Nine years ago, Jason Berrent started out as a tumbler in Cirque du Soleil's Alegria, part of a number called Fast Track, in which men and women in gold lame performed spectacular flips on an X-shaped trampoline built into the stage.
Today, Berrent is in another Cirque show, Kooza, which opens Thursday in St. Petersburg. But instead of doing only acrobatics, he is playing one of the show's central characters, the Trickster.
"I still do acrobatics in this show, but I use it to enhance my persona," Berrent said from Dallas, the show's previous stop. "In Alegria I did a seven-minute number where it was trick, trick, trick. Here I'm onstage for two hours. The Trickster appears to a character called the Innocent and takes him on a journey through this crazy kingdom. The Trickster is a very powerful character, almost like a genie. He creates everything, and with the snap of his finger, he can make it all go away."
Berrent's transformation from acrobat to a theatrical role is not uncommon for Cirque. "That potential opportunity is there for everybody for the taking," said Michael G. Smith, artistic director of Kooza. "The majority of people that we contract come from the world of sport, and part of their training as athletes is to suppress their emotions. Jason was a world class tumbler, and with improvisation classes, acting classes, singing classes and so on, he has learned how to exchange an emotion with an audience."
Berrent, 29, was the original Trickster in Kooza, which premiered in 2007, but after a year or so in the show, he left to perform in "too many commercials" for Adidas, Xbox, Infiniti Motors and other products, as well as act in plays, such as a Los Angeles production of Nicky Silver's dark comedy Fit to Be Tied. He returned to Kooza last year.
"It was such a great experience for me to leave Cirque and get a different artistic experience and then come back," he said. "I think it has matured my performance. The Trickster is a big part of who I am, so if I grow and mature, the role will grow with me."
Kooza brings about a return of Cirque's Grand Chapiteau to the Tampa Bay area. Starting in 2002, three shows were performed in St. Petersburg under the big top, Quidam, Alegria and Varekai. But the next two shows, Saltimbanco and a second engagement of Alegria, played the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"The arena shows just aren't the same, they really aren't," Berrent said. "There's nothing like a big top show. The intimacy and the environment it creates is really special."
One thing that will be different is the big top itself. The Grand Chapiteau for Kooza is white, not the familiar blue and yellow. "The white tent was created for Europe, because the European taste is different than North American," Smith said. "They didn't think blue and yellow scrolls would be to European taste, so they went with the white. More simple, more chic.."
After its St. Petersburg engagement, Kooza heads to Europe for shows in London, Madrid and Paris.
Directed by renowned clown David Shiner, Kooza is billed as "a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil," which includes quite a lot of clowning. The clown characters have extensive interaction with the audience.
"Kooza has more audience participation than any of the Cirque shows I've worked on," said Smith, an Englishman who has also been artistic director for Dralion, Alegria and Varekai. "Sometimes people in the audience are just great. They do exactly what you want them to do. Other times they interpret what they think you want them to do. And it goes very wrong. We also have a pickpocket who has audience participation. For him, sometimes he just gives up and goes back and gets somebody else. Audience participation is risky, but that's the essence of the show."
Cirque classics like Quidam and Alegria, both created by Franco Dragone, have a thematic, poetic quality that can be extremely moving. Kooza takes a different approach.
"It's unpretentious, in your face fun," Smith said. "Kooza is not about the size of the production, like a lot of the Cirque shows. The mandate was to create fear and wonder, which is what traditional circus is all about. The show's success is absolutely based on the performance that the artists give."
As for Berrent, Kooza is probably the culmination of his career with Cirque. In an interview I had with him in 2004, when he was a high-flying acrobat in Alegria, he said, "For what I do, this is the best place. The most elite. I think anything else, using my talent, would be a step down."
Now his artistic horizons have been broadened by playing the Trickster.
"I feel this role represents everything I can do as an artist in one performance," Berrent said. "But I think there are different aspects of myself that still need to be tapped into. Just to be completely honest, I wouldn't say Cirque is the final place for me anymore. I'm really curious where Cirque is taking itself, or if there will be another opportunity like this for me. But now there's nowhere else for me to go in Cirque after this role."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.