Performing arts in Hong Kong

Cirque du Soleil: Kooza – we go backstage during rehearsal for Hong Kong shows

The Canadian company is famous for its animal-free, death-defying acrobatic acts. We go behind the scenes of the latest production to visit Hong Kong and look back over the circus’ previous visits to the city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 8:41pm

Six years since its last Hong Kong show, Cirque du Soleil is back in the city with daredevil production Kooza. The show takes over Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront Event Space until the first week of June. 

Playing the leading role of the Innocent is Cedric Belisle, 28, a former trampolinist in Canada’s national squad. “He’s a childlike character who’s young at heart and gets thrown into the world of the tricksters. It’s his journey discovering this world and himself,” says Belisle. 

Kooza means box or treasure in Sanskrit, and the Innocent’s adventure begins as soon as he opens the  box.

Kooza goes back to the very origins of Cirque du Soleil. It combines two main acts – the art of clowning, which makes our show very fun and lighthearted, and high-wire acrobatics,” says artistic director Dean Harvey of the show, which took two years to build and is staged in the Big Top, the company’s iconic blue and yellow marquee. 

“We have live music, incredible costumes, beautiful lighting sets and all the skills our performers bring. With all those elements, I think we have elevated it to a whole different degree of circus.” 

The international cast of 50 performers from 21 countries include former Olympic athletes and artists who grew up in family circuses.

All the acts are challenging and exhilarating in their own right – jumping off the teeterboard on stilts or crossing the high wire on a bike. However, arguably the most heart-stopping stunt is the Wheel of Death, where the two performers balance, leap and skip ropes on a rotating wheel moving at high speed. 

Clowns, who greet the crowd before the show and between the numbers, are such masters of their craft that their acts are just as entertaining than the acrobatics. You would think the climax of the show is the most audacious stunt. Well, no. The audience on the night of our visit was equally thrilled, if not more, when the clowns conjured a hunky half-naked man (because why not?), who then posed for selfies with the crowd. 

Cirque du Soleil star acrobat Yann Arnaud plunges to his death during Florida show

The circus community was shocked by the recent death of seasoned acrobat Yann Arnaud, who died in March after plunging onto the stage during another Cirque du Soleil show, Volta.

The external and internal investigation of the incident is still ongoing, but the company assures us that safety of performers is paramount.

At Kooza, safety nets are used for some of the most dangerous acts, easing the audience’s anxiety without taking anything away from the show.

Among the whole production team – including the cast, technicians, an in-house massage therapist and physiotherapist – one person is especially thrilled to be in Hong Kong. For Kevin Chung the props technician, it is not just the 152nd city he has visited with the travelling circus, it’s also his home. 

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Chung, who graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts with a major in props making, has been with the company for a decade. He single-handedly maintains more than 100 props in the show. 

For Chung, Belisle and many members of the team, being part of the famous circus is a dream come true. 

“I saw a show called Alegria on television when I was 10. The minute I saw it, I told my parents that’s what I want to do when I grow up,” says Belisle, who has been in three different shows over the past nine years. But Kooza, he says, has a special place in his heart. “Everything you can expect from a Cirque du Soleil show. it’s all in Kooza.”

Kooza, Central Harbourfront Event Space, 9 Lung Wo Rd, Central. 

April 19 to June 3, HK$488 to HK$1,888 AsiaBoxOffice

A history of Cirque du Soleil in Hong Kong

The company started as a troupe of 20 street performers in Montreal, Canada in 1984. Cirque du Soleil has since become the largest theatrical producer in the world, employing almost 4,000 people. There are 21 shows on around the world at the moment, only two of which are the same. 

Cirque du Soleil has reinvented the circus by taking out the animals and adding other acts. It is constantly pushing the boundaries; its most recent show, Crystal, for example, combines skating and acrobatics, with the ice floor reacting to the performers’ movements, resulting in a striking visual spectacle. 

Kooza is the fifth Cirque du Soleil show to be staged in Hong Kong. 

The first was in 1996, when it presented Alegria at Victoria Park. Although the show is named after the Spanish word for joy, it is melancholic and filled with eccentric characters: a jester who lost his king, aristocrats, beggars and, of course, clowns. 

Equally colourful were the performers who brought these characters to life. There was Yuri Medvedev, who trained at the Moscow State  Circus School but later fled to the US after being arrested several times for demonstrations after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine.

Then there was Serguei Chachelev, who was deaf and worked in a factory in the Soviet Union and used to practise being a clown after work. 

Cirque du Soleil returned in 2000, staging Saltimbanco at Tamar, where stunning acts, such as adagio acrobatics (stationary balancing acts), Chinese poles and gravity-defying bungees, took place in an imaginary city. 

From the Italian phrase “saltare in banco”, which means “to jump on the bench”, Saltimbanco was the company’s longest touring show before being retired in 2012. Before ending its two-decade run, however, there was a goodbye performance for the Hong Kong audience in the summer of 2012. 

Between those two touring shows was Quidam, which was staged in 2005. Quidam is the Latin word for anonymous passer-by and tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who desperately wants the attention of her parents.

It opened with a German wheel act, in which an acrobat performs somersaults in a giant wheel. Other show-stopping acts included aerial contortions in silk and the Spanish webs – a group act where eight artists free-fall through the air.