Cirque du Soleil: Where imagination comes to life

Welcome to Varekai, the land of “What if.”

What if Icarus hadn’t drowned after the sun burned his wings? What if he’d fallen to a strange land filled with interesting characters?

Who would he have met along the way? What direction would his life have taken?

What if the Greek myth hadn’t ended with Icarus’ death? In Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” doesn’t.

“You have to remember that this isn’t Icarus’ story but an imaginary story of what might have happened,” Fabrice Lemire says.

He’s the artistic director for “Varekai,” whose tour stops at Baton Rouge River Center Arena for seven performances between March 12 and 16.

The show features such trademark Cirque acts as aerial hoops and straps, hand balancing on cane and crutches, juggling and swings. And, of course, no circus would be complete without clowns.

But unlike a conventional big top act, Cirque du Soleil’s productions tell a story. And “Varekai’s” story belongs to Icarus. The show was written and directed by Dominic Champagne.

“The shows are developed in Montreal,” Lemire says. “I am in charge of the show after it’s developed, when it goes on tour. I am in charge of every aspect, and I have to be available to the performers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

That’s because every act’s time must be perfect. If a performer’s timing is off in an act involving several cast members, disaster could ensue.

“So, if someone is having a problem, I must be there for them,” Lemire says. “It’s important to address it, because things could go wrong if we don’t. We all have to be on the same page. It’s quite a large hat to wear.”

Lemire spoke from a stop in Florida. He’s traveled to Baton Rouge with previous Cirque du Soleil tours and looks forward to bringing “Varekai” to the capital city.

“Oh, I know Baton Rouge,” he says. “I love coming to Louisiana.”

Some 8 million people worldwide have seen “Varekai” since its 2002 premiere. The show opens in a world deep within a forest at the summit of a volcano where anything is possible. And a young man falls from the sky into this world, Varekai, which means “whatever” in the Romany language of the gypsies.

“Parachuted into the shadows of a magical forest, a kaleidoscopic world imbued with fantastical creatures, a young man takes flight in an adventure both absurd and extraordinary,” Cirque du Soliel’s show description states. “Varekai emerges from an explosive fusion of drama and acrobatics.”

Lemire is a native of Paris and lives in California. He began touring with “Varekai” in November 2012. He’s used to touring, but some people who join the company aren’t.

“There are times when some of them decide that this is not the life for them,” he says. “They miss their wives or husbands or partners, and they decide to return home.”

In those cases, Lemire must replace performers, sometimes entire acts.

“It’s easier if the act has only one performer,” he says. “We cam bring a performer in, and we can look at their talents. We ask, ‘What can you bring to this act?’ and we build the act around what they can do.”

But an act involving a team of performers requires more contemplation. Again, anyone who has attended a Cirque du Soleil performance can attest to the fact that timing must be perfect. Though amazing, the acts also are dangerous, and the balance is fragile.

“We’ll contact the hiring division in Montreal, and we go through the process of integrating a performer into an act,” Lemire says. “Sometimes it takes up to six months to a year before we can replace a performer in a group.”

Then there’s the problem of communication. “Vakerai” stages a cast of 50 performers and musicians representing 18 different nationalities. All direction is given in English, and some performers have a difficult time in translation.

“We help performers work through it,” Lemire says. “And sometimes we have to have people there to translate for us.”

Lemire enjoys his time on the road, but he hopes one day to be a member of the development team in Montreal.

“I won’t lie to you,” he says. “I would really love to take part in the creation of a new show.”

A set designer is called in for each show, as well as a composer, choreographer and costume designer. Each production is an original collaboration.

“But each show evolves and grows over time on tour,” Lemire says. “It’s like each show is alive. We’re given leeway to breathe and adapt. If the show doesn’t evolve, everyone would lose interest and become bored.”