Cirque’s ‘Luzia’ a Mexican fantasy of light and water

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A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia” evoking the monarch butterflies of Mexico. /MATT BEARD

Every Cirque du Soleil spectacle is described as “a journey,” and each is playfully surreal in its particular way, whether evoking a steam-punk-like world (as in “Kurios), the natural world (“Ovo”), the world of street performers (“Saltimbanco”), the aquatic world (“O”), or the musical universe of The Beatles (“Love”). And as anyone who has been following the creations of this gargantuan, Montreal-based global entertainment operation for the past 33 years knows, the list goes on, and on, and on.

‘LUZIA: A WAKING DREAM OF MEXICO’ When: July 21 – Sept. 3 Where: Big Top at United Center (Lot K), on Adams near Damen Info:

Now, with “Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico,” its latest show to visit Chicago, it is evoking a real place, but do not expect anything even vaguely approaching a documentary of our neighbor to the south. Rather, think more in terms of an evocation of the mythic atmosphere of the country — one that moves from urban to natural landscapes, and from the ancient past to the contemporary world. And, as the show’s title suggests — Luzia fuses the sound of “luz” (“light” in Spanish) and “lluvia” (“rain”) — those two essential elements also are at the core of this new mix of fantasy and dazzling physical feats, with water incorporated into its traveling show acts in new ways.

The hummingbird is one of the many images conjured Cirque du Soleil’s Mexico-themed spectacle, “Luzia.” | MATT BEARD

The hummingbird is one of the many images conjured Cirque du Soleil’s Mexico-themed spectacle, “Luzia.” | MATT BEARD

“Politics were not part of the thinking behind this show,” said artistic director Mark Shaub, who oversees the operation of the touring production that has been directed and co-written by the Italian-born Daniele Finzi Pasca. Pasca lived in Mexico for years, and might be most widely known as the director of the closing ceremony of the Turin XX Winter Olympic Games of 2006, and the Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2014.

“The show’s creators, including set designer, Eugenio Caballero, an Oscar-winning Mexican production designer, and costume designer Giovanna Buzzi, were much more interested in playing with light and color. And they wanted to capture the many different Mexicos – from its incredibly varied geography to the centuries of influences, both indigenous and from abroad, that have shaped it. It’s also worth noting that Cirque already has a partnership with Mexico — a resident dinner theater-style show, ‘Joya,’ that’s running at a resort on the Yucatan Peninsula. And there are big plans afoot for the development of a Cirque-based theme park in Mexico, too.”

According to Shaub, the goal  in “Luzia” was to “highlight aspects of the country without falling into stereotypes. We don’t have a mariachi band, but composer Simon Carpentier’s score is full of Latin American flavor, and that means a mix of the rhythms of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean with tribal sounds that suggest the Mayas and Aztecs.” So there are the dance rhythms of cumbia played on guitars, accordions and percussion; bandas, the traditional music of traveling brass bands; the rhythms of norteño, a popular genre in Northern Mexico, and huapango, a flamenco-based music from the Gulf of Mexico region.

Caballero’s set, which he dubbed “the blue box” (a variation on the spare theater spaces known as black boxes) has been designed to suggest the monumentality of the Mexican landscape and architecture. The show opens with the vision of a field of 5,000 cempasuchil (“the Aztec marigold”) – flowers that are the main element of Day of the Dead altars. It also features a crucial water element, with the aerial straps act performed in a cenote — a naturally occurring sinkhole or cistern the Mayans believed was a sacred gateway to the afterlife.

A great disk equipped with a giant light box is used to suggest an important architectural element in Mexican architecture and it towers above the stage, variously representing the sun, the moon and the Aztec calendar. In addition there is a giant red papel picado (cut paper) curtain that pays homage to that popular Mexican craft. Created in collaboration with Javier Martínez Pedro, an artist from a small town in Guerrero, its lantern-like structure allows for the suggestion of a horse, flowers, a flock of hummingbirds, a plaza, a cave, an underwater world, raindrops, a storm, the sun, a city and desert cacti. Other settings include everything from an old movie set to a dance salon and city alleyway. The images and patterns that appear in the show’s rainfall are generated electronically by a graphical water display screen.

The show’s technologically elaborate water elements required great feats of engineering, and as Shaub explained: “The water must be filtered, disinfected and maintained at a constant temperature for the well-being of the artists. All 1,585 gallons that are used during the performance are recycled for the entire duration of a stay in a given city.”

Of course it is the unique circus acts, performed by the usual roster of global talents, that are of the essence.

“The performers come from 19 countries, [including] Mexico, Columbia, France, Poland, Belarus, Russian, Spain, Canada, Israel, Holland, the Czech Republic to the U.S.,” said Shaub. “And the acts range from a daring new hoop diving event that involves two giant treadmills [equipment originally developed for use in mining], to an interlude performed by Abou Traore [a self-taught street artist who used to perform for tourists outside Paris’ Beaubourg Museum], and his female partner, who deftly mix street dance with astonishing soccer ball manipulations. Cyr wheel artists roll and spin in the rain; an aerialist suspended from a trapeze flies through pouring showers; a Guinness World Record holder juggles seven pins at breakneck speeds; and there is the rare male contortionist from Russia who moves into some unimaginable positions.”

Is there an homage to the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo anywhere in the show?

“Well, she inspired the hairdos. There are some serious braids in ‘Luzia’,” Shaub said.

A clown with an umbrella in Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia” suggests the use of water in the spectacle. | MATT BEARD

A clown with an umbrella in Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia” suggests the use of water in the spectacle. | MATT BEARD

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