Death-defying Cirque Adrenaline brings bigger, bolder show to Hong Kong

The cast of 50 includes stuntmen, trapeze artists, aerial performers, fire breathers, jugglers as well as strongmen and motorbike acrobats

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 6:01am

A series of pop-up performances around town last month by two strongmen from Cirque Adrenaline surprised passers by and created a buzz of interest in the show.

Next week, the full circus rolls into town – direct from a record-breaking season at Sydney Opera House – for a Christmas and New Year residency at AsiaWorld-Arena.

“I have always had a passion for circuses and this one blew me away,” says James Cundall, chief executive of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, which is presenting the show, “not only with its incredibly talented performers, but it’s fast, funny and will have you on the edge of your seat. If you think you have seen circus before, think again.”

Like Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Adrenaline is part of the nouveau cirque or contemporary circus movement, and some of its 50 cast members have appeared in Cirque du Soleil productions.

However, while Cirque du Soleil shows generally have a unifying theme or narrative thread, Cirque Adrenaline’s objective is simply to thrill.

“The original inspiration was to take the highest, fastest and most dangerous acts in the world and put them together in one spectacular show,” says creative producer Simon Painter.

“The thrill aspect is what sets Cirque Adrenaline apart. Normally in a cirque show you have one big act that closes the show. With Cirque Adrenaline you have almost every act being large scale and dangerous.”

The show is co-produced by Painter and TML Enterprises chief executive Tim Lawson, and was first staged at Sydney Opera House in 2011.

British-born Painter is a California resident these days and was originally a classical violinist, but his creative instincts drew him towards theatre, and eventually circus productions.

His first, Le Grand Cirque, sold more than 40,000 tickets in 10 days at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, setting a record, and establishing some precedents for Cirque Adrenaline.

“It took about 12 months for the original version to come together, as technically its a very challenging show to mount, because of the acrobatic rigging,” Painter says.

“This is certainly more difficult than most of the other shows that we are involved with, as you have to be 100 per cent sure of the safety of the performers at all times, which takes a lot of time and resources.”

The talent was recruited from other already successful circuses, and includes stuntmen, trapeze artists, aerial performers, fire breathers, jugglers, acrobats and tumblers as well as the strong men and motorbike acrobats.

“The motorbikes are going to jump the width of the arena,” says Mark Flores, one of the two strongmen who along with Nikolay Nikolov staged the pop-up previews.

“That to me is crazy. What we do is dangerous and I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. But that’s what they and the guys on the Wheel of Death say about us. They’re miles high, but when they see Nikolay carry me, up a ladder, on his head, that’s the most insane thing they’ve seen, so there’s a kind of mutual respect between the cast. We appreciate each other.”

You can’t make a mistake. Or if you do you only make it once
Nikolay Nikolov, acrobat

Flores and Nikolov both have backgrounds in sports acrobatics, and turned to circus performing when they realised that they were close to the end of their careers in professional athletics.

They have competed against each other in the past, Flores representing the UK, and Nikolov captaining the Bulgarian National acrobatics team.

Today, as well as performing, both have offstage roles supervising aspects of the production and scouting for talent.

“It’s a different kind of performance,” says Flores. “In competitive sport you concentrate on being excellent. When you are performing for an audience you have to perform to them, and get them to feel involved. You have to put your personality into it. You are doing what you love for a living and you have to let people see that.”

Nikolov agrees: “When you are in competitive acrobatics the judges give you a score. When you are in show business, the audience does that. We’ve performed in America, Australia and Europe, but this is the first time in Asia, so that’s a very big challenge and a new challenge.

“That’s the difference between this and sports. For sports you train for half a year for one competition, but every show is like a competition.”

Clearly one of the attractions of a production with acts titled Wheel of Death and Sphere of Fear, is that the performances involve a considerable element of risk. The stunts require courage – some might say foolhardiness – as well as great skill.

“Of course it’s high risk,” says Flores. “That’s what people pay to see, but the more you train the more you are in control, and the more you can push the boundaries. We might be crazy, but we’re not stupid.

“There’s a high level of concentration and everyone onstage is super professional. Behind the scenes we are ultra rigorous with checking the safety of everything.”

“You can’t make a mistake,” adds Nikolov. “Or if you do you only make it once.”

One of the acts taking risks of which even Flores and Nikolov are in awe is a five-man motorcycle stunt team calling themselves Extreme Freestyle Motocross.

They will be delivering a performance of motorcycle acrobatics involving high-speed jumps, backflips and somersaults, at times holding onto their bikes with just one hand, and at other times flying completely unattached.

Injuries in putting on these displays are always possibilities – and worse things can happen. Earlier this year Austrian team member Martin Schenck saw a fellow rider killed during a practice session, but it has not affected his nerve, although he has taken some knocks himself.

“I dislocated both my thumbs once – it sounds minor, but they are kind of useful for holding onto the bike, so with metal pins in them for five weeks I was pretty much out of action,” he says. “I also crashed into a wall and broke my leg and foot, so I was in a wheelchair for a while, and last year I broke my right knee, so yes, I’ve had a few scrapes.”

Flores and Nikolov agree that the international status of the Sydney Opera House makes it a special venue in which to perform, but say that the larger scale of the AsiaWorld-Arena will allow the performers to extend their scope.

“You always want to make it better, but at the Sydney Opera House you are constrained by the space,” says Flores. “For Hong Kong, the creative team have been given a blank canvas, and it’s huge. You can put on bigger, better, crazier stuff. It’s great.”

Cirque Adrenaline is, he says, a show for all generations, offering the enjoyment of sheer spectacle, easily understood.

“I love Cirque du Soleil, but sometimes when I walk out even I can’t quite work out what was going on. With this one, whether you come with a four-year-old, a 40-year-old, or a grandmother, it’s just high intensity fun. We have a clown, and he does a great job linking the acts together and taking you through the show, but there is no underlying story. All you have to do is sit there and go ‘Wow’.”

Cirque Adrenaline, December 22 to January 3, 2016. AsiaWorld-Arena, Lantau, HK$295-HK$895. Inquiries: 3128 8288

Visit our Facebook page for a chance to win a pair of VIP tickets worth HK$895 each, for the performance on Tuesday December 29 at 7.45pm.