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Travel to Dubai

 
 

Inside the mind of Franco Dragone

1 November 2017

“I know that I have to come to see the show tonight. And that I’m scared,” says Franco Dragone, the man behind Dubai’s first ever permanent theatrical production.

It’s not the kind of admission you’d expect from one of the world’s most sought-after artistic directors, but Dragone, the man who helped Cirque du Soleil become a household name, appears to savour quiet unpredictability.

“Maybe I will not be happy,” he suggests when questioned about his fear, his English softened by an Italian and Belgian heritage. “The first time there is a spectator in the theatre, as a director I want to leave, because it’s not my show any more.”

His latest show, of course, is La Perle, one of the most technologically advanced theatre productions in the world. Part circus, part Las Vegas spectacle, it has added a layer of extravagance to Dubai’s entertainment offering, providing what its creators describe as a “fusion of artistic performance, creative imagery and technological wizardry”.

“It takes a minimum of 36 months to develop a project and it took four to five years to do this,” he says. He has been in Dubai solidly for the past three months, changing, tweaking and finalising the performance. “What I wanted to do was not a show for Dubai, but a show from Dubai.” We are both sitting in the back row of La Perle’s 1,288-seat theatre in the heart of Al Habtoor City.

For the first half of our interview Dragone is barely visible, his upper body occasionally illuminated by flashes from a photographer’s camera. He is casually dressed and mindful of self-promotion.

“I was sitting here for three months and while I was here I was not the same person,” he says, lines of light lingering momentarily on his face. “You have to empty yourself and be available to what you see. It may sound pretentious, but you have a little feeling of eternity. You don’t think about time. It’s here and now. It’s immediate. The only time I really forget that tomorrow I might die is when I work.”

Behind him is La Perle’s tailor-made aqua-theatre, designed by Jean Rabasse and brought to life by the architectural firm Khatib and Alami. There’s a 12-metre-deep circular pool and two motorised proscenium scenic doors, each 23 metres in height and weighing six tonnes, while suspended high above the stage is a 60,000kg motorised scenic tower.

For sheer audacity, it takes some beating. The stage floor, for example, can be transformed from a 2.7-million-litre pool into a solid dry deck within a matter of seconds, while special effects create waterfalls and rain. There’s also a 360-degree sound system and 3D projection mapping, with everything in the theatre doubling up as a projection screen.

“This theatre is not only a theatre, it’s the cinegraphic of the show,” says Dragone, who created La Perle in agreement with Al Habtoor Group. “We knew that we wanted to have this shape, we wanted to be very close to the audience, we wanted to work with video. It’s a creative process that takes years.

“When I work with a designer I say, ‘I’m working with you because I want to know who you are, what you have in your mind… We have to have a common world we can build together.’ I sometimes compare it to cooking. We have a shopping list, the partner often has a shopping list, I have something in the fridge, and I begin to cook, adding some spices for flavour.

“When I come into the studio for the first time and I have all the people there, I say, ‘OK, now we’re going to work. We’re on the same boat, we’re going to do one thing, and my job is to bring you to the destination.’ But to do this you need to do casting all over the world. You need to fail. We trained for hours – hours in the studio – for two acts that are not in the show. They worked so hard at it, but in reality it did not work.”

Of the final project, two acts in particular stand out. The Wheel, performed with bravado by a Venezuelan named Tino, and the Globe, designed by Alfredo Silva and performed by five Brazilian stunt riders.

“As soon as I have to do a show I become like a satellite antennae. I am awake to everything. And there is only one thing: to find a specimen, to find something that will allow me not to work too much,” he says with a smile. “With the Wheel for instance, or the bikers, these are the two acts I have invested the least amount of energy in, because I knew what they could deliver.”

In theory, Dragone should need no real introduction. A conceptual theatre artist, he is credited with changing the face of live entertainment in Las Vegas, marrying human performance and the traditions of the circus with a world of sensual dreamscapes and the power of the four elements.

His productions, however, are arguably better known than he is. Shows such as Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère and O, and Celine Dion’s A New Day, a US$30 million production that premiered at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 2003.

At one point during La Perle, a six-metre articulated puppet, controlled by seven people, strolls across the stage. It is an act of pure artistic flamboyance and classic Dragone. So too is the ability of the artists to enter and exit the stage below the surface of the water.

“It is still a work in progress, because a show that doesn’t work every day will die. I have two big pieces that I still have to put in the show. For instance, what you see there is a tower bridge,” he says, indicating part of the theatre to his right. “It’s a huge piece. But to put this in place I first need to have a test with the audience to see where I can place it.

“The other thing is that, when you do a show like this, if you have a storyline in your mind and you want to tell that storyline, it doesn’t work. It really has to come from what you have; from the elements of the production. Working and writing with the production is the way we work. We never say rehearsal, we say creation. Because it’s where we really write. I don’t know the speed of the winches that bring somebody from the floor to the ceiling. You cannot calculate this. It’s not defined. So I need to play with the toys to be able to produce something.

“There is an expression that we use. It’s called ‘shaking the stage’ – to provoke something. Not to have what you have planned, but to have more than what you had planned. To finish a day and to have seen what I was expecting is a sad day for me. I like to be surprised. And for this we need to take risks. I appreciate and admire people like the Habtoor family, because this is a risk. Any entertainment is a risk. You never know if it will work or not. I am not this kind of cook who has a recipe book and tries to apply those recipes. It’s only by putting your finger in the sauce that you taste and you feel and you see if you are heading in the right direction.”

The show is less than a month old when Dragone and I meet and feedback (both public and private) has been positive, although questions inevitably arise. Will ticket pricing be an obstacle to repeat business? Does the idea of a permanent show resonate in a market unused to such a concept? And does the vague and amorphous nature of the storyline detract from the show’s overall impact?

“My first show in Las Vegas was in 1993 and it’s still there,” he replies. “One of the reasons why I am so careful with the storyline is because when the storyline is too clear people think they have seen the show and don’t want to go back. It’s not like a movie. This kind of show is a live experience, and I really believe that today, although we are creating social communities, live entertainment, where people gather together, is something that will never die.”

Dragone has dedicated his entire life to the stage. Born in southern Italy but raised in Belgium, he studied drama at the Conservatoire Royal de Mons, falling in love with commedia dell’arte and political theatre before heading to Montreal and, shortly after, a life-changing opportunity with Cirque du Soleil.

“Belgium was very political,” he says. “Every day there was a strike or a factory was occupied, so I was surrounded by people motivated by the far left. I was always involved in political demonstrations and when I came across theatre for the first time at school my teacher was a revelation. I really think theatre can change your life. It certainly changed mine.”

Prior to La Perle’s launch, Dragone stated that the show would be “the most awe-inspiring and technically advanced theatre production I have ever produced and directed”. It was some statement considering his work with Cirque du Soleil on Le Cirque Réinventé, Nouvelle Expérience and Alegria, and his own Le Rêve in Las Vegas and The House of Dancing Water in Macau.

“Every show we do we have learnt from the previous one,” he explains. “The first show I did with water, I think it was a conscious problem for me to use water. So we have learnt how not to waste it. The technology is not what we want to show off. It has to support an emotional journey. The technology has to be at our service, otherwise it doesn’t work.

“We have to remember to remain humble in front of this kind of journey. There are always more important things than what we do, but we have to do it. It’s our responsibility to try and always push the boundaries.”

From now until the end of the year, Dragone and his team will be working on further creations, with a revamp of the show planned for the first quarter of 2018.

“Although this is commercial – it’s show business – we have always to think that we are citizens of the world and we have to have a political consciousness,” he says. “You cannot work without consciousness. That would be only movement and puppetry and it’s not enough. You need to put your soul, your thought, the respect of people and solidarity into your work.

“I really think that we achieved a miracle here. Because the obstacles were big – very, very big.”

Words: Iain Akerman
Images: Bahr Al-Alum Karim

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