the artistic director used his laser pointer to make suggestions to the cast and crew – and in many cases, add elements to the show.
Ferraresi explains that the only stable element of the Dragone’s creative process is the show’s theme. The rest of the production is at the mercy of Dragone’s instincts until days before opening night.
“You have to understand something and that’s Franco never falls in love with his own ideas,” he says. “He has this motto that: ‘The story always arrives in the end.’ Franco never writes a script or a scenario. He discovers the material on stage by provoking it. Another expression he uses is ‘to shake the stage’. He likes to create chaos on stage, but from that he finds the order from which to work from.”
La Perle’s marks Ferraresi’s fourth Dragone-residency production, the previous being 2014’s The Han Show in Wuhan, China, followed a year a later with Paris Merveilles in the French capital and The Dai Show in Chinese city Xishuangbanna.
Ferraresi also joined ¬Dragone’s sole Abu Dhabi ¬production to date, 2013’s Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation, which acted as the centrepiece for that year’s Qasr Al Hosn Festival.
He explains it took some time to get used to Dragone’s non-linear working style.
“For those who are not used to it, it can be frustrating at first. For example, the flight ¬director – the one responsible for all the aerial movement – is a choreographer from Broadway. He was at first shocked because he was used to working from a script,” he says. “But the great thing about working with Franco is that he gives you the liberty to be creatively free and come with ideas.”
That’s what drove American Michael Brennan to sign up as Dragone’s composer since The Dai Show.
He says the combination of Dragone’s freewheeling approach and his trust in his collaborators makes for a rewarding experience.
“La Perle, for example, is a pretty dynamic show and it has a lot of elements from action packed scenes to quieter moments,” he says. “I remember one time he was talking about the music that he wanted for this key scene, which was full movement. He just looked at me and said one word – ‘apocalyptic’ – and off I went. It is an exciting way to work.”
Brennan says that La Perle will feature a mix of pre-¬recorded scores, completed in a makeshift studio at the venue during the past four months, as well as a live band performing every night.
“Franco recently found a singer and she has this really interesting voice,” the composer says.
“He wants to incorporate her in the show and make her even a character so we are working on that.”
With artists and crew hailing from 23 countries, Hartenstine says that the dynamic creative interactions that are inherent in all of Dragone’s shows make La Perle an ideal addition to Dubai cultural landscape.
“We are trying to create something that has never been done before and that’s what people have always been doing when they came to Dubai over the last 40-something years,” he says.
“This show is really about showing Dubai as a laboratory for the future where people from different cultures come together to create something spectacular. That what’s Dubai and our show is about.”
La Perle by Dragone has its premiere on August 31, with performances running from Tuesday to Friday, 7pm and 9.30pm; Saturday, 4pm and 7pm. To book tickets, visit www.laperle.com