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Acrobat-actor Raphael Cruz, recently at Lookingglass, dies in Paris

American actor-acrobat Raphael Cruz, who died last week in Paris. | Courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre

Raphael Cruz, the American acrobat, clown, actor and musician — who left such a vivid impression with his work in last year’s Lookingglass Theatre production of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” —was found dead in a Paris hotel room last week. The cause of death is awaiting results of an autopsy.

Actor-acrobat Raphael Cruz seen here in last season’s revival of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” at the Lookingglass Theatre. | Liz Lauren

Heidi Stillman, artistic director of Lookingglass, who adapted and directed “Hard Times,” could barely speak when asked about Cruz.

“Everything he did just turned to gold,” said Stillman. “He was an amazing acrobat, a wonderful piano player, and because of his years in Montreal he spoke fluent French. And he was just the most wonderful person. We had even begun talking about his working on a new circus  theater piece.”

A Lookingglass post on Facebook said:

“Our incredibly talented colleague, our beautiful soulful friend, Raphael Cruz, has passed away. We were fortunate to spend the past months with Raphael in “Hard Times,” a play about the necessity of art, circus, daring, joy, imagination, and defying gravity – no one personified these qualities better than Raph. He was an absolute delight to work and play alongside, both as a performer and human, and a shining example of the joy that beauty and imagination and play can bring to our lives. Our profoundest condolences to his family and to all who loved him. Le Papillon, you will live forever in our hearts.”

Born in Vallejo, California, Cruz (who I described in my review of “Hard Times” as “a most enchanting actor-acrobat, who also shrewdly portrays the unctuous little banker, Bitzer”), also was widely known for playing the lead role of Buster, a character inspired by silent film great Buster Keaton, in the cinema-themed Cirque du Soleil show, “Iris.”

According to an interview published in a Cirque du Soleil newsletter, Cruz began doing Chinese acrobatics when he was 6 and attended a circus school in San Francisco. He practiced the Chinese Pole, hoop diving, general acrobatics, and teeter board for about nine years, and spent much of his childhood also skateboarding in San Francisco and going to piano lessons. Then, at 15, he went with his older brother to Canada’s National Circus School in Montreal on the advice of the California co-founders of Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers), the virtuosic acrobatic troupe. After finishing his training he joined Montreal’s 7 Fingers as part of the resident cast of “Traces,” one of that ensemble’s signature shows, and remained with it for four and a half years.

Cruz explored other professional opportunities, including cabaret in Germany and a contemporary dance show in Montreal. He played Buster in “Iris” from 2011 to January 2013. He also worked in a Montreal production that was a hybrid of traditional theater and contemporary circus, and went to Sochi, Russia, as assistant choreographer for part of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics there. At the time of his death he was in Paris, working with a modern dance ensemble.

Actor-acrobat Raphael Cruz seen here flying through a hoop in last year’s Lookingglass Theatre production of “Hard Times.” | Liz Lauren