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Body Electric:
Cirque du Soleil Powers Up for Expo 2017

When we think of sustainable energy, solar panels and wind turbines may immediately spring to mind. But body-charged energy, in the form of movement, can also power us into the future — both through technological advances and sheer human inspiration.

Canadian theatrical entertainment group Cirque du Soleil is spotlighting the latter form of kinetic fuel in Reflekt — its exclusive production for Astana Expo 2017, taking place from 16 June through 9 September (with approximately 70 shows in all).

Beneath a 2,000-person capacity tent, 38 artists are bringing the ‘Future Energy’ theme to life in what Reflekt director Fernand Rainville dubs a show that is “very strong acrobatically.”

Rather than address the expo’s green theme in a clinical, scientific way, he has embraced something central to all Cirque du Soleil productions: movement. “I brought everything down to human energy, trying to build on what the future can be — the energy of youth and the energy of physical performance,” he says. In one high-voltage number, a crew of nine young dancers perform with Segways (motorized skateboards). “Future energy is also how we take care of our kids,” he adds.

In Reflekt, the audience is ushered down the symbolic rabbit hole

In Reflekt, the audience is ushered down the symbolic rabbit hole by the comedic lead character, Arman, a head-in-the-clouds archeologist. He explores seven elements of Kazakhstani culture — joy, wisdom, success, well-being, height and growth, speed and divine protection — as he navigates the Central Asian republic’s past, present and future.

Kazakhstani cultural contributions — from yurts to domesticated horses — are a driving force behind this one hour and 15 minute spectacle, which includes aerial work, contortionists, a trampoline wall, and a wheel of death (an adrenalin-pumping act which Cirque fans may recall from the show Kooza).

He was also passionate about the country’s distinction of being the first to domesticate horses, thousands of years ago. While animals are famously not part of the troupe’s fresh and modern take on the circus tradition, Rainville found a way to include this important piece of Kazakh Steppe history — and to marry this with the future energy theme.

“I thought: what are the horses of today?” he asks rhetorically. His answer: ‘horse power.’ “I’m incorporating something we’ve never had at Cirque yet: an electric motor bike,” says Rainville of the vehicle, which has been modified for tricks and stunt riding.

Beyond electric motorcycles, he and his talented team also found a way to highlight solar photovoltaic energy while retaining the creative spirit of the colorful production. In Reflekt, Helia, the sun — itself an element of the Kazakhstan flag — emits ‘rays’ on stage via patterns and imagery fashioned by lighting designer Nicolas Brion. Another graphic on the national flag, Samruk the eagle-like bird of Kazakh legend — which lays its egg in the tree of life — appropriately features in the show’s aerial acts.

One of the symbols of Kazakhstan after the independence is the so-called Golden Man, discovered in 1969 by archeologists in the Almaty region — dressed richly in red and gold. Rainville explains that while the production sheds light on such cultural influences, in true Cirque style, it does not do so with the goal of accurate reproduction. “Our inspiration is traditional but we haven’t redone on stage the traditional costumes,” he says of the some 300 wardrobe pieces made of custom-printed materials, designed by James Lavoie.

The Eurasian country’s historical imprint on Reflekt is miles away from being “something you would see in a museum,” or a documentary-style showcase, he stresses. In one example, Rainville cites a pair of Mongolian contortionists whose hair is adorned with a unique take on classic braiding. “It’s very hard to describe. It all of the sudden becomes like a sculpture.”

Likewise, the production’s sprawling soundtrack — performed by five live musicians and a singer — features indigenous instruments like the two-string dombra, while updating ancient sounds and arrangements. “It feels very much today. Then, at times, it goes into a very lyrical and epic feel, where the music takes you to the Kazakhstani Steppe on horseback,” he notes.

In terms of setting the scene, one particular feature of Reflekt is a Cirque first

In terms of setting the scene, one particular feature of Reflekt is a Cirque first: a bi-frontal runway stage. This design conveys the feeling of movement through travel — a signature of the nomadic Kazakh people. “That’s going to be very exciting because it brings a lot of intimacy into a room where you have the spectators placed on both sides,” says the director, “That makes them very close to the act.”

Architecture on a grander scale also figures in the theatrical tableau. Rainville sees such building design as emblematic of the capital city today and accordingly mentions the Pyramid of Peace by Norman Foster. “There’s some very monumental about architecture in Astana. I wanted to refer to that in the way we start the show off.”

Ultimately, the performance is a reflection of Kazakhstan’s past, present and future identity, as implied by the title Reflekt. Part of the creative process, according to the director, was to let go of preconceived ideas about Kazakhstani culture and to reintroduce it in the 21st century.

Rainville concludes: “I hope that the Kazakh people feel that we’ve done something specifically that references who they are and that they feel that we are opening them up towards the future.”

For more information on live shows at Expo 2017 please visit the expo website.

Sustainable Dance Floor

Imagine swaying to the beat of a kicking electro house tune — uplifting vibes running through your body. What if every step you took on that dance floor, every energetic move, could be pumped through a generator, harnessed and used to power things like lights? This is the idea behind a sustainable dance floor.

Such motion-fueled club tech will be on display at Expo 2017 in the Kinetic Energy exhibit on level three of the Future Energy museum — located within the Kazakhstan pavilion sphere. This interactive showcase features engaging displays which help visitors understand how their simple movements can produce energy — via screen-linked stationary bikes and of course a sustainable dance floor.

This eco dance pad is brought to Expo by Rotterdam, Netherlands company Energy Floors — which opened what it claims was the world’s first sustainable dance club, Club WATT, in 2008. The multi-level Future Energy museum in the orb was curated, designed and produced by Frankfurt, Germany-based agency Kunzberg.