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Embracing the Different

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Costumes of the sun: Michael Smith is the artistic director for Cirque du Soleil’s newest production, Kooza, playing through September 2 at Sam Houston Race Park.

Cirque du Soleil provides acrobatics, clowning, and lots of gay influence
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Tomas Muscionico

The extensive media coverage of the 2012 Olympics sometimes makes us feel as if we know the athletes. Even more so for Michael Smith, who works with Olympic-caliber athletes as the out artistic director of Cirque du Soleil’s new Big Top touring show, Kooza, in Houston through September 2 under the white Big Top at Sam Houston Race Park.

Many in the $25 million production’s cast of acrobats and clowns have represented their countries at past Olympiads, explains Smith, who saw first-hand how closely the cast followed the competitions during the last Olympics.

“It’s their world,” he adds. “They stay huddled around a satellite TV in the kitchen [throughout the Games].”

With the current Games in London, Smith shares with the cast a heightened interest because he grew up near Yorkshire, England, then moved to London to act in the ’70s. He’s lived in Paris for the past 20 years, mainly working as a stage director.

Commenting on his status as a mature veteran in the arts, Smith says, “I’m Jurassic!”

Six years ago, he joined the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. Although not an athlete himself (“Absolutely not,” he winks), Smith experienced the thrill of international renown in 2010, when an acrobatic act that he directed was presented at a worldwide circus festival that he explains is “like the Olympics.”

The Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo (International Circus Festival de Monte-Carlo) was created in 1974 by the late S.A.S. Prince Rainier III of Monaco, and brings together some of the best circus acts in the universe. Cirque du Soleil participates only once a decade, making it an even greater honor that the act which Smith directed was featured at the festival in 2010.

“It was a great, great, great night,” says Smith.

Per Wikipedia, “The International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo is now held each year in mid-January. Presided by S.A.S. Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, it remains today, without a doubt, the most important circus manifestation in the world, and it has become the annual rendezvous of the international circus community and of a large international audience of circus enthusiasts.”

Smith also feels fortunate that he grew up in a family that loved him as he is. “I remember going with my sister to buy dresses at the market,” he says. “We would play dress-up in the garden.”

Likewise, he is happy that he entered a profession that appreciates him.

At Cirque du Soleil, Smith explains, “You are judged by the talent you bring. The philosophy of the company is to embrace the different. Nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation is written in the contract, but we actually live it. We are encouraged to live it,” he emphasizes. “I am very proud to work for a company that liberal. We have gay artists and gay staff, and there is no issue with it.”

Costumes of the sun: Marie Chantale Vaillancourt designed costumes for Kooza, a few shown here in the finale of the show. Photo by Owen Carey.

When OutSmart spoke with Smith in late June, he had just joined the troupe in Phoenix after working in Japan. “I couldn’t be more excited,” said the British native and longtime French reisdent. “It couldn’t be more magnificent. It is overwhelming.

“I’ve never been to Texas!” he added. “Houston is going to be a new experience. I’ve never even worn a cowboy hat.”

While Kooza plays under the Big Top, Smith marvels at the wide open spaces of Texas. “Everything is spread out. I’m used to cities where everything goes up and it doesn’t go out.”

Since its premiere in April 2007, Kooza has charmed about four million spectators in North America and Japan. Tickets for Kooza, which marks the seventh visit of a Big Top show in Houston, are available at cirquedusoleil.com/kooza.

Written and directed by David Shiner, Kooza is a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil that combines two circus traditions: acrobatics and clowning.

The show highlights the physical demands of human performance in all of its splendor and fragility, presented in a colorful mélange that emphasizes bold slapstick humor, says Smith. “It’s a very unpretentious, short journey of joy.”

The name Kooza is inspired by the Sanskrit word “koza,” which means “box,” “chest,” or “treasure.” It was chosen because one of the underlying concepts of the production is the idea of a “circus in a box,” Smith explains. “The box has no markings, so it could be anything. The opening leads you into another universe. Kooza asks, ‘What haven’t we done and what universe haven’t we created?’”

In press materials, the show’s writer/director David Shiner says, “Kooza is about human connection and the world of duality, good and bad.

“The tone is fun and funny, light and open,” he continues. “The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s very much about ideas, too. As it evolves, we are exploring concepts such as fear, identity, recognition and power.

“The show starts with The Trickster bursting onto the scene like a jack-in-a-box right in front of The Innocent, and that is just the first of many surprises to follow. The Innocent’s journey brings him into contact with a panoply of comic characters such as the King, the Heimloss, the Pickpocket, and the Obnoxious Tourist and his Bad Dog.

“Between strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony, Kooza is set in an electrifying and exotic visual world full of surprises, thrills, chills, audacity and total involvement,” adds Shiner.

 

What: Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza
When: through September 2
Where: Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Parkway N.
Tickets/info: $33–$143, cirquedusoleil.com.

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

 

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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