Cirque du Soleil's dancing duo

As night falls in Las Vegas, Nevada, things only get brighter. Neon blares, washing red and blue and pink over the 35million or so pleasure-seekers who descend on the city every year. On the strip, eyes are assaulted by mega resorts—casino after casino, Caesar’s Palace, The Bellagio, the golden Mandalay, the new 50storey, $2,7billion Wynn Las Vegas with its on-site Masarati dealership and 2 700 rooms.

Not far from the Wynn, somewhere in the yellow-lit depths of The Mirage, past palm trees, water features and enough luminosity to power, say, the entire suburb of Katlehong, are two young South Africans. They have joined the biggest, best-known circus of them all. In a custom-built theatre at The Mirage, they dance before thousands in the Cirque du Soleil’s newest show, a freaky psychedelic tribute to The Beatles called Love.

‘This place, Las Vegas, is crazy,” says 25-year-old Michael Moloi. ‘Busy. Very busy. I’m trying to cope, but sometimes I think it’s not happening; I find it almost disturbing. It’s more than Jo’burg, you know?”

Michael is actually from Katlehong, the impoverished East Rand suburb. As a child his passion was dancing (he used to wind his parents up by rushing off to rehearsals after school, neglecting homework and chores). ‘I told my mother and brother I didn’t want to be a lawyer and live behind a desk, I wanted to dance,” says Moloi.

He became involved with a dance company called Via Katlehong, which specialised in pantsula and gumboot dancing, almost 10 years ago. Then, last year, his agent suggested that Via Katlehong go to Jo’burg and perform for the selection panel from the Cirque du Soleil. They did—and it changed Moloi’s life.

‘I was not a soloist,” explains Moloi over the phone from Las Vegas. ‘We went to the auditions as a group, a team; we danced as a team. Unfortunately, at the end, they didn’t take anybody but me.” He is not being polite, he misses his troupe. At least Moloi shares accommodation in Las Vegas with another South African: Sifiso Mavuso, also 25, also a dancer and also snapped up by the Cirque’s roving auditions team.

Mavuso, who is from Soweto, is a little more casual about the big city glare of Las Vegas (he’d already visited once before). And he had more insight into the weird world of the Cirque before he joined, as he’d worked briefly with the Cirque team who came to South Africa for the launch of a new model BMW.

‘The selection panel narrowed us down from 60 people to just two,” says Mavuso. ‘I didn’t know what to expect at the auditions. They wanted to see how we could improvise, so they played us each a [musical] track, we didn’t know what it would be. When it was my turn, I just did as many flick-flaks and tricks as I could.” And not too long afterwards, he received a midnight call to say he was wanted in Montreal, Canada.

Canada is the birthplace of the 22year-old Cirque du Soleil. It was in a small town called Baie-Saint-Paul that a group of young performers who juggled, walked on stilts and blew fire first started attracting attention on the streets in the early 1980s. The troupe evolved into Le Club des Talons Hauts, or the High Heel Club, and, in 1984, the Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) was born. The fledgling circus planned to showcase surreal, meticulously choreographed acts aimed at adults, not children.

Nowadays the Cirque has 13 different shows around the world, including five in Las Vegas, which alone pull in ticket sales of about $1million a day. More than seven million people will see a Cirque du Soleil show this year. The circus, which never does things by halves, won the first Guinness world record for the largest number of stilt walkers in one spot: 544. About 3 000 people from 40 countries work for the circus, which reportedly ranked ahead of Disney and McDonald’s in a 2004 poll of brands with the biggest global impact.

Mavuso and Moloi are the only South Africans in the Cirque. Once they had passed the auditions test, the next stop was Cirque headquarters in Montreal, where all newcomers are put through rigorous training in distinct Cirque style. Improvisation is encouraged, conventional thinking is out.

Mavuso arrived first (Moloi was held up) and three months later he could juggle and was zooting around on a unicycle. ‘The weirdest thing I was asked to do was probably to go on stage and simulate having an orgasm,” he says. It was during this time that Mavuso was asked to do some gumboot and pantsula dancing for the teams that were workshopping Love. Gumboots (described as ‘yellow rain boots” by one United States reviewer) are now a key part of the show.

For those who have seen a Cirque show, the weird inventiveness at the heart and soul of performances needs no introduction. It often takes years for the shows to take shape, and experts of all kinds are drawn into the process (for example, an authority on bubbles was brought in to train performers for one of the Love scenes).

Love debuted in Las Vegas at the beginning of June. For the entire month, Cirque performers were stopped mid-act as directors tweaked their performances. On June 30 the polished, final show will be launched—and it is said that surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will attend.

The Beatles, particularly their more psychedelic tracks, are perfect for the Cirque. Love is based on 130 songs and song fragments that have been spliced together to form what one of the creators has called a rock’n'roll poem. During the show, an acrobat dangles from on high among myriad firefly-like lights in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, while performers, transformed into squid and jellyfish, bob in the air for Octopus’s Garden.

Mavuso’s favourite moment is when a bed, covered in a long sheet that is made to snake throughout the theatre, suddenly plunges into a pit on stage. ‘It creates a whole waving effect. It’s like a hallucination,” he says.

And yet the psychedelic 1960s are new to Mavuso, who knew a couple of John Lennon tracks, but no Sergeant Pepper-style Beatles offerings, and Moloi.

In Love, Moloi plays a character called the Sugar Plum Fairy, a kind of musical pusher who introduces each new act, and also has a solo spot dancing to Lady Madonna.

Mavuso is back-up for the Sugar Plum Fairy and also plays a lover and a citizen. ‘I didn’t know anything about these people, The Beatles,” admits Moloi. ‘So both the Cirque and The Beatles were new to me. But the music’s great. And the audiences seem to know all the words—they sing along.”

What with so much to learn, plus arriving late in Montreal and so having less time to adjust and practise than the rest of the cast, Moloi says he has been so stressed that he sometimes can’t sleep at night. The massive opulent overkill of Las Vegas itself—where some punters cough up $20 000 just to buy into a poker game—probably doesn’t help. But things are already getting easier.

Audiences at the Love preview shows, have, well, loved it. ‘Every time I appear, they just give me the hands, man, they applaud,” says Moloi with satisfaction. And there are other plusses. ‘To be honest, they way the Cirque does things, it’s so different, it’s changed the way I used to think,” he says. ‘They’re always pushing me to think big, I’m building my mind. I’m going to come back to South Africa and teach all this to everyone.”

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