For the first time since acrobat’s death, Cirque du Soleil is back in Tampa

The troupe takes its show to the ice. But grief over an acrobat’s death lingers.
Published December 11 2018

Times Performing Arts Critic

TAMPA — There’s a moment in Crystal, Cirque du Soleil’s latest extravaganza, when the title character falls through the ice. She plummets and tumbles as visual projections and other performers depict her plunge into darkness. A lot of tumbling, flipping and spinning collectively depict Crystal’s freefall and eventual return to the surface. The rest of the show follows her recovery, not just from this scary experience but from her own insecurities and feelings of isolation.

The Canadian company has created its first-ever show on ice, one that challenges skaters to double as acrobats and acrobats to learn skating. A more painful milestone: This is Cirque’s first production in Tampa since aerialist Yann Arnaud lost his grip on a strap 20 feet above a tented stage at the Tampa Greyhound Track during a March 17 performance of Volta. He died hours later at Tampa General Hospital.

Crystal debuted in Massachusetts in December 2017. But its messages of trauma and recovery that come to Amalie Arena starting Dec. 19 foreshadow a grief that still feels fresh.

“It’s like when you lose a family member,” said Fabrice Lemire, Crystal’s artistic director. “There is a mourning that everyone goes through in the time they need. There is no method.”

Whereas Volta promoted an intimate “Big Top” ambience, Crystal is an arena show. It’s big. Settings include a park, a ballroom and even a surreal city with towering icy buildings. As always, Cirque has recruited hand-picked athletes across several disciplines including dance, gymnastics, figure skating and Xtreme sports. Together, they tell a story.

“It’s not just an ice show,” said Lemire, 48, himself a former principal ballet dancer. “It’s taking an ice element and the culture of skaters and merging that into the universe of acrobatics.”

The show stars former Holiday on Ice dancer Nobahar Dadui, who moved with her family from Iran to Canada at age 5. She grew up studying dance and with Olympic dreams as a figure skater. A professional skater for 10 years, Dadui started as the only performer playing Crystal. She is now part of a rotation that includes Robin Johnstone and Silja Dos Reis. Still other acrobats and understudies play the role in trapeze scenes.

Crystal glides through a dreamlike world. She feels misunderstood by her family members, who wear art deco plaids and devote more attention to television than each other. Before and after she falls through the ice, Crystal meets her “Reflection,” a shadow self who points the way to Crystal’s creativity.

Dozens of performers emerge with every new wrinkle. Acrobats fly on a school swing set. Boys play hockey on a frozen pond, but are soon doing daredevil stunts on ramps, twisting and somersaulting in the air. Jugglers emerge as characters in her writing, an inner world coming alive.

Athletes include Martin Barrau, a big name in the blindingly fast world of ice cross downhill, which fuses skating with downhill skiing. Like other performers, he had to learn acrobatic skills because Cirque asks its performers to stretch their limits.

“What that creates is that you have this beautiful dialogue between acrobatic worlds and skating,” Lemire said. “Those two are challenging each other, as well as teaching and passing on knowledge.”

All understand the stakes.

“We are in this industry knowing there is a risk,” Lemire said.

Arnaud was not the first Cirque acrobat to die. On June 29, 2013, aerialist Sarah Guyard-Guillot, 31, fell 50 feet during a performance at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

“As a company we take all the steps possible so we never have to deal with a tragic accident like this one,” Lemire said when talking about Arnaud. “We focus on the ‘What if?’. We communicate with performers.”

He loves his work, the collaborations and the intimacy of shared stories. Look at the news, or the millions of people sniping anonymously on social media. At Cirque, people truly listen to each other and get to know each other.

“There is gold in those people and they don’t know it,” Lemire said.

With a return to Tampa days away, he still struggles to talk about Yann Arnaud.

“It’s hard,” Lemire said, his voice breaking. “I don’t know how long I will deal with that.”

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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