Taking a flying leap into the nightlife of Waikiki
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
Cirque Hawaii brings aerialists and acrobats, contortionists and teeter-boarders — and new life — to the former IMAX Theatre in Waikiki, redubbed the Cirque Hawaii Theatre, starting Thursday with benefit shows. It opens to the public Dec. 17.
A 32-member cast, representing six nations, heralds a new era in a competitive show spectrum that for years has mostly included a Polynesian extravaganza (Tihati's "Creation — A Polynesian Journey" at the Sheraton Princess Kai'ulani Hotel), a magic show (John Hirokawa's "Magic of Polynesia" at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel) and a contemporary Las Vegas-style revue (the Society of Seven LV at the Outrigger Waikiki).
The new production, mounted by two former Cirque du Soleil performers, retains the formula of the Montreal-based production company that has revolutionized the way we all view circuses. The troupers do daredevil feats with a new-age look and edge, complete with theatrical makeup (painted faces and sequined adornments), and backed by alluring, seductive music.
Will Cirque fly here? Producer Cornell "Tuffy" Nich-olas thinks so, although he admits it will take time to build an audience base.
"We created this show for several reasons," he said earlier this week, as crews readied the lobby area with new carpeting, performers gathered for a photo shoot and the box office and 200 travel/tour desks around town started signing up prospective viewers.
"One, there's a huge number of tourists that come to Hawai'i. And there's room for another type of show in Waikiki. We also hope the local people will also come check us out."
While this venture is not related to the Cirque pioneers, it has enlisted two former Cirque performers to maintain quality control: director Mathieu Laplante and choreographer Vital Germaine have struggled through language barriers to speak the language of the stage. Both bring a performer's perspective — to showcase the specialty acts and keep the mystique moving.
Nicholas didn't reveal the costs of putting together an endeavor like this, nor specify the duration of the lease of the site — "but it's medium-length, to give us time to build up our tours."
But staging a high-tech show in a former movie theater was a challenge — the old IMAX doesn't have wing space, fly space, dressing rooms or even a performance stage or a theatrical proscenium with curtains.
What the theater does offer is stadium seating, with unbeatable vistas for viewing.
"We took advantage of the 70-foot height, but we had to build three primary performance areas," said Nicholas. The main stage runs the length of the theater, jutting out to the lower-level entryway. Trapeze rigging supports some up-there thrills, and the air space above the audience also serves as a staging zone.
Capacity has been expanded slightly, to 480 seats, with new red upholstery and cup holders installed, because audiences will be able to sip deluxe cocktails with names like Contortionist, Acrobat and Aerialist while watching.
Below the stage, offices have been converted to dressing rooms, not yet outfitted with suitable mirrors or lights.
And because of a lack of holding space, props will be minimal.
For director Laplante, there was an additional hurdle in mounting the show: communication.
"Our cast speaks several languages," said Laplante, who at age 16 joined a Cirque production in a "Saltimbocca" company that toured Japan. "We have people who speak Russian and French, but gesture is very important in communicating thoughts."
The performers are from Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine and the United States. Two locals — Corrina Brillon, who also helped choreographed some numbers, and Akiko Kitehara — are part of the dance ensemble.
Occasionally barking instructions over a mike to his performers from a seat in the house, Laplante said Cirque continues to soar everywhere because of its "extraordinary feats of humans pushing their limits with elegance and emotion." He likened it to sports, "but modified with lighting, costumes and music."
A leg injury prompted his move from the performing ranks to the director's chair.
"Right now, I feel what others in the cast are feeling — excitement," said Laplante. "I try to translate that energy to them on stage."
Choreographer Germaine, who speaks French, Dutch, English "and a few phrases of Russian," said he has enjoyed his Cirque run "because I realized I had something to say — something to share." A Belgian national until a year ago, when he earned U.S. citizenship, Germaine had a 10-year stint with Cirque until an accident ended his performing career. He had been involved in Cirque ventures such as "Mystere" in Las Vegas and "Quidam" in a North American tour.
"I think it's equally exciting to choreograph, but it's very different from performing," said Germaine. "Now the applause is not immediately for me. It's for the performers."
Ganchimeg Oyunchimeg, a contortionist whose spine seems to be made of rubber, was earning spontaneous cheers with her formidable talent. It comes easily, she said of bending backward and getting her head between her legs. "I was doing some bends at 3," she said of her flexibility, and went to school for more formal training. "The bending and balancing are easy; the (one-hand) stand is more difficult." Before joining this company, she was associated with ventures such as Circus Vargas and the Mongolian Circus, doing her pretzel speciality.
Reach Wayne Harada at email@example.com.