Santa and Cirque du Soleil: It’s not a terribly obvious association. An AARP-eligible gent with a body like a bowl of jelly is not, after all, what comes to mind when one thinks of the extraordinary acrobats, tumblers and aerialists that define the eye-popping aesthetic of Cirque’s many shows.
But that’s about to change — or so hopes James Hadley, the writer and stage director of Cirque du Soleil’s “‘Twas the Night…” When the production premieres in Chicago later this month, it will mark Cirque’s first foray into a Christmas-themed spectacle.
No need get your stockings in a twist: Santa won’t be a contortionist with eight-pack abs, Hadley said. Still, he is intent on putting a new spin (so to speak) on the adventures of St. Nick.
For the better part of a year, Hadley has been deconstructing the iconic 19th century poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” searching for acts to bring its beloved stanzas to life.
“It’s almost 200 years old,” Hadley said of the 1823 poem first published in a New York newspaper. “It’s had an enormous impact on how we see Christmas. The names of the reindeer, the description of Santa, the visions of sugarplums. The challenge was finding acts that could fit the verses, but in a surprising way,” Hadley said.
That means walking a fine line between honoring tradition and avoiding cliché. Out: Dancing sugar plums. In: Hula-hooping acrobats.
“We wanted to rediscover the poem, not rehash it,” Hadley said. “The goal is to discover a new perspective on characters and images we know so well, to see them through Cirque’s prism.”
The discovery starts with a character named Isabella, a young girl Hadley describes as “disconnected” from her family, and from Christmas itself.
“She’s at that age where it’s not cool to hang out with your family,” Hadley said. “Young people change, sometimes very suddenly, when they become young adults. Parents usually need to adapt, to find a different way of relating to them.”
For Isabella and her father, a howling blizzard becomes an entry to a new way of relating. “The storm transports her into the world of the poem, into a different dimension,” Hadley said.
The poem (which is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore and Henry Livingston Jr., depending on who one asks) provides an abundance of gorgeous imagery for Cirque’s artists to bring to life, Hadley said. A Canadian “lamp act” featuring aerialists dancing far above the stage on a flickering chandelier in a manifestation of the “moon on the breast of new fallen snow.” A quartet of Taiwanese diablo performers will use the art form’s intricate mixture of juggling, gymnastics and dance to personify Santa’s key characteristics — twinkling eyes, cherry nose and snow-white beard among them.
“One of my main challenges was finding acts that could connect to Christmas and help link the beautiful passages in the poem. For instance, “‘as leaves before the wild hurricane fly.’” That’s a perfect phrase to describe an aerial act,” Hadley said. Other acts aren’t so literally imagined. A flying turkey soars over the audience in one scene. A group of in-line skaters help create the sense of an icy wonderland. “When they come sliding in, it’s almost a bunch of people tobogganing down a mountain of snow,” Hadley said.
Unlike Cirque’s previous 49 original shows (which have been centered on topics ranging from sex to the Beatles to synchronized diving), “‘Twas the Night…” is solidly geared toward families, Hadley said. It is also the first Cirque production to launch in Chicago since 2009’s critical/commercial trainwreck “Banana Shpeel.”
Hadley is diplomatic about the last time Chicago hosted a world-premiere Cirque show.
“What I love about ‘Twas the Night’ is that it’s coming back to our roots, Cirque du Soleil’s roots. It’s acrobatics, front and center. That’s the backbone of the show,” he said. “And I love the overall message — people change. Relationships change. But traditions can keep people united. Whether it’s to families related by blood or that we’ve created for ourselves.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.