When Sylvie Galarneau joined the artistic staff of Cirque du Soleil two decades ago, she was on a first-name basis with just about everyone in the company. That was before Cirque, a spectacular mix of circus arts and street entertainment, morphed into the international juggernaut it is today. With some 5,000 employees and 21 shows taking place under big tops and in arenas all over the world, Cirque is a decidedly different animal from its early days of performances on the streets of Quebec.
Therein lies the challenge, says Galarneau, who is the general artistic director of “Dralion,” the Cirque show coming to Trenton’s Sun National Bank Center, Thursday through Sunday, October 21 to 24. Embracing the new while retaining the original premise is something that is constantly on her mind as she shepherds the 50 international acrobats, gymnasts, musicians, and singers that are part of the show.
“Our biggest challenge is to keep that freshness we started with, but to still push ourselves,” says Galarneau, who also directs eight other Cirque productions. “People are more keen in looking for what is the same and what is new. They become more critical of our work. But I think that while focusing on the new, we are remaining true to our essence. That hasn’t changed.”
The same explanation might be applied to “Dralion” itself. The show was created in 1999 as a tribute to the ancient traditions of Chinese acrobats — a fusion with the dramatic, contemporary style of Cirque productions. Like Cirque, “Dralion” has grown and changed over the years, but retained its original story line.
“Originally, ‘Dralion’ was a meeting of two cultures that had never worked together before,” says Galarneau, who was production manager of the show before becoming general artistic director. “But now, (embracing that culture) is a normal part of our daily life. It’s beautiful to see all those people coming from that part of the world. It has become a fabulous and beautiful show. It is a revised and almost new production, with an almost brand new cast and a different Chinese troupe. In the past, we couldn’t get the performers out of China, but now we can. So we have gone back to the drawing board and improved the show, bringing it more into 2010. But we do respect the original concept.”
The name “Dralion” comes from two primary symbols: the dragon, representing the East, and the lion, representing the West. The show pays homage to the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, which take on human forms. Like all Cirque shows, “Dralion” has vividly colored costumes, most custom-made for each artist. The show boasts an original musical score, performed live, which borrows from traditional Chinese sources while embracing a more contemporary electro-symphonic realm. The set has a huge backdrop, 60 feet wide and 26 feet tall, suggestive of a futuristic Chinese temple or a giant plate of medieval armor.
‘Dralion” has been a big part of Galarneau’s life since she first went to China to look for performers more than a decade ago. “I have been with the show 10 years. I gave it to somebody else for a while, but now have come back to restage it,” she says. “It’s like a chance to go back and re-look at your painting and decide if you want to make changes. Since we’re working with humans, not paintings, times have changed and they have to change, too. China has changed a lot, and this group is different (from the original). China has evolved and is more open to the rest of the world. That puts us at a different place. I’d like to think we are better at understanding that culture. In the show, we have changed the pacing, and we’re trying different things. We don’t have the stress of creating the story, so now it’s the fun of pushing the limits.”
Theater is second nature to Galarneau, who is 52 and lives in her home city of Montreal. She is the first in her family to follow an artistic path. Galarneau’s father was a salesman; her mother, who had six children, “was a mother,” she says. Galarneau is also a mother, of one child.
She graduated from the Ecole National de Theatre du Canada, and also studied music for four years. She first worked with Cirque in 1990 as stage manager and assistant production director for “Cirque Reinvente.”
“This is a job that chose me,” Galarneau says. “I had been accepted in Russian studies at university, and many of the people I studied with were in theater. I auditioned, got accepted, and never looked back. There is not a morning I get up, and I’m not happy. I’m blessed. You work on show business when you love it. The hours are long but the satisfaction is high, and you get to travel around the planet. So I’m not complaining.”
Among her duties as general artistic director is casting, and Galarneau is always on the lookout for talent. Only the most gifted acrobats are hired for Cirque shows, but the choices are never limited to technical ability. At live auditions or watching DVDs, she usually knows after five minutes if an applicant will work.
“They have to be genuine,” Galarneau says. “They have to show us what they can do, and often it is more about the potential. You can see that very quickly. It is not necessarily the Olympic gold medalists who are best for us. They have to be unique, to bring something interesting to the table that we can work with, and make bigger or better.”
Despite the hard work of supervising “Dralion” and other Cirque productions, Galarneau’s life with the company is continually rewarding. Just getting people out of the house and away from their computer screens is an achievement in itself. “I would love that somehow, they leave with a piece of us after seeing a show,” she says. “I would hope that we have touched them. My best comparison is that it’s like going to a museum and seeing a painting, or looking at a picture book. We don’t know why something moves us, sometimes to being on the verge of crying. We create a tableau, and we hope spectators are a part of it. We have crowds sometimes that are so with the performers onstage that they recharge us. You can almost feel the exchange. Other times we have to work to get them with us. And when you do, that’s the best thing that can happen.”
Cirque Du Soleil “Dralion”, Sun National Bank Center, 81 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton. Thursday through Sunday, October 21 to 24. Fusion of ancient Chinese circus traditions features acrobats, gymnasts, musicians, singers, and comedic characters. $35 to $95. 800-298-4200 or www.comcasttix.com.