“You look down on this skating rink, and you think, ‘oh that could be me.’” It’s a bold but sentimental statement from Robert Tannion, artistic director of Cirque du Soleil’s CRYSTAL. While I don’t necessarily have the unbridled confidence to believe I could successfully perform aerial acrobatics on skates, I can respect the attitude. Being Cirque’s first production on ice, CRYSTAL is an artistic and athletic feat; but it’s also deeply nostalgic and relatable. Speaking with Tannion, lead figure skater Hjordis Lee as ‘Crystal’, and aerialist Darren Trull as ‘the love interest’, they all seem to agree that above all else, CRYSTAL is performed in dedication to its audience.
Where most Cirque productions maintain a level of abstraction, CRYSTAL follows a clearer storyline of a teenager, named Crystal, as she falls through the ice and into her own subconscious. Trull explains, “[It’s] a really nice family show; it’s relatable. She [Crystal] is creative and has this big imagination but feels like she doesn’t fit in… these characters come in and play with her imagination and give her confidence in who she is.” The show aims to capture the audience with the raw emotions that come with growing up. Trull is clear that the show doesn’t try to be coy about this aspect. “Those darker moments which all people have help connect us to the story more and draws people in. That moment of Crystal falling in love for the first time… it feels like a really nice moment and you can feel people connecting to that. Audience [members] saying, ‘[it reminded] me of the first time I fell in love when I was younger… it’s bringing people back to these points in their life.”
Tannion has really enjoyed the audience feedback. “Once I was sitting next to this family and the kid looked hardcore skater, really moody. At the end of the show he said, ‘mom, that was the best show ever! I thought I was gonna hate it.’” CRYSTAL does what Cirque has always succeeded at: blending art with athleticism. After 42 productions, how do you approach it differently? Lee believes the success in the show has to do with the incorporation of new production choices; “I feel that the narration of the story is different in the sense it’s not all gibberish. Cirque is famously known for its unusual sounds and dialogues from characters.” This more narrative storytelling allows for the audience to make more personal connections between their own stories and Crystal’s journey. “We love asking people, ‘what was the story?’” Trull admits. “It’s not so straightforward that everyone has the same answer. I find that very fascinating. Like, ‘oh, I didn’t see it from that point of view.’”
The show was relaunched after the pandemic and has been touring around the world since. They’ve recently finished their Australian and New Zealand leg, and are set to begin the Canadian leg in November. Growing up Canadian, Lee reflected on coming home to perform on behalf of such a prestigious production company. “There’s not a whole lot of Canadian skating shows in comparison to what’s out there. So it’s very nice to work for a company that started in Canada and is recognized as Canadian. I feel very honoured and proud to be part of that.”
Spending so much time on tour and away from loved ones, I asked how they cope and find balance. “It’s cliché but… the group acts as an extended family,” Trull says. “The backstage is so common to us that it’s a home away from home,” When Lee struggles with exhaustion or homesickness, she tries to channel it into her performance. “The demands of the schedule can take a toll. I do try to take that and use it to my advantage; instead of showing that I’m tired, I try to spin it in a way that can be unique to me portraying the character.” She’s also conscious of the privilege of the role. “I won’t be able to do this forever. I really try to cherish these moments I have on stage or on tour. I try to remind myself [of that] when times are harder, when I’m yearning to go home.”
Trull speaks in awe of the way his skills and Lee’s mesh together so naturally. “It feels really fluid with aerial and skating. We can fly but keep that movement going on the ice. I’ve never been able to do that before… it’s been really exciting. There’s nowhere else I’d be able to create this.” The struggle of CRYSTAL is, in the same vein, its strengths. The skill and drive of each performer allows them to push themselves further with each rehearsal, but Trull acknowledges that the storytelling comes first. “People come for the emotional experience… as acrobats we love to show our tricks, but this is more of a story act than I’ve done [before] with Cirque. I have to go, ‘okay, those tricks don’t feed what we’re trying to say about my relationship with Crystal.’ To tell a story we have to compromise,” Tannion says about the importance of Cirque’s storytelling, “I have a strong personal conviction that arts are essential to society. They reflect and challenge what’s going on in society and life.”
As is the nature of live performance, part of Cirque’s intrigue is in its impermanence. “The show is ephemeral,” Tannion adds. “We share it one time with however many people and then that’s it. The performers may perform hundreds of times, but that one’s gone.” Even midtour, the cast is always striving for little personal improvements. “The year and a half I’ve been on the show, I still feel like we’re pushing and making upgrades, and that’s what keeps it fresh being on tour,” Trull explains. “I work with two different Crystals… that’s really fun for me because they have their own ways to express Crystal, their own movements and skill sets. It keeps it fresh and fun.”
Lee touched on her interpretation of Crystal, and the ways it reflected her own history. “Initially, I didn’t feel I resonated with [Crystal] a whole lot because she’s around 14-16 years old. As I started doing the role, I quickly found I resonated a whole lot with the character. It was almost a bit of therapy for me, because it really touched certain issues and situations as a girl her age.” Since coming to Cirque she’s pushed her acting skills further than ever before, and the audience has been responding. “I’ve been told when I play Crystal it comes across very genuine. I definitely feel all the different shades and moods and characters that Crystal goes through in her journey throughout the show.”
Moving a tour of nearly 100 people and all the costumes, makeup, equipment, and tech needed to run the show requires a relentless commitment from everyone involved. This nonstop, baptism by fire type of organized chaos seems to be Tannion’s favourite bit about being the artistic director. “Let’s say there’s two and a half minutes behind the scenes [we’re] going. ‘if we don’t resolve this, we’re going to have a showstop.’ And a showstop for me is the thing I’m trying to avoid absolutely the most. I never want to break the rhythm of the audience experience. So that freefall adrenaline is the thing I absolutely love the most, because… it sits me into really clear communication and thinking. What do we need to do now, where do we need to go? And you don’t know until you’re in the moment.” The sheer gratitude in being a part of something as big as Cirque may be the greatest motivation for those involved. Trull, whose father took him to his first Cirque show as a child, says, “I feel very privileged to live my dream. I respect stepping out onstage everyday. The pandemic showed us it can all disappear very quickly. It’s given artists another sense of how special it is to hold onto that moment of getting onstage. It’s been everything I’ve dreamed of… I’ve never gotten up like, ‘oh no, I gotta go to work.’”
Looking towards the future, Lee has her heart set on staying with Cirque. “I hope to stay with the show as long as possible. It’s a hard question to answer because this is all I see myself doing. I think I’d really like to try taking on a little more responsibility behind the scenes creating and conceptualizing shows.” Trull agrees, having dreamt of joining Cirque since he was a teenager. “Coming to CRYSTAL was a new challenge that showed me I still have so much to learn. After my career as a performer is done, I’d love to stay with the company on the creative side and help build the stuff I’ve been lucky enough to do onstage.”
Cirque du Soleil’s CRYSTAL kicks off its Canadian leg here in Windsor from November 30th to December 3rd. You can purchase tickets by visiting https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/crystal.