The Chinese Pole on Globes act was included in Zaia to add Chinese acrobatic elements
in the Cirque du Soleil show. [Photo: China Daily]
The first Chinese resident show, in Macao, of the world-famous Cirque de Soleil is not attracting quite the expected response.
A girl sets forth on a journey of discovery, witnesses the splendor of the universe and returns home to the people who love her. This is the simple story, told through gravity-defying acrobatics, behind Zaia.
To someone who has never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance, it would be very difficult to explain just what Zaia is. "It's a bit of theater, a bit of circus art, a bit of music and a bit of rock 'n' roll. It has many forms of art mixed in one production," says Joel Bergeron, artistic director of Zaia.
"We're pleased with the response we have received so far. But there's some way to go. We're learning to understand the public here in China and the public is learning to understand who we are and what kind of show we present," he says.
Zaia is the first Asian resident show of the famous Canadian circus. Starting from a street theater group of 20 in Quebec, today's Cirque is a multi-million dollar entertainment juggernaut which has branched into DVD production, merchandizing and creative design. This year, it staged 20 shows around the world, including nine touring shows.
Zaia opened on Aug 28, 2008 in Macao's casino-resort, the Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel. Venetian's owner Sands Corporation forked out some US$150 million to build the 1,800-seat theater customized for the show.
But there are many empty seats in the hall, one of the biggest and highest in the world. The average attendance is 65 percent.
And the Chinese mainland, the mainstay of Venetian visitors, only accounts for a fraction of the audience. Most patrons are from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and India.
The absence of mainland spectators is not just affordability. Tickets to the weekly concerts at the Venetian are in the same range as for Zaia (388-1,288 petacas, or US$48-160). Pop singers, including A-mei or Leo Lai, seem to have no difficulty luring their mainland fans.
So, is the response to Zaia disappointing?
"It's difficult to compare the response," says Kyle Staniland, assistant company director (Zaia).
In Japan, for example, people are much more familiar with the Cirque shows, thanks to shows touring the country as early as in 1992, he says. "Currently, there are two Cirque shows in Japan, one resident and one touring."
The company's resident show in Japan premiered at the Tokyo Disney Resort on Oct 1, 2008, shortly after Zaia's launch in Macao.
Cirque is by no means fearful of taking on the rapidly evolving mainland market.
Aside from the possibility of touring shows through the mainland, it is in talks with the planned Shanghai Disneyland to set up a resident show there, Staniland says.
But will a Cirque show, with its new age ambience and otherworldly images, succeed in a market dominated by the mainland?
Bergeron believes that a wide range of people can enjoy Cirque shows, regardless of their age, race and cultures. The secret to Cirque's appeal is the live performance, he says.
"The beauty and emotions we present through the artists, the pushing of boundaries of what humans can do is the essence of a live performance that surpasses technology and the need for technology," Bergeron says.
Violaine Corradi, the composer and musical director of Zaia, says transcending cultures has been a core philosophy of the Cirque.
As required by Guy Laliberte, founder of the Cirque, most songs in Cirque shows are written in an invented language. The purpose is to excite the imagination and allow room for spectators to create their own stories, she says.
For Zaia, "I took phonetics from ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese," she says.
Songs without exact meaning may, again, pose difficulty to the uninitiated. But the performers say this is what makes a Cirque show interesting.
Chicago Rose Winebrenner, a vocalist in Zaia, says singing in a non-existent language is a process of tapping into oneself.
"I sing what's deep in my heart. Since I feel different from day to day, every day is different."
The level of interaction required from the audience is certainly something new to Chinese audiences. Have the performers found the audience in Macao too shy? "A little bit," says Karen Maria Anderson, also a singer in Zaia.
Performers used to the thunderous ovation and cheers in the West may feel unsure at the polite clapping of the audience. "Do they like it?" is a question Anderson used to ask herself in her early days in Macao. But she has since learned the quiet ways of the Chinese to express their appreciation.
"It's just different," she smiles.