Cirque du Soleil's Dralion, as in half dragon and half lion, is an East meets West extravaganza. The vintage Cirque show is filled with all kinds of performers doing things you would not want to try at home — a spider lady on the silks dropping from the ceiling, a shirtless guy trapped inside a gigantic wheel, bouncing people who walk on walls, a bendable woman who balances on one arm and a gaggle of those well meaning French/Italian clowns. Think world air candy.
Like many Cirque shows, it also contains a mild dose of cultural appropriation. Oh, and there's plenty of dancing in this baby.
I, for one, never wanted to run away to the circus. Fear of lions, life on the road and the iffy engineering of big tents put me on a different path. Plus, I read Water for Elephants.
"We never stop creating. In 2010, we brought the show back for what I call "the great Dralion makeover." Today, there are new acts and 80% of the cast is new. The show is in the best condition it has ever been."
Life in the circus is not a piece of cake, but it's not boring either. I visited with Dralion assistant artistic director James Santos to get a glimpse of life in the world's most lucrative circus. Santos brings a rich treasure of dance experience, from a stint at Metropolitan Opera Ballet to a thriving career in musical theater.
Like me, Santos never pined for a life in the circus, but seems quite content with his new gig. For the past year he's called the big tent his home. He brings us into the traveling life and the world of Dralion, playing at the Toyota Center tonight through Dec. 5.
CultureMap: How did you go from ballet to the circus?
James Santos: Well, my training is also in musical theater. I have always to put myself in the director's seat. I see it as a way to spread my wings and a natural progression.
CM: I have interviewed many a Cirque director over the years, and they are most often from dance backgrounds. Why is dance the art form best suited for directing Cirque?
JS: Dancers have a wide variety of experience. There's also so much acting in dancing. and it's a visual art as well. I think we can also relate to the discipline and hours of training that is required for many of our artists. We are clued into performance as well, it's a natural fit.
CM: Did you used to look at Cirque shows when you were a kid and think, "Hey, I could run that show?"
JS: No, not at all. In fact, the first Cirque show I ever saw was Dralion when I started the job a year ago.
CM: What's the most fun part of your job?
JS: I get to work with people from all over the world. I love putting together a new version of an act. The daily variety the job brings to me is so fulfilling. I also enjoy keeping the original integrity of the show.
CM:. What's the hardest part of your job? It can't be as fun as it looks.
JS: Being away from my family. I have two children, ages three and five so we Skype a lot. So life on the road would be definitely the hardest part. We tour for 10 weeks and go home for two. I try to remain connected with my normal state of life within this bubble of the Cirque world, but it's hard.
CM: Dralion is an old show and Cirque has shifted quite a bit since that time. How do you keep a show created in 1999 fresh?
JS: Cirque shows are always evolving and never static. We never stop creating. In 2010, we brought the show back for what I call "the great Dralion makeover." Today, there are new acts and 80% of the cast is new. The show is in the best condition it has ever been. We have a strong group of artists, and things just keep getting better. I'm really proud of the shape of the show.
CM: You have artists of so many disciplines. Some hang from silks while others walk on walls. How do they all stay fit?
JS: We provide workshops for them but each has their own workout. I teach class now and then, too. It's a fast moving process, and they have to drive themselves as artists. There are coaches and physical therapists available. We also have a running club that both administrators and artists participate in.
CM: Cirque doesn't come cheap. Why should a person plunk down their hard earned cash to see this show?
JS:Dralion holds something for everyone. It's a well-balanced show with every style of music, from African to Indian, and even a touch of techno. It's a group of performers from 15 different countries that can do amazing things. You get to see spectacular artists doing what they were born to do.
Here's a taste of Dralion: