Naughty by nature
Last Monday, at Club Cubic in Macau's City of Dreams, a group of about 200 guests attended an unveiling: the first public performance of Taboo, billed as a 'seductive entertainment extraordinaire'. Its creator, Franco Dragone - the man who brought The House of Dancing Water to City of Dreams - described it as an 'open rehearsal' in which the audience would play a vital part. Without participation, as he remarked, 'it's masturbation' and 'for me, it's extremely important to feel the kind of entertainment we do together'.
Taboo is (somewhat ungrammatically) subtitled The Show Naughty and Naughtier. You've probably seen the extensive advertising campaign which features a large, glossy mouth containing a small, naked woman. At least one viewer in Club Cubic wondered, with an awful chill, if the interactive shades of Hair, or even Oh! Calcutta!, were about to be evoked.
She needn't have worried. There's no nudity or toplessness - yet - in Taboo. Nor is the audience required to do much more than sip champagne, nibble strawberries and make accidental eye contact with the performers while they prance about the club with cigarettes and cheekbones. The atmosphere is deliberately Weimar Germany, but on Monday night the suggestiveness was more sporty than sensual, as if a team of Olympians were modelling designer underwear. Your reporter eventually found herself wishing for something rather less athletic and a little more seductive.
Apparently, Dragone - who'd flown in from his base in Belgium at the weekend - thought the same. Word filtered out that the show needed considerable work before Thursday's opening night. But at 4pm on Tuesday, he appeared for his interview (with a retinue of five) at the Grand Hyatt Macau's Mezza9 restaurant, as warmly good-humoured as a man who'd had nine hours of sleep instead of being up all night, jet-lagged and reworking his concept.
Dragone, by the way, is his real name. There's a moment in The House of Dancing Water when a massive dragon, concocted from bicycles and saddles, is wheeled on stage. Is that a personal joke? He laughs. 'Yes! And it was made by a Belgian guy. The idea was to have a lot of bicycles that fall into the water and come out as a dragon, but that didn't work.'
It must be one of the few stunts that haven't. Dragone, who created many of Cirque du Soleil's best-known shows in the 1980s and '90s before setting up his own company in 2000, is not usually a man thwarted by the laws of physics or scale. Although he started off doing political theatre, his vision has expanded into a mega-region of superlatives: bigger, higher, brighter, splashier. In 2007, when he met the American Theatre Critics' Association at its conference, he read out, with approval, one critic's comments that his 'style and production overwhelm the artists and content'. For Dragone, the spectacle is the whole point.
Taboo's intimacy, therefore, is a departure both for him and for Macau. He initially asked Lawrence Ho Yau-lung (Stanley Ho Hung-sun's son and the CEO of Melco Crown Entertainment, which owns City of Dreams) if he could create a cabaret in a ballroom. It was Ho who suggested using Club Cubic. 'It's the beginning of an experiment we will do the whole summer, to identify if the cabaret genre would be appropriate for Macau,' Dragone says. 'We'll try things, keep it chic, not go with vulgarity, and measure the edginess.'
How, exactly, will he do that? 'We'll listen to the reaction of the audience.' Would he like some immediate feedback? Dragone spreads his arms wide: 'Please!' Why does the show bear such little relation to its titillating poster? He nods, thoughtfully. 'It's a trial we have to do, I think the audience will evolve. We are going to have toplessness but it will be painted.' (City of Dreams already has some form with such camouflage: the mermaids flicking about in its huge virtual aquarium have carefully daubed chests.)
What about the young African woman - a royal from Cameroon, according to the press release - who's decked out in tribal feathers and shakes her booty in a manner that's reminiscent of cabaret star Josephine Baker in 1925, but which looks deeply suspect to a squeamish liberal in 2012?
'I disagree,' he says amiably. 'I know there is a problem with black people in China. In The House of Dancing Water, we have a bunch of Tanzanians, and we were prepared for trouble, a racist attitude. But Wabo, the contortionist - he was in the streets, in Tanzania, begging for money. Now he is here, in Macau. I saw Princess on a TV show, I was on the jury. She said, 'My father doesn't know I do this. It's a way to free me'.'
Would he allow such a performance in Las Vegas? 'I have seen this,' he begins. Then he pauses. 'You are right. It's true, she makes a confusion between ritual and show.' Dragone suddenly stands up and flings his arms about in an imitation of the princess in the group finale. He sits down and says, 'Where is the border? Show or ritual? But at least I try to find out. I'm trying to find the right spot for her. I respect what you say - the only thing I can't accept is why I can't give this person the same chance as anyone else.' He is, he adds, bringing an Indian transvestite to Taboo. 'Same problem - where is the border?'
Amid such a mix, you have to wonder where his definition of sensuality lies. 'It's hard to define but it is not what is shown - it is hidden, in a nice way, but is something you must sense.' He tells a story about how, when he was wooing his first wife, another man secretly loved her. 'I told her about him but she knew nothing about him, nothing. You need to know!'
The 1970s glam-rock-Rolling-Stones-Queen image of Taboo would suggest that Dragone, who was born in 1952, discovered his inner naughtiness in that era. 'This is not me, this is not my look,' he says, eyeing the giant poster with faint alarm, and grinning around the room. 'Talk to my marketing man!' (That would be Robert Juarez, who later showed the visual alternatives - a spiked strawberry, red peppers, a woman's geometrically striped buttocks - that had been considered and rejected. 'We have to be more expressive here in Macau,' Juarez says. 'The message is very complicated.')
Dragone himself prefers the simplicity of the feminine silhouette - 'It's very, very touching' - and he's a fan of the Belle Epoque, an earlier era of theatrical expression. 'Last week I was in the Lido de Paris - you smell the carpet. And the red curtain of Club Cubic is there to recall the Wintergarten in Berlin. I love this feeling.'
Everyone is aware, to an unusually public degree, that Taboo could fail. Macau is a recognised graveyard for entertainers' hopes. 'My colleagues in Cirque du Soleil at the Venetian did not succeed,' Dragone remarks. (Zaia closed in February, three years into a 10-year contract.) 'But tonight, the light, the sound, will be better. I've added seven minutes, I've shortened things. It was not fluid enough, now it's overlapping. Things will change.'
That night, another 'open rehearsal' took place. Whatever had happened in the intervening 24 hours, Dragone's genius had managed to transform the show. Suddenly, it had energy, exuberance and a slick sexiness as well as several extraordinary performances including a male flamenco dancer, flames erupting from his feet, and an 'aerial chain artist' who rose and descended from the ceiling clasping a woman between his legs.
The most spectacular artist of all, however, was a young woman called Elena Gatilova who contorted herself, in a nude bodysuit, on the aerial hoop. The grace and beauty of her movements silenced the entire room (and, in Macau, the sound of silence is an achievement in itself) until the roar of approval at the end.
The curious thing is that such an exquisite celebration of the human body didn't feel taboo at all.
Taboo is on a limited run until September 15. Wed-Sat, 10pm, City of Dreams' Club Cubic. Tickets and packages from HK$2,000 to HK$33,888