For the first time in its history, Cirque du Soleil is bringing one of its shows out of retirement.
Alegria is a beloved Cirque title: when it closed in 2013, it had been running for almost 20 years and had been seen by more than 14 million spectators worldwide. With its baroque, fanciful costumes, elemental story about a generational struggle between an old and a new order, and lush score by the famed composer René Dupéré, Alegria (the word is Spanish for “joy”) helped define the classic Cirque esthetic.
Rather than just bringing the show back, Cirque decided to update it: “We looked at the costumes, the music, the acrobatic decisions and gave them a modern twist. Either artistically or acrobatically, we’re pushing them further,” says the show’s senior publicist, Francis Jalbert. “It’s almost like discovering the show from a new angle.”
Having premiered in Montreal in April, Alegria: In a New Light is setting up camp under the signature blue and yellow big top at Ontario Place from mid-September through Dec. 1.
Few people are better positioned to talk about the show’s significance and how it’s changed than Elena Lev, one of only two original cast members who is also in the remount.
Twelve years old when the show premiered, Lev is now 37 and is performing a version of her original act, which combines hula hoop, contortion, dance and hand balancing. Much like the show itself, the act is a combination of old and new.
In the years since Alegria premiered, says Lev, “I grew up from a little girl to a teenager, to a woman, to a mother, and whatever I present personally onstage today is so different. All the emotions, all the feelings, all the movements. It was a good step of renewing the things, keeping some of the original, but at the same time bringing something new and giving people a new way, a new look at Alegria.”
She was raised in a circus family in Moscow; the whole family moved to Montreal when her father was recruited to participate in the creation of Alegria (his high bar act is in the remount, but he’s not himself performing). An offer for Lev to appear in the show came not long afterwards. As do her parents, Lev now calls Las Vegas home.
Lev toured with Alegria for eight years and completed her high school degree at the same time: there were a number of young people in the show and Cirque provided their schooling (it’s a sign of changing times and societal expectations that Cirque no longer allows performers younger than 18 in its productions).
Lev has kept on performing; she’s been in a total of six Cirque productions, most recently Zumanity, which is a permanent show in Vegas rather than a touring one. This suited her lifestyle as she raised her daughter, who is now 14. She also completed a college degree in food and beverage management. “That’s for later, for the future,” she says, because for the present, Alegria is somewhat unexpectedly back in her life.
Last year, she and some other original cast members helped organize a reunion party for Alegria in Vegas, which ended up involving some 140 people from around the world. “While we were doing that, we heard a rumour that the show might be coming back,” she says. She performed her Alegria act at the party and, soon after, Cirque producers asked her if she would like to be in the remount.
Taking up the offer took some thought, says Lev. “It was a challenge and a process.”
Destabilizing her home life was a concern. And there was the whole question of extending her performing life: “Do I quit? Do I continue? The body’s going through this change as well in your mid-30s. A lot went through my head but, at the same time, there was always something telling me I’m not done. I’m not finished, and I want to go back and travel because that’s been my life for a long time.”
In the end, “I couldn’t say no.”
Performing with Cirque “made my life who I am today. Lots of memories, lots of stories and a big chapter of my life. It created a full circle. A chance for me to go back and kind of relive … but in a new way, in a new chapter. Share it with my daughter and touch the fans, hopefully, again. And people that want to see it or haven’t seen it. So here I am.”
Alegria: In a New Light plays at Ontario Place from Sept. 12 to Dec. 1. See cirquedusoleil.com for information.
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Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2