What it takes to stage Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria

Words by Christina Dean

What does it take to host the world’s most famous circus troupe at one of the world’s most famous venues?

There are around 20 different Cirque du Soleil productions running around the world at the same time, including several resident shows in Las Vegas, but the company always makes a stop in London and has performed annually at the Royal Albert Hall since 1996. 

This year, Cirque du Soleil’s winter residency is extra special as it’s the European debut of Alegría – In A New Light, a revived version of Alegría, one of Cirque du Soleil’s most iconic shows, which premiered back in 1994 and was on a 19-year world tour up to 2013. During that time, the show played to 14 million people in 255 cities, including five times in London, making the capital its most-visited city. After being reimagined in 2019 with new direction, acrobatics, sets, costumes and make-up, Alegría is back in London, telling the story of the youth of a king-less kingdom who rise up to shake off the old order and bring joy to the world.

What does it take to stage a show as big and bold as this one at the Royal Albert Hall? We spoke to two people involved in Alegría – Artistic Director Rachel Lancaster and Flying Trapeze Artist Estefani Evans – to find out. 

Rachel Lancaster, Artistic Director at Alegría

Tell us a bit about your background and how you became involved with Cirque du Soleil.

I joined Cirque du Soleil in 2011 as an Assistant Artistic Director, that’s a position they have for training Artistic Directors that come into the company. Before joining Cirque du Soleil, I was dancer based here in London with a few different companies but there was one company I spent 15 years with. While I was performing with them I was the dance captain and became the rehearsal director on tour, so I’d had a good ten years of experience of managing large-scale shows on tour before joining Cirque. 

What does a typical day look like as an Artistic Director? 

I would say the one thing I love about this job is that every day is a little bit different, it’s not very predictable. But the general structure of the day, I’ll arrive around midday, 1pm. We have multiple trainings throughout the week, we always start the week with a long acrobatic training day on stage working through all of the major acts. This is a great opportunity for me to catch specific acts and specific artists with details and notes of things we need to tidy up from the week before, but also to check in with people and how they’re doing depending on where we’re at with the run. Also to talk through if we’ve got new artists arriving, what’s our integration plan, so that’s one part of my day. The other part of my day, I need to check in with all the different sections of my department, so I have wardrobe, performance medicine, stage management and the coaching team working as part of the artistic team. I try to check in with all of those teams as well at some point every day, to just see what the day-to-day situation is or if there’s any longer term things we need to be addressing. 

How long does it take for someone to become a Cirque du Soleil performer and how do they get to become part of the company? 

We operate a centralised casting department who deal with casting for acrobats, actors, dancers, clowns, musicians, singers across the whole board really. I’d say from the point we hire someone, that process can be up to six months in an ideal world. Because in an ideal world, we’d hire someone, send them to Montreal for a period of training to learn the show and learn their makeup before they arrive on tour. When we bring someone directly to tour, which often happens due to the timeline we have available, people sometimes describe that as like jumping on a moving train, because we’re in show mode, we’re in daily operations. We have a long training day on the first day of the week but once we’re into two or three show days, there’s only really an hour that we can use onstage outside of the show.

How long does it take to get the show from rehearsal to the finished piece on stage? 

Actually coming into the Royal Albert Hall this time is a good example because we finished in Japan in mid-October, so everyone on tour had had quite a long break of around six to eight weeks. In order to get everyone back to show fitness and get the show back ready to perform, we started the second week in December and did three weeks of rehearsals up in the north of England, and then we had another six days of staging but they also had the installation here in between. So to come from a standing start to having a show again takes really a minimum of six weeks. When it’s a brand new show, it’s more like a two-year process from the idea beginning to the first show in Montreal. 

Six weeks doesn’t seem like very long? 

For a show that exists already that’s ok, if there were any major changes or significant key roles changing within it then the process may be a little longer. We came with the same team that we had in Japan to setting up here. Our normal set up here is we add two or three days to our regular set-up, so it’s about a week. 

What are the challenges in putting a show like this together that has so many moving parts? 

The challenge is particularly when we move venues like this. Normally we’re in a big top so our theatre travels with us so there’s a lot of stuff that travels with us and everything in relation to the stage is quite similar. When you come to beautiful venue like this, every lighting fixture is different, the winches are in different positions, the artists’ entrances and exits are different. In order to do that we started doing a step-by-step through the show back in April 2023 to really work through with all the technical departments as well as the artistic coaches to make sure we’d not missed anything. Because time is quite tight, we need to have been able to communicate and rehearse with everybody all of the changes before we even get here. So in Wakefield when we were in training, when the artists were having active recovery days, we were doing step-by-steps through the show to make sure all that 64 artists going on stage arrived for the first staging. It’s not a perfect replica but a good idea of what those changes were going to be. For all the technical HoDs too it was a chance for them to really see in practice what we were trying to achieve and for us to test ‘does the theory work or not?’ because you only have a small window if it doesn’t work, you need to have plans B to Z ready to change. 

On that, how do you adapt if something’s not working or is going a bit wrong? 

We only have a very short period of staging so generally you’ll have thought of and talked through multiple options. You’ll have your ideal you’re trying to go for but say if it doesn’t work, it’s really getting together with all the HoDs, both technical and artistic, and the artists that are involved to just brainstorm. Even from the first version that’s how we tend to approach things because nothing moves or changes on stage without an impact on many other people. It’s not always just what you see presented on the stage, there’s so many moving parts around, behind, underneath, on top, that if that’s not centralised and running well nothing will happen. 

What’s your favourite part of the show? 

Oh my goodness! We have so many breathtaking moments in this show but the thing that I always really enjoy looking around at the audience to see how they’re reacting is Storm, It’s always really interesting, it’s so visceral and so physical, just to see the expressions on the audience’s faces, they’re just so shocked and so surprised, it’s wonderful to watch. I don’t want to describe it without giving too much away. Basically we transform the Royal Albert Hall into an adult-sized snow globe and it’s quite an epic moment in the show.

Estefani Evans, Flying Trapeze and Choreography Coach at Alegría

Tell us a bit about your background and how you became involved with Cirque du Soleil.

I come from a five-generation traditional circus family, so that means grandma, mum, siblings, everyone is from the traditional circus. We all did a flying trapeze act and this is one of the acts that Cirque du Soleil is featuring in the Alegría show and that’s how we got involved when they did the big change of putting a flying act in here. My first time was in ZAIA in 2010, one of Cirque du Soleil’s productions. That was my first Cirque du Soleil experience in Macau, China. 

And you’ve been doing different productions with them ever since? 

It’s on and off but i also did Mystère, which is one of the resident shows in Las Vegas, and now Alegría.

So what’s your role at Cirque du Soleil and what does a typical day look like? 

Well I’m a flying trapeze performer so that’s my main act in the show. I’m also one of the main characters in the show, she has a voluptuous body, she’s really funny. And I’m also one of the artistic coaches of the show. I deal with the choreography and helping introduce people to the new choreography or if there are new performers here, I’ll introduce them to where they need to be on stage, so I work alongside Rachel the Artistic Director.

How long does it take to choreograph a show like this? 

In my case I don’t create the choreography of any of the shows, I just help Rachel to figure out when a new person is coming in. But normally it goes from three weeks to up to six weeks, depending on the rush of the performer to be on stage. 

How long would someone have to train for to become a Cirque du Soleil performer? 

To become a Cirque du Soleil performer it’s a littler harder because you need to have lots of experience before getting to have the chance to be in Cirque du Soleil. We hire very big skills to come to the show. To become a trapeze flyer it goes from one to five years, to be in Cirque du Soleil it took me about 10 years of flying already to be able to be at the skill level Cirque du Soleil needs. 

Did you have to audition? 

Yes I had an audition in 2010 to be in ZAIA. I had to travel to LA to do the audition and they went through many trapeze flyers around the world, and I was one of them that was picked. 

How long were you training for the particular trapeze act in Alegría?

When Cirque du Soleil found us we already had an entire troupe ready [The Flying Tunizianis, with her husband Ammed Tuniziani] and that was unique for them to bring this troupe that was already ready. Our introduction to Alegría was six weeks because we already had an act, we had the main structure of the act ready, but normally to create an act it takes from six months to one year to put together. Like the design of the props, the costumes, the make-up, it could get up to one year just for the creation part of it. Plus the training and the people, putting together who is going to be the perfect fit for the act, it can take some time. 

And do you have to rehearse this quite a lot? 

We have at least two days a week of two hours of training. It’s now the maintenance of the act because there is a high level of tricks, a high level of performance, so we have to keep it up. But it’s not training to learn, it’s training to keep the same level of the act for the longest time we can. 

With the trapeze section in particular, how many performers would be involved? 

We have 10 flyers and three catchers, and we have a rotation to maintain the catchers, because they’re the big guys that catch all the big tricks. We also rotate the big tricks of the act with the 10 flyers. 

What is your favourite part of the show? 

I love trapeze of course! But I love the clowns, I love the straps act, that is so romantic. I love Storm, it’s epic and so impressive. I literally love Alegría, I love everything about this show! There is special music, oh my god the songs, there are some in Spanish and some in Italian, which is very attached to me because I’m Latin so I can understand the music and what they’re talking about. I love Alegría

Alegría – In A New Light is playing at the Royal Albert Hall until 3rd March 2024.

Photo credit: Anne-Marie Foker

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