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Childhood revived at the Greensboro Coliseum: Behind the scenes at Alegria

by Lenise Willis

Fire Knife on stage (photo by Daniel Desmarais)

Children have the magnificent privilege of living in fantasy.

Innocent and naïve to the world’s problems, their imaginations run wild and sometimes create entire universes in which to play. A child knows no such thing as the impossible. It is this mindset that inspires Cirque du Soleil.

Based in Quebec, Cirque du Soleil has provided high-quality artistic entertainment since its origins in 1984 when it was merely a street show known as the Baie-Saint-Paul Stiltwalkers. The group roamed the streets, strutting on stilts, juggling, dancing, breathing fire and ultimately impressing both the townsfolk and eventual Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte.

This week only, Cirque du Soleil’s brilliant artistic work will revive our lost imaginations at the Greensboro Coliseum during its performance of Alegria.

Named after the Spanish word for elation and joy, Alegria is a jubilant act that contains vibrant characters, flamboyant costumes, impressive athleticism and all the innocent, childlike enchantment of a circus.

“The theme of Alegria is about joy and celebrating life,” says artistic assistant Sheryl-Lynne Valensky.

But such a magical show of this caliber doesn’t “appear” out of thin air.

Valensky says the start to finish process, from conception to production, can take years.

Before its 1994 premiere in Montreal, Alegria was merely a collection of ideas. Valensky says the founding concept was the explosion of the new internet phenomenon.

“That was the time when the internet exploded and businesses and companies were looking at new ways to reach different markets and new ways of doing business,” Valensky said, “so they wanted to look at change as being a major theme of Alegria.”

In order to build on that concept and stretch it into what Alegria is today, Cirque relied on an international staff of 55 artists from 18 different countries, fulfilling its mission to be a citizen of the world that helps break cultural barriers and invoke the imagination.

“It’s an incredibly stimulating environment to be in,” Valensky said. “I call it, ‘Our little mini United Nations tour.’ Everyone helps everyone, so language isn’t really a factor like everyone would think. And you get very creative with communication, believe me,” she laughed.

After the concept and performance acts have been developed, there is still much work to be done, such as creating the set and wardrobe.

The tour has more than 400 costume pieces including custom-made shoes, wigs, hats and accessories. Some of the lavish costumes, such as the Old Nostalgic Birds, took more than 200 hours each to create. Each Singer costume includes more than 200 hand-sewn jewels.

“[The costumes are] very labor intensive,” Valensky said, “and so is the laundry,” she added with a laugh. In fact, the Alegria staff travel with washers and dryers to make it easier for the wardrobe staff to clean and maintain the costumes.

Even the set design is mystifying. Topped with a giant dome and decorated with stylistic columns and balustrades, the stage is represents a powerful institution, such as a church or government building. On both sides of the stage are spiral ramps that lead downward and symbolize the unknown.

Traveling with all of the set pieces is even more mystifying. The tour travels every seven days, by plane for distances longer than five hours and by bus for shorter distances.

“One of the biggest challenges is that we’re in a different environment every week,” Valensky said.

But she admits “it’s one of the best gigs” she’s ever had. “Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” Valensky said. “We live out of suitcases, but you learn a lot about yourself: what you can live without, what you really don’t need with you and the things that you really do need with you.

“It’s very exciting. You go to different cities that you’ve never been to, and some cities surprise you and have really cool things that you weren’t expecting. You really get to learn about diversity and that, I think, really enriches all of our lives.”

As for the audience’s experience, Valensky says unfortunately it’s not that simple to describe.

“You have to come and see for yourself what the experience is for you,” she says, “and I think that’s the beauty of it. Everyone that’s sitting in that audience comes away with a different interpretation and a different experience.”

wanna go?

Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria performs at the Greensboro Coliseum April 13-17. Tickets are $34-$94 for adults; $28 and up for children (ages 2-12). For tickets visit www.greensborocoliseum.com or call 373-7474.

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