7 Questions with Michel Laprise, Director of Kurios, Cirque’s newest show

With Cirque du Soleil’s latest ocular masterpiece, KURIOS – Cabinet of curiosities, making its Toronto debut under the big top on Aug. 28, AXS was more than curious how this show came to be. Gearing up for a North American tour that spans several Canadian and US cities, we managed to corner the production’s writer and director Michel Laprise to open up the cabinet on the inspiration behind Kurios.

AXS: What separates Kurios from other Cirque shows?

Michel Laprise: Let’s start by saying that we are in the year of the 30th anniversary so we gathered the best team of creators to create a show that would allow us to reinvent ourselves at the same time as staying true to our rules. We were born in the streets, a place where you have to catch the attention of people by doing something very unusual, surprising and captivating. It had to be something generous so afterward the audience would feel generous in return. So we challenged ourselves. At the beginning of the creation process, I put things on the table that were technically impossible. A lot of research and development came into this project. From an aesthetic point of view we have a reference period of time, which is the second half of the 19th century, which was an era of discoveries, inventions and creativity.

AXS: Describe the story in your own words. Who are these characters and why will audiences connect to them?

ML: It is the story of a chercheur/seeker who traveled the world and brought back from different corners of the planet, some “curiosities,” which are strange objects that he finds fascinating and yet does not understand completely. He lives in his laboratory transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. There, he is visited by characters coming from another dimension that will bring these curiosities to life.

AXS: What part of the show are you most proud of? Is there an element, theme or particular act you find yourself more connected to?

ML: What I’m the most proud of is that all the acts are interconnected in one world. I’m also proud that a lot of acts have images where artists have to collaborate or to unify their strengths in order to facilitate the trick of one person. For example, in Acro Net (our giant trampoline act) you have six artists in a circle around a seventh artist and they bounce the net with their legs to give him the impulsion that allows him to reach a height that he could never do with the only power of his legs. Together we can create something beautiful and powerful. I’m happy that we get a strong reactions on some specific moments that are not in themselves acrobatics, some stage effects as an example, I will not tell you the details cause I don’t want to ruin your surprise!

AXS: You have leadership experience all across the creative and entertainment spectrum, but with Kurios this is your first time in the director’s seat for Cirque. What challenges does directing a Cirque show bring that may not be present in other mediums?

ML: I have sat in that seat for big projects at our Events Department, where the pace and duration were different to our typical Big Top process. For a Chapiteau, the process is longer than any pop show or any events, it is important to trust your first ideas and keep them fresh because your first impulses in a project are often the right ones and are important to follow. Compared to a pop show we have a lot of challenges related to the acrobatic nature of what we do.

AXS: Related, what was the most surprising element of directing this show? What came at you that you didn’t expect at day one?

ML: It was great to discover some new aspects of the artists’ talent. For example, I knew about the great acrobatic capacities of Karl L’Ecuyer/ M. Microcosmos, but I had the privilege to see unfold in front of my eyes his great intelligence of stage and his creativity. I was very impressed by the efficiency of our technical team. I could change drastically a scene and the next day they had integrated all changes and were ready in a consistent and safe way.

I was also very pleased to see Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil’s, involvement when he came to see a few of our run-troughs; he is extremely good at pointing what works with the audience and what doesn’t, but when there is a problem, he respects our freedom to create our own solutions (because, with his great creativity he could impose his). One of my best memories was when I took a couple of his notes and comments on a scene following a run through, get home at midnight and write until 2 a.m. a new version of the scene that would solve the problem.

AXS: Kurios has billed itself as challenging our perceptions, but Cirque has always been about mind-bending acts. How does Kurios take the already surreal world of Cirque to another level of imagination?

ML: Well we are playing with the fantastic and we all know that to create fantastic you need to first establish a credible environment so then you can play with some element of this environment. All magicians know that to make people believe in a trick you need to use objects of their everyday life - a cup, a hat, a chair - because they know how these things are and behave. In Kurios, we established a credible reality and then we play with it with effects of proportions, points of view or gravity references. The enthusiastic reaction of the audience confirms that it was the right way to go.

AXS: Cirque has set the bar so insanely high for creativity and stagecraft. Is there ever any concern that a show will be perceived as repetitive, or that the expectation of the audience will be too high based on the company’s history? How do you keep the invention alive and the creativity moving to new heights?

ML: We are always conscious of that and I think it is a really good thing. It is not in our core values to be complaisant and we are sincere when we say that the successes of yesterday are not a guarantee of today’s success. What we worked hard on Kurios is to create a climate of free expression were we would feel comfortable to tell each other if we were repeating ourselves. The key to reinvention is to not operate as a closed system. The world is filled with wonders and changing and we have to keep our eyes open and stay connected to this world. We also have to cultivate the love of creativity at all levels. I’m personally interested and thankful for everybody to share their ideas and all through out the creation process: Stage managers, everybody in the shops, and the offices are welcome to do so.

The show runs in Toronto’s Port Lands until October 26, 2014 before taking off to San Francisco this winter. Get your tickets here.