Young Crystal comes face to face with her other self when the ice she is skating on breaks and she falls into the water that will reflect her life. / SUR

Harder still: on ice

Cirque du Soleil takes SUR behind the scenes of Crystal, its first spectacle on ice, which is finishing its German tour before a Spanish debut in December in Malaga

FRANCISCO GRIÑÁN

A sign in German reads 'staff entrance'. The early 20th century Festhalle in Frankfurt is home to Crystal, the Cirque du Soleil's first show on ice. The cold is certainly noticeable on entering the arena. It is not freezing but the thought of taking your coat off hardly appeals. The cold is soon forgotten when the hypnotic attraction of the skating and the passion of the artists takes hold.

The well-known Canadian circus company has come back with force after the pandemic. After touring the US, the Cirque du Soleil has come to Europe, where it's reaching the end of its German tour in Frankfurt before travelling with its 21 lorries to the Martín Carpena arena in Malaga city for the Spanish premiere of this pioneering show.

"We do the circus part very well, so when we thought about this new challenge, we focused on the skating which has a very distinct style that we've put our own spin on," says artistic director Rob Tannion, who makes juggling, trapeze stunts and extreme acrobatics possible on the slippery lake of ice on which Crystal is set.

Artistic director: "We do the circus part very well, so when we thought about this new challenge, we focused on the skating"

"We offer the best of the Cirque du Soleil and ice skating," says this Australian who claims he does not specialise in these separate disciplines but rather that the circus artists have learnt to skate and the skaters to do acrobatics.

"Although it won't be perfect, they have to have a good command of both techniques," says the manager of this show, which has taken several years to launch. One challenge has been making sure that the pirouettes on ice were compatible with the safety of the artist-athletes. The swinging poles that attach and detach from a structure on the ceiling with astonishing ease in order to display one of Crystal's most dangerous stunts, are one example.

"The poles and their anchoring systems were designed specifically for this show, a process which has taken a year, although now it seems straightforward," says the director who adds that the acrobats require specialist instruction and five months of extensive training in order to do the backwards triple somersaults, falling on a raised mat which surprisingly does not slip on the ice when the 'pilots' of these 'flights' land.

Training is daily, with sessions lasting up to four hours. Although there are calculated risks and wardrobe and props designed for this surface, the ice can be unpredictable. In fact, two of the four extreme hockey players performing have been injured in the last few days which prevented a stunt from being displayed at the premiere in Frankfurt. Robert Tannion adapted the production to have fewer skaters for a few days.

"We have everything worked out down to the smallest detail, so we have to be very flexible and have a plan A, B, C and D for every problem," says the artistic director who considers his role as going beyond that of being the boss, maintaining "quality control" on stage. Well, on the rink.

Fluorescent snowballs

Before going back to the extreme hockey performance, he reveals his adopted Spanishness. "I married a Spaniard, lived in Madrid, and have three children who were born there and will come to see me at the premiere in Malaga. I hope." That will be 10 December, just a couple of weeks away.

He's not the only one who's counting the days - Agustín Bells is also excited. This Mexican juggler welcomes us backstage near the rink's central exit where metal trees, swings and a clown's tricycle, which will go out on stage in a few hours, are jumbled together. There is also the nearly two-metre plinth which he uses for his performance in which balls are added until you lose track. "At the start I used white ones so that they looked like snowballs however they got lost on the ice," says the artist who ended up creating luminous spheres which, along with the light effects and set design, bring brightness to this number.

Having had a ball in his hand since the age of twelve, Agustín is the fifth generation of the Bells circus family and the only juggler in Crystal. Probably because he fulfils two unusual requirements. He moves his hands at a speed that is only seen in fast-forwarded videos and his feet dance on the ice as if the show had already started.

"I knew how to do these two separate things, but for the first time I had to do them at the same time and it wasn't easy," says the artist who uncovers his secret formula for us. Or maybe not so secret. It is more like the formula to success for achieving anything in life. "With discipline, and training you can do anything. Training however does not make you immune to mistakes. You can miss a ball by a millisecond, so you have to concentrate a lot."

Agustín explains that he can put up to five balls in orbit. "I can do nine at once, although for the show I am trying to do seven," says this magician, who explains that performing the bouncing-juggling act is much more difficult in Crystal because "the ice is rough it can have frost or a groove which a skater has left meaning there is always room for the unexpected".

Neither are the behind-the- scenes team left unexposed to the potential hiccups. To reach the wardrobe department you have to go down to the catacombs of the Festhalle and pass the dining hall, where the best part of nearly one hundred company members are eating lunch. Spaniard Isabel Franco, who joined the Cirque du Soleil production as a support act in Tarragona, and is now head of costumes for Crystal, still hasn't had a bite to eat.

"I was gradually given a lot of responsibility," she says, in charge of the wardrobe which includes four thousand pieces, with clothes, shoes and accessories of all kinds. She says all of this over the soundtrack of her coworkers on the sewing machines.

"We have to maintain the quality of the costumes and for emergencies, we always have a second piece ready, although sometimes we have to make repairs by hand on the go," says Franco, who adds that although the team does not go out to work on the stage, "our work is frantic, and we are the ones who feel the most nerves." In terms of the costumes, which are very fairytale-esque, the Spaniard emphasises "the relation with ice in the patterns, the colour, and the style, which is very 1950s."

Near her are the red wigs which the protagonist Crystal, who falls into the waters of a frozen lake where she finds her reflection, or her other self, wears. "When I found out that the Cirque du Soleil was doing a show on ice, it was exciting and I auditioned in 2017," says Canadian Hjordis Lee, who did have to wait but in 2019 got the leading role. An elite athlete, the skater switched competition for fantasy, for which she also learnt acrobatics.

"I love playing Crystal. It's a character that we can all connect with. Playing this role is like a form of therapy for me, using my passion and purpose... although it does leave me exhausted," Confesses Lee, who plays the star role in this circus on ice which poses a new challenge every night. Or as Rob Tannion says, "the audience feels that there is nothing better to be seen."