Daniele Finzi Pasca lived in Mexico for a decade, so when Cirque du Soleil proposed he direct a touring show he turned to the light and colour of Mexico, and its darker world of spirits and ritual. ’Luzia’ is currently playing in a big top in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat near Barcelona until May 15.
How is a Cirque du Soleil show born?
In my case they made a proposal and asked me a question like: “If you cooked us something at home, what would you cook?” Of course, if they go on to make you an offer, it’s because they know your work well. Then there are the wishes that must be agreed upon: if they want you to work with a particular creator, or the ingredients you’re allowed to choose. I proposed Mexico, with its depth, its sounds and smells, and they liked the idea. We have to keep in mind that in a circus, acrobatics is at the forefront and that there must be novelty and classic elements that are renewed.
There are many Mexicos. How do you relate the elements that everyone knows with those that are more personal?
If as an opera director you’re asked to direct Aida with Zubin Mehta, then your starting point is Verdi’s score. But in creative theatre you start with a blank sheet. You need to listen to your intuition. If you talk about Mexico you have to choose a way to go about it. Knowing I was directing it, they guessed it wouldn’t be folkloric.
How did you choose the acrobatic numbers and fit them into Luzia?
When we were asked to direct the show, I thought about Mexico and a possible narrative using its colour and shapes. I lived there for 10 years. I thought of Juan Rulfo’s narration in Pedro Páramo [an influential novel in Mexican literature], the magical realism of that world is quite abstract and concrete at the same time, it lends itself to the language of acrobatics. Then you need to work with creators who know you well and who know how to build dreams. For example, Eugenio Caballero [a Mexican production designer praised for his work on Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth], who is a friend from my time in Mexico. Or Italian costume designer Giovanna Buzzi, with whom we did some opera. Then you have to forge a connection with the gymnasts. I was one and so I know what they are like.
Were you a professional gymnast?
Only at a basic level. But it’s a world I know. That’s why it’s easy for me to talk to acrobats. Whether it’s Cirque du Soleil or my company Éloize, I’ve been working with gymnasts for 40 years. We look at what the tradition is and how we can renew it. We had to look at how to incorporate water, which is beautiful on stage in a big top, but which provides a huge challenge. And doing underwater stunts is very complicated and very dangerous.
And why was water so important?
We wanted to explain Mexico through its light but also its water, to avoid stereotypes, which are very easy to fall into.
Yet cliché can be useful because it sums up a specific idea.
Yes, but we have to decide if that stereotype is just for tourists or whether behind it are the original designs of painters and muralists. You have to manage the colours so that those who know Mexico will recognise it, while surprising and seducing those who don’t know it. We have a giant disk on stage because of the very strong relationship with the sun, which we turn into golden light and use as a backlight that comes and fades away. It is the Mayan concept that every time night comes it could be the end of the world.
In this metaphorical meal, how do you establish the order of the dishes and deal with the technical aspects?
To stick with the cooking analogy for the moment, before cooking you have to make sure that you have all the ingredients you need. To prepare this banquet you first need to know if you can do all the cooking in the kitchen you have. You need a very large oven to cook a whole cow, and there’s no way you can cook it at a low temperature. This is obvious in a kitchen, but also in architecture or in music. In an opera you know that you have to put in arias for the soprano but you have to space them out. The circus also has this logic of strong moments and more relaxed transitions, of moments of great emotion shown in a powerful acrobatic gesture and also moments that catch the audience out and make them laugh. In a circus environment, the artists do many different things, and you need to know how to space out different acrobatic numbers if one artist is involved in both. The whole construction of the piece is determined by these combinations. The rehearsals are where you see everything coming together and where you learn how to avoid major problems. You don’t want to be missing a key ingredient when the time comes to cook. My grandmother used to say that to make good Italian food you need quality ingredients and then all you have to do is make sure you don’t spoil them in the cooking. If the ideas and the artists are good, then just take care not to spoil them when you combine them.
Cirque du Soleil’s success is built on acrobatics and the drama it can create.
The idea is to go beyond theatre, to give acrobatics a theatrical form so that the acrobatic gesture makes sense. In the company we talk about acting. It’s now common for circus people to enlist the help of playwrights to take acrobatics further. We try to imagine the whole set within a dramatic concept. For example, for Corteo we were inspired by Chartres Cathedral. Without making it explicit, we included references to the cathedral, such as the wardrobe design, which was based on stained glass windows.
Cirque du Soleil has artists from all over. How has the Ukraine conflict affected the company, and the debate about “vetoing” Russian performers?
War causes pain and its effects are felt in the circus as in society. We’ve all been touched by it. I’ve worked at the Mariinsky Theatre [in St Petersburg]. I have friends who are Russian or Ukrainian. How can this pain and this situation be resolved? Debate and leaving bridges open. When it comes to vetoing, you have to be careful because these artists are already having a hard time. We need to show empathy and to put ourselves in the place of the person this affects, and then to think about what you would do. Put yourself in their shoes.
If these artists are expected to condemn the war, some will refuse.
It’s very delicate. I believe that whoever can should publicly call for peace. At Cirque du Soleil, where there are artists and technicians from all over the world, we know how to get through a tense situation like this.
Mexico is sun and water, you say in Luzia, but there are also dark episodes, drama and misery in Mexico. Is there no room for this in the show?
Obviously all of Mexico doesn’t fit into one show. There are stories that create light and others that go deeper to create memory. Luzia is about lightness, but it could lead you to go further and discover the country in more depth. We know there are dramatic situations in Mexico, and that there were before, when it was not so visible to the world.
interview performing arts