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Thrills and Chills

Embark on the rock opera journey of Axel, whose passion for live music and graphic arts comes to life in an exhilarating Cirque du Soleil ice adventure that reminds us that dreams are within reach.

Article
Gina Conroy
Photos
Courtesy
Posted
December 28, 2019

In a world of conformity, where life often appears black and white, one voice finds the courage to rise above the noise and shine his true colors for the world to see. One company that has been a leading force in the acrobatic industry for decades dares to push the boundaries of their field again. One show mesmerizes audiences with adrenaline-fueled ice skating set to the backdrop of the most visually breathtaking and musical production to date.

Axel is like nothing you’ve ever seen in a Cirque du Soleil show before,” says Fabrice Lemire, the artistic director. “That’s the whole point. We are looking outside the box to inspire audiences, but also looking to our creative process to continue to be a driving force in this performing art.”

Lemire, who’s worked on six shows since joining Cirque du Soleil’s creative team, says when they started expanding their horizons years ago by adding different elements to their shows, people questioned what they were doing.

Although there were creative benefits to the ice like speed and a sudden change of direction, they needed to find a safe way to protect the acrobats from the potential dangers of performing on a slick surface.
Although there were creative benefits to the ice like speed and a sudden change of direction, they needed to find a safe way to protect the acrobats from the potential dangers of performing on a slick surface.

“They thought we were drifting away from what we excelled in,” says Lemire, who loves the challenge of being part of the creative process. “Why do something if you remain the same? At some point, you have to ask yourself, how do you continue to be a driving force in your industry?”

Those are precisely the questions Cirque du Soleil asks before they decide on a show. Bringing the story of Axel to life takes more than a vision; it takes an entire creative team. Many ideas are placed in front of a committee, and then they bring their platform and the elements to a stage director to see if a story can be created around the idea. Next, the stage director brings in designers, and they collaborate with set and lighting design, projections, music, and choreography. Once they know the plot, they can decide what acrobatic elements will support the storytelling.

When they decided to take their acrobatic show to the ice, they knew there would be some challenges.

“We needed to explore what elements we could incorporate into the space while respecting the element of ice,” says Lemire.

Although there were creative benefits to the ice like speed and a sudden change of direction, they needed to find a safe way to protect the acrobats from the potential dangers of performing on a slick surface. “Different elements needed a trust mat so performers can do the acrobatic skills and stunts,” says Lemire. “We added a layer of cushion to give the performers a proper surface.”

Thankfully, their first ice show (Crystal) was such a success they decided on a second one, but with a different twist, of course. “Crystal was done as a poetic journey of a young lady finding herself and her purpose in life,” says Lemire.

Bringing the story of Axel to life takes more than a vision; it takes an entire creative team.
Bringing the story of Axel to life takes more than a vision; it takes an entire creative team.

With the second ice show, the creative team wanted to blend the ice skating and other elements, as seen through a different lens, while adding creative layers to enhance the storytelling and visuals. In previous Cirque du Soleil performances, the musical score supported the acting, staging, and acrobatics. In Axel, the music is one of the driving forces of the production.

“The inspiration [for Axel] is the journey of the young, up-and-coming star of tomorrow,” says Lemire. Axel, the lead character, is a singer and musician with a dream of stardom, like what you see on American Idol or The Voice. “We tackled more of a concert approach to this production where the singer is the centerpiece of the cake.”

This created an opportunity for a large-scale performance where the music is at the forefront. It also allowed the creative team to explore visuals and new artistic territories it hadn’t tackled before. 

Audiences will not only love and relate to the familiar pop songs, but they will also create new memories with these songs. They don’t just watch the outer journey of the lead character; they are immersed into his inner world that comes to life in spectacular uses of color, pyrotechnics, and projections; the same elements you’d expect to see at today’s rock concerts. 

“It’s a beautiful show with gorgeous scenery,” says Lemire, who sees the white ice as a blank canvas that fills with color when Axel starts drawing in his sketchbook. “The projections and lighting are very vivid on the ice, and it completely changes the landscape.”

The story of Axel starts on a strong note. Alone on the ice with his guitar, he sings a popular ballad with a new arrangement.

“He is completely exposed with a guitar onstage singing a pop song,” Lemire says. “He’s very charismatic onstage but very introverted as a boy.”

As a former dancer, Lemire understands what Axel feels when he performs. “We go into what I call a second skin,” says Lemire. “The way you hold yourself onstage and want to escape, and you’re vulnerable and introverted, but when you come into the light, you completely own your space and become the most confident person.”

Throughout the story, Axel continues to feel the pressure of being judged as this up-and-coming star. He faces the challenges of being a public figure while dealing with things other teens deal with, like girls and falling in love.

However, when Axel escapes from his reality through his sketches, that’s when the magic happens. With a stroke of his pen, he creates multi-layered characters and alter egos that come to life in brilliant color, lighting, skating, and acrobatic feats.

This creative element not only adds a new layer and depth to the storyline, but it’s also here, in the pages of his sketchbook, that the skating and acrobatic elements dazzle the audience.

“He becomes, on paper, who he wishes to be in real life,” says Lemire. “Maybe sometimes he doesn’t even know those characters are emotions. It’s the way he’s slowly assuming himself and his journey.”

Axel also sketches others how he sees them. “If he’s in the city and falls in love with a young girl, he’s going to go into his book and draw a superhero and the way he wants to see himself as well,” says Lemire.

The bridge from his real life to his fantasy world is captured through short chapters or vignettes.

“He turns a clean page and starts a new idea,” says Lemire. “It’s very much a wave of an act after act kind of approach. We wanted it to be different facets, which may be a challenge for some to understand, but that’s the design.” And perhaps the magic of Axel.

While there’s an overall fantasy arch where good battles evil, displayed in dazzling special effects, skating, and acrobatic brilliance, throughout Axel’s journey, one message shines bright in the end.

“Don’t change who you are,” says Lemire. “He runs away from who he is through his fantasies, but at the end of the day, nothing is better than to show your true colors to your loved ones, and that is what he does.”

There’s a subtle moment in the finale that illustrates this. “He falls in love with the ‘girl next door’ and what he fantasized about her in his book. In the end, he accepts who she is and brings her closer to him by just being himself,” says Lemire.

Lemire encourages the audience to let go of their reality for a while, and fully absorb all their senses in the magic of this live show. 

“You can take a still shot and put it behind the window, and people passing by can look at it day after day, maybe with a different perspective, but the image remains the same,” says Lemire. “That’s not what we do in live entertainment. We create fantasy worlds that take you away from your real life and present metaphors where you can recognize yourself.”

LOCATOR
Cirque du Soleil’s Axel
BOK Center | 200 S. Denver Ave. | Tulsa
cirquedusoleil.com/axel
Jan. 16-17: 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 18: 3:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 19: 1 p.m., 5 p.m.