From a trapeze-swinging contortionist, to a rope aerialist performing so high she almost disappears from view when in full swing, to 16 flaming crossbow arrows being shot at a man, there are plenty of death-defying acts in Voyage de la Vie.
A fast-paced theatrical circus extravaganza, Voyage de la Vie (French for 'journey of life') opened yesterday at Resort World Sentosa, the island leisure complex in Singapore. Conceived by some of the creative talent behind Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Brothers productions, the storyline revolves around 'The Boy', a young office worker caught up in the pressures of city life and frustrated by the rigidity of tradition and society.
One day a large parcel lands on his desk. Hiding inside is a mischievous youngster (15-year-old Ukrainian contortionist Alexey Goloborodko), who introduces him to the 'Lantern Master' (juggler extraordinaire Viktor Kee). Led by the mysterious pair, The Boy embarks on a metaphorical journey to discover his identity, giving them the chance to reflect on struggles about love, temptation, conflict and resolution, life and death.
'I think everyone can identify with The Boy because we have all been in that position in one way or another,' says Singaporean singer Jonathan Leong, who plays him. 'The one thing that he does have in abundance is creative imagination.'
The multimillion-dollar original production is the resident show at Festival Grand, the 1,600-seat theatre in the resort, and features some big names, on and off stage. It is produced by Mark Fisher, who has designed sets for memorable rock productions, including Pink Floyd's The Wall, and for Cirque du Soleil's KA in Las Vegas. Director Philip McKinley has worked on several editions of Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey's The Greatest Show on Earth, and directed the five-time Tony-nominated Broadway musical The Boy from Oz.
Resort World Sentosa's vice-president of entertainment, Andrea Teo, says her team scouted the globe to find the right performers for the various challenging roles.
'You will see some things that have never been done before, created especially for that show,' McKinley says.
Some world-class circus artists take turns to teach The Boy some of life's lessons. 'The Magician' and 'The Maestro' (Jarrett Parker and Raja Rahman) show him that not everything is what it seems to be. 'Life' (air acrobat Liina Aunola in an act that uses only ropes as a swing and support) and 'Death' (crossbow artist Martti Peltonen) show that life is nothing without risk and danger, and should be lived to the fullest.
The performers are certainly stretching themselves. Kee, who won the 2003 Clown d' Argent award at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival and spent eight years with the Cirque du Soleil, is juggling fire for the first time and has added several new tricks to his award-winning routine.
'Phil provokes us to have new ideas and pushes us to new limits, which we want to do as artists, because we don't want to keep on repeating ourselves,' Kee says.
'The most difficult part of my act is actually to stay in rhythm, no matter what trick you do. The tricks are so tight on the music, bar by bar, I've never done this before. Right now, I still have to count. All the tricks are built to the moment in music; it's the most precision type of work that I've done.'
McKinley says the music was 'sliced like a film score' to fit what the performer was doing: 'It's a vital part of the show. A performer cannot perform without it.'
Aurelia Cats, who plays 'Love', combines the strength of a trapeze artist with the flexibility of a contortionist. She performs her graceful yet dangerous act at twice the usual distance from the floor without nets or safety lines. 'I have not seen this by a trapeze performer in a couple of decades. Her willingness to perform at this height makes her even more intriguing and beguiling,' McKinley says.
Crossbow artist Peltonen has developed a new bow-and-arrow act that involves him shooting 16 blazing arrows at himself, with the last arrow piercing an apple on his head (the action is so fast it has to be replayed in slow motion a large video screen for a better view).
Aunola, fresh from Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States, has created a special cloud swing where she performs a forward roll to catch a rope that hangs over the audience. 'She actually leaves the swing and flies in mid-air over the audience as she reaches for the web. I've never seen a cloud swing performer achieve this feat,' McKinley says.
Being a singer, however, Leong had to acquire basic circus skills to play The Boy. McKinley held auditions worldwide, but was keen to find someone local.
'I could have brought someone from Broadway, but there aren't a lot of singers that would agree to go on the fast track trampoline and do a flip. I needed to find a performer that wasn't just a singer. I also needed to find someone relatively young to fit the story.'
McKinley says he was given free rein to develop the concept of the show. 'The only brief was that the show should have some reference to Singapore and talk about East meets West, which at the beginning I wasn't sure about. For me, East meets West was more about fusion cuisine. But when I came to Singapore, I got it. In the United States we're a melting pot, but the different nationalities seem to establish themselves in specific enclaves, while here it's truly mixed, there is a real fusion,' he says.
The idea for the show kept evolving as the producers found performers and created specific scenes for them. 'It starts with finding the right artist and then you create a story around them.'
A showman to the core, McKinley is proud of the technical innovations achieved on the show. The final set, for instance, is a complicated piece involving inline skating, high bars and a trampoline that revolves 360 degrees while artists are performing. It is directed by a global positioning system, a first, according to McKinley, which permits it to move about the stage without a cable or winches.
Any modern circus show inevitably draws comparisons to Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian company that reinvented the genre by eliminating performing animals and creating a theatrical show around a central theme or storyline. But McKinley is quick to point out that his show is very different, putting more of a spotlight on the performers and their personalities.
'Voyage de la Vie was created to be unlike any other. It's truly unique. There is a balance between technology, pyrotechnic effects, big troupe acts and personalities,' Cats says.
'We have eight principal acts in one show, which is very rare, and every one of the acrobats in the house troupe was chosen for his or her personality and individual talent, and not just to be part of a group. Every act was worked on to be a special moment in the show and the combination of all of these acts finalised into a great musical circus show with high standards.'
'I think after seeing the show, people will appreciate circus artists. They're not performers they're, artists. They hone their skills for years, and it's far different from singing and dancing,' McKinley says.
Voyage de la Vie, Festival Grand, Resorts World Sentosa; Wed-Fri 8.30pm, Sat-Sun, 5.30pm and 8.30pm; tickets S$68 (HK$380), S$88, S$108, S$128 and S$188. Bookings: www.sistic.com.sg