'Cirque du soleil: Varekai' heads to South Florida to weave a personal story with classic myth

For Cirque du Soleil shows, inspiration comes from myriad sources — fables, myths, magic, Mozart, Shakespeare, even The Beatles and Michael Jackson. But rarely has the origin of a production been this personal.

Cirque du Soleil: Varekai — which soars into Sunrise’s BB&T Center from Wednesday through Aug. 23 — is based on the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell from the sky. But the impetus came from a real-life accident a few years ago in Montreal at a different Cirque show, when creator and director Dominic Champagne fell from the flies above the stage and broke both legs.

“The experience he had,” said Varekai artistic director Michael Smith, “was when you are so used to being able to do everything and you take your legs for granted, when you become incapacitated and immobile, how that affects you and how it affects the reaction of people around you. So that really is the inspiration of the show. Along the way it becomes a love story, but it comes back on a universal human behavior level to how we human beings react.”

As always with Cirque, this one becomes far more complex than its beginning story. Instead of Icarus plunging to his death into the sea, he falls into a lush, enchanted forest known as Varekai, a kaleidoscopic world filled with fantastical creatures and wondrous possibilities. The word itself means “wherever” in the Romani language, and the show is billed as “an acrobatic tribute to the nomadic soul.”

“Like all of my shows, it requires a lot of imagination,” said Smith, who also worked on Cirque’s Dralion, Kooza, Alegria, Quidam and Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. “There’s also another character called the Fallen Angel, who always has crutches, and he’s the one that really understands how Icarus feels, because he’s felt the pain, but he’s never recovered. Icarus does learn to walk again, because he falls in love. With a caterpillar. Who then turns into a butterfly. You know, you need imagination [laughs].”

Since it’s a Cirque show, you also need astonishingly talented dancers and acrobats to pull it all off, and Varekai features a dazzling performer in Fernando Miro, who plays the lead role of Icarus. The 27-year-old artist has been with Cirque since 2009, dancing in the Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour and Criss Angel: BELIEVE productions before landing his first lead role a year ago in Varekai.

He also spent two years on tour with pop superstar Taylor Swift. “It was all like a stairwell, kind of, like step by step,” Miro said of his career path. “After MJ closed, they asked me if I was interested in the role of Icarus for Varekai. And I was like, ‘Well, of course I am!’ That would be the next step, to play a main role in one of the shows from Cirque, to use all my abilities I can to make the actual character bigger than it’s ever been, you know?”

Although producers at Cirque were uniformly high on Miro, he wasn’t simply handed the gig.

“I had to audition,” he said. “I had to do an acting audition as well and an aerial solo audition, and you need to be able to hold a stage all by yourself most of the time. So it was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my career, but it’s so worth it.”

Smith, who worked with Miro on the Immortal tour, couldn’t be more thrilled with the choice.

“The guy is phenomenally talented,” he said. “Nature was very, very kind. And it’s funny — on Michael Jackson, I saw him as somebody very special immediately. He has a radiance and an innocence about him that I think is perfect for the role, because the audience has to find him believable. He’s a good actor, he’s a good aerialist and he’s an amazing dancer, so put all that in one package with this incredibly beautiful face, and you have an outstanding Icarus.”

For Miro, years of training — some chosen, some reluctant — led to his breakout as a star.

“I was a competitive gymnast when I was a kid,” Miro said. “And slowly, as I started growing up I went more into the dance world, and I got a scholarship in which I was obligated to learn all types of dancing.

And at the time I was like, ‘Oh come on — I just wanna do hip-hop and contemporary stuff,’ you know, what the cool kids want [laughs]. But now I’m super thankful, because every single thing that I learned while I was in the scholarship, I’m using right now. There’s a moment when I need to be stronger, so I can use all my hip-hop abilities, and there’s a moment when I need to be softer and fall in love, so I can use more classical movement. And all of that involves aerial contortion, but at the same time, the way it flows around, it requires a lot of contemporary movement in it. So it’s all a very good mix of it.”

Ever since childhood, Miro has known he wanted a career in entertainment.

“Always,” he said. “I was that kid that would climb on the walls all the time when Mom would tell us to be still and I couldn’t [laughs]. My whole family has to do with the entertainment business as well — my dad was a musician, my mom’s a singer, my sister’s a singer, my brother plays the guitar — so I was the crazy child that wanted to do everything else.”

Cirque du Soleil is well known for its diversity, drawing from communities all over the world for its blend of unique talents. Miro says he’s honored to represent Latinos in such a big company.

“I’m from Puerto Rico, and we’re really proud of everything we do,” he said. “It’s like, we kind of have our flag tattooed on our face most of the time [laughs]. But I’m super-proud — it’s not only Puerto Ricans, but the whole Latin community that’s always behind my back and supporting me, and it’s great to be able to represent such a strong and powerful culture.”

Smith, who is British, said that although working amid such diversity can be demanding at times, he’s continually excited to embrace the challenges.

“I manage 50 artists here and direct them, and within those 50 are 17 nationalities,” said Smith. “And this amazing, multicultural environment we accept as normal, but taken from the outside perspective, it’s not
normal at all. But I think it’s what enriches us — I don’t think you can work at Cirque du Soleil and have this intense experience on tour particularly and not be changed as a human being. Because we have to embrace the differences, and it’s the pride in what we do that kind of unites us, so I think that makes it a very special place.”

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