Alegría: A Musical Feat

Thousands of people sit in expectant darkness. Half of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena is packed out, and the other half is blocked off by a tremendous stage ornamented by rope ladders, harnesses and hanging bars—all promises of fantastic things to come.

As the anticipation rises within the audience, adults begin to feel like small children at their first circus, ready for the extraordinary, prepared to be utterly dazzled.

Then, from stage left, a tiny parade comes meandering goofily onto the floor, winding its way around the area in front of the stage. Weaving through the audience and playing a circus march on an assortment of instruments, six minstrels provide an opening serenade, interacting with fans who bear witness to the beginning of the Cirque du Soleil show Alegría.

The musicians wear white wigs and white, exaggerated Cirquish tuxedos. Each has a whale spout ponytail sticking up like a geyser atop his or her head. Over their white-painted faces, the musicians’ lips are colored blue, and their embellished cheeks provide a heavy contrast with bright red makeup.

These musicians appear silly in their ensemble comprised of an acoustic guitar, a triangle, a small drum with a miniature cymbal, a soprano saxophone, a ukulele and an accordion.  They seem haphazard and comical, but in reality, this band is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the traveling Montreal-based act.

Anyone who has ever played in an orchestra or even screeched their way through middle school band can relate to the difficulty of playing in unison. For Cirque du Soleil musicians, that’s the easy part. On top of keeping perfect time with their bandmates, these six artists have to follow what’s happening on stage and play their instruments at just the right time, for just long enough. To top off the challenge, they’re performing on stage during the whole show and are always in full costume.

When an acrobat (called an “artist” in the Cirque world) is thrown high into the air from a Russian bar, the musicians have to be acutely aware so the music provides a seamless narrative to the feat. When an artist is oscillating on a trapeze-like swing high above the stage, the musicians must watch his every move and match the sway of the music to the physical movement of the swing.

When two contortionists pull their seemingly detached legs over their heads from behind and peek out from between their feet, the musicians never miss a beat in matching their music to the duo’s rubberlike act. And when a hand balancer holds himself up on one arm, climbing a series of upright bars and balancing with inhuman strength, the musicians play on, unbroken behind him, swelling at the most amazing part of the act and falling into a pianissimo at other times to leave space for awe.

Perhaps it’s this meticulous attention to detail and observation that has made the soundtrack to Alegría the best-selling soundtrack of any of the Cirque du Soleil shows. The album has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide and was nominated for a Grammy in 1995, spending 65 weeks on Billboard’s World Music Chart. Composer René Dupéré wrote the entire score for Alegría, as he has done for several other Cirque shows.

Alegría is a state of mind. In Spanish, the term actually means “jubilation,” and the music to the show greatly reflects that concept. Aside from clowns speaking gibberish, or Cirquish, and the multilingual songs, this show doesn’t include any spoken words, yet every message is clearly understood and communicated.

With French, Spanish, Mediterranean and African influences, the music is the glue that holds this show together; it’s the language that has spoken to millions of people all over the world. On a whole, Cirque’s artists themselves speak 25 different languages and represent nearly 50 nationalities.

Before Alegría’s opening night June 15, I join one of the show’s multidimensional musicians, sax player Fritz Kraai, to talk about what it’s like to provide the soundtrack for the magical world that is Cirque du Soleil.

The band is just about to start their sound check, so we duck backstage and look for a spot to sit. Entering the space behind the curtain at a Cirque show feels like walking into a Disney cartoon and walking into gymnastics class all at once. Shuffling through racks of tutus and elaborate, handmade costumes with unbelievably ornate detail, we find a spot to sit on a giant tumbling mat.

Kraai has been a musician with Cirque du Soleil for just under two years, and he’s been playing Alegría the whole time. He says that, while the show is pretty much set, every night brings something different.

“You want to create excitement but not overshadow what’s going on on the stage,” he says. “In Russian bars, there’s an act where there are guys flying up and down off of a bar, and I solo through that. So for me, it’s good for me to try to follow their movement and to build the solo, the excitement of the act or the physicality of the act.”

He explains that each song has sections during which the band can either extend or shorten the music as needed. To stay together when they’re not soloing, the musicians wear in-ear monitors and follow their bandleader, Hugo, who uses visual and verbal cues to call audibles and keep the band in sync.

“Hugo has phrases that we all know … and it’s something he can say quickly because stuff can change at the drop of a hat and we have to compensate,” Kraai says. “That can be tricky at times, but it’s also something that keeps me, and everybody in the band, on our toes because you have to be aware—sort of keeping one eye on the act and also an eye on what you’re doing and also an eye on Hugo.”

I ask how performing with Cirque differs from what he has done in the past.

“Before this, I’ve always been used to playing in a club or playing jazz, and that is sort of just all about the music and the moment, and you’re improvising, and people are there just to hear music,” he says. “But with this, we’re very important because you can imagine, watching the show without music at all, it would be quite lacking. We’re definitely a huge part of it, but maybe upon your first watching of the show, it doesn’t seem like it’s so important.”

Vanessa Napoli, the Cirque du Soleil publicist and spokesperson, says that before she worked for Cirque, she had no idea that the musicians were required to follow the artists’ lead throughout the show.

“You kind of think it would be the other way around, that you would create the music and fit it, and then it’s weird to find out that the musicians have to follow the flow, and it absolutely changes, and the musicians have to continuously adapt,” she says. “Sometimes, you know, the artist may need a couple more seconds, so you have to continue that sequence of music.”

I ask her why she thinks Alegría has risen to the top as the best-selling soundtrack, and she speculates that it has a good deal to do with the emotion it brings, with the universal language that allows everyone in every country to understand what’s going on.

“It’s sort of broad in the sense that it appeals to everybody,” she says. “I think the singers have a lot to do with it as well. They are the narrators for what’s going on on stage.” She’s speaking of Alegría’s two singers, a “white” singer dressed in a pure white, tutu-like dress, and a “black” singer, her alter ego who looks exactly the same but wears a black costume. The two singers go back and forth throughout the show, narrating the scenes through songs in a variety of languages and providing a juxtaposition of good and evil for the audience.

“And it just sticks. Everyone leaves singing,” Napoli says. She starts humming the tune of one of the songs and then laughs.

We’re joined by the hand-balancing artist Denys Tolstov, who hails from Ukraine and has been a hand balancer for Alegría for nine years. He says the music is a huge deal to the artists because they can’t work without it.

“All of our tricks and all of our movements, it’s all together with the music,” he says. “And of course sometimes if something’s not going right with the act, I have to repeat my tricks or something. Then the musicians follow me again. Sometimes there’s a trick where I jump from one hand to the other. There’s a drum player who does an accent on that. Sometimes we joke with each other and ask, ‘Why’d you go too late?’ He gets to hit the note, and I am like, ‘Wow! Why did you hit too late?’ It’s a great communication between us.”

This positioning of acts before music originates in the very genesis of a show. Rather than writing a score and filling the musical space with Cirque’s signature acts, the planning and organizing actually begins with the physical acts. That way, the music can be composed to beautifully and most accurately narrate the scenes.

“The music composers often sit during rehearsals and watch what’s going on and get a feel for it,” says Napoli. “It might not be tweaked out 100 percent at that point, but that is sort of when they start the creation.”

The whole creation process of a Cirque du Soleil show takes about two years before it ever hits a stage, two and a half years before it’s actually put on as a presentation. Those years are filled with rigorous rehearsals and hours and hours of practice.

“That’s why Cirque is so great in that they really want to focus on detail and make sure everything is perfect and that we are presenting something different,” Napoli says, “something that no one has ever seen before.”

Alegría alone consists of 55 artists from 17 different countries. Napoli laughs and says it’s a mini United Nations with talent from all over the world. That talent is incredibly evident in the marvels of the live show. After talking with Napoli, Kraai and Tolstov, I attend the opening performance of the show. I’m absolutely floored by the contortionists and am holding my breath during the ritual fire-knife dance.

I feel my heart jump into my throat when men do flips from the aerial high bars without being harnessed to anything. I’m like a kid laughing at the slapstick clowns and their gibberish, but I’m perhaps one of the only audience members this night who actually recognizes and understands the talent unfolding and emanating from every note of the musical score, which seems to so effortlessly fill the room.

When the show comes to a close, the audience once again sits in a moment of darkness, but this is a darkness of contentment. Just as Napoli predicted, I leave the arena humming the internationally celebrated tunes of Alegría.