A veteran photojournalist on the arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #132 - WEEK OF APRIL 24-30, 2017

Asian animal doc a modest effort

Born in China (Disneynature)

Director: Chuan Lu

Producers: Phil Chapman, Roy Conli and Brian Leith

Screenplay: David Fowler, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman and Chuan Lu

Film Review

It’s been a while since I reviewed a Disneynature documentary when the House of Mouse revised their nature film series they mothballed back in the 1960s for the twenty-first century in a time when animal conservation is needed more than ever, and their latest addition Born in China does its best by sticking to the old tried-and-true formula, only a little less sanitized in looking at the survival of the fittest for the family-friendly crowd.

Chinese nature documentarian Chuan Lu mainly follows three species families and their central stars: the young, mischievous Golden snub-nosed monkey Tao Tao of Central China with sibling rivalry issues; Ya Ya the panda with her young daughter Mei Mei in Szechwan Province and, in a rare exclusive for a film like this, the ever-elusive snow leopardess Dawa with her two little cubs in the mountains of western China.

Lu pretty much has the handle on his subject and the environs these creatures inhabit, whether capturing the magnificent fall colours of the valley of the pandas or getting the sweeping vistas of the central steppes while following migratory Tibetan chiru antelope herds and the usage of time-lapse photography. Narrated by actor John Krasinski (The Office), he adds a certain humour to the playful moments (watching a panda cub continuously tumble down a leaf-littered hillside is quite an experience to witness) while maintaining a solid seriousness to the everyday dramas of territorial standoffs and life-and-death scenarios to make it through another day.

Bountiful watching the documentary is in its 90-minute running time keeps it reasonably short and sweet, Born in China does drain a bit in the second act and even the dialogue read by Krasinski is a bit flowery in parts doesn’t always save it, but at least it spares us the over-usage of must-know facts here. Including the breathtaking shots – plus funny interactions between the cameramen and monkeys in the end credits roll is a treat – and Barnaby Taylor’s score tinged with an East-West flavour, Lu keeps the year-long journey flowing quite easily.

The kids and nature fans will go gaga for the animals in their aww-so-cute and comical moments to remaining on edge for the predatory dramatics (not to mention scoring a major coup in getting snow leopards on film, period), yet adults will give the film a modestly polite nod for the effort in trying to preserving all this on film and bring awareness in a nicely neat package that only Disney could provide.

Cirque all set to let their freedom flag fly

Left-right: A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s VOLTA; with writer/director Bastien Alexandre (right) and director of creation Jean Guibert after the April 4th media preview in Montréal.

A new generation of artisans help to mould Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring production, VOLTA, coming to Toronto this fall

Theatre Preview

One of the major ingredients that keeps the Canadian neo-circus company Cirque du Soleil fresh and evergreen, despite being around for a youngish thirty-four years, is by keeping in step with the times, recognizing that the competition around them are equally worthy and allowing new ideas to flourish. So they let in what the old guard calls “deux jeunes du Cirque” or “second-generation of Cirque” – those that have grown up with the company’s shows in their heyday – in exploring the themes of finding and forging one’s uniqueness and spirit against conformity within the context of extreme sports in developing their 41st production, VOLTA, which opens its premiere run in Montréal this Thursday (April 27) and will make its way to Toronto come September.

Now this was a show that didn’t look like it would ever be made. Cirque had come up with the extreme sports theme on their to-do list a few years back, originally conceived as a large arena format modelled after 2006’s DELIRIUM or 2016’s Avatar-based TORUK – The First Flight. But then came the Great Recession of 2008 and it was forced to be shelved, among the many other projects they had in mind during that period and it seemed it would languish in development hell until most recently, now in the capable hands of the show’s writer/director Bastien Alexandre and his director of creation, Jean Guibert.

“Clearly there is a desire to be relevant to a new generation, and the new generation is our generation,” said Guibert. “We wanted to have a show that was compelling to us and the world that we grew up with. But at the same time, we’re not doing a show that’s exclusive [to ourselves]. We’re doing a Cirque du Soleil show, and it’s a show that’s going to talk to every generation.”

In a mélange of traditional circus acts of acrobatics, contortionists, high-wire and clowns that one would come to expect from Cirque, the show’s creators have also added parkour acts and BMX racing to give the youthful synergy and drive to let the main character’s journey of self-discovery to set his own course of destiny he was meant to follow. “We fell in love with the (BMX) culture, more than the disciplines themselves,” Guibert said. “The culture of extreme sports is all about inventing rules and not following rules. That’s been in our guidance in the creative process – how much we can challenge our Cirque rules and push the limits even further.”

“Our creative guide Jean-François Bouchard asked us to take him somewhere in terms of aesthetics and storytelling,” Alexandre said, who both he and Guibert got the job on making VOLTA after working with the company for close to fifteen years in different departments and had previously directed together the commissioned 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games’ opening ceremonies. “He gave us wide freedom to explore what might be meaningful today. We just dove inside our experiences as human being and came up with the theme of finding your own genius, and being able to discover that and exploit that and not be afraid of who you are.”

VOLTA, derived from the meaning for a shift in emotion or idea in a poetic sonnet – and also after the word “voltage,” named after the eighteenth-century Italian physicist, chemist and a pioneer of electricity and power Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), who is credited as the inventor of the electrical battery and the discoverer of methane – focuses on its main character Waz, a popular game-show host who, despite his massive fortune and fame he’s gained since childhood, has lost himself in madness of it all and secretly longs for a return to innocence. In a moment of recalling childhood memories, he encounters a mysterious array of “free sprits” led by their leader Ela, who help open the doors to his inner soul he has long kept shut in the hope of rediscovering his true self.

“(Waz’s) story is a universal story. He was born with blue feathers for hair and that’s placeholder for anything that makes you unique or different,” Alexandre explains. “Anything that might have you judged within a group. He was judged as a kid. That’s the backstory we told ourselves and you see it a little bit in the show. And ever since, he chose to hide his difference. That led him on the wrong path for his existence until he meets Ela, who triggers in him the will to go back to who he could have been and its gets him on that journey to change the outlook of his existence. We were happy to promote something with a little edge. We feel the Cirque audience is broad enough and savvy enough to embrace it. But we’ve kept a lot of the DNA of the Cirque du Soleil.”

Onboard for VOLTA is the seasoned costume designer Zaldy Goco, who has dressed A-listers from Gwen Stafani to Lady Gaga and whose designs for Michael Jackson’s planned This Is It London residency show in 2009 that unfortunately died along with the megastar’s sudden and untimely death but got recycled for Cirque’s two Jackson-based productions, the ongoing Las Vegas residency show Michael Jackson ONE and the 2011-2014 arena show Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour, plus his continuous gig with the RuPaul reality-TV series Drag Race; talks about his approach in doing the costuming for his first-ever Grand Chapiteau touring show.

Left-right: Costumer Zaldy Goco, who’s worked with Cirque du Soleil for their two Michael Jackson shows ONE and THE IMMORTAL World Tour; does his third production for them on VOLTA’s colourfully impulsive and unrestrained Free Spirits and the robotic conformist Greys characters, based on the show’s transformation theme.

“When I start a project, each one is very individual, so my approach is also individual. In this particular show where we have very distinct design techniques and fabrications, I like to start with making small swatches, photograph them, come up with this kind of, like, computer-photo montaging. It has really become now my favourite ways of sort of presenting projects.

“As always in fitting costumes and fashion we’re dealing with different body types and different body performance, especially in a Cirque du Soleil show, we’re dealing with very serious apparatus, whether it’s (the) rings, [or] the tightrope. Each discipline has a different sort of parameters or requirements and with Cirque du Soleil’s expertise with athletes, that we work with the artists and validate what our desires are. We give them what we think will be the best thing for them and then we take it into the studio and then see what works. And if it’s really good, we can use it as the first example, but more than likely it’s the next one that becomes the final example.”

Along for the ride is a newcomer to the Cirque universe is the Grammy-nominated French-born, Los Angeles-based musician Anthony Gonzalez, leader of the synthpop-ambient group M83 and composer of the 2013 Tom Cruise science-fiction thriller Oblivion; which the show creators felt was a perfect fit for this particular world they wanted to set his dream-like and energetic vibe to, like their international hit song “Midnight City” back in 2011.

“We have been following the work of M83 for many years and have always been convinced of the incredible potential of integrating his music to a Cirque du Soleil production,” said Guibert. “We were seduced by Anthony’s ability to create melodies that are both epic and poetic and transcend the heart and soul,” Alexandre agreed. “We are honoured that he agreed to lend his talent to this project.”

Anthony Gonzalez, leader and composer of the internationally critically-successful French electronic group M83, creates a poetic, modernistic dreamscape score for Cirque’s VOLTA for his first stage project and has plans to release a M83 version of the soundtrack, including outtakes and vocal guests.

However, it was Gonzalez who needed to be convinced of this. Initially not a Cirque fan and even a couple of productions he’d previously seen didn’t impress him much to even want to score a show for them, until Guibert manage to get him to undertake this new challenge. “When Jean and Bastien first approached me, I was immediately excited about the idea of working with Cirque du Soleil,” Gonzalez stated. “Not just because they are a company known throughout the world, but also because I was deeply attracted by the story of VOLTA, and the spirit that underpins the show. The story of VOLTA is ours. It is a tale of a generation who is calling for change and I was very keen to contribute to telling this story. I’m deeply honoured to be part of the Cirque team and it’s a wonderful new challenge in unknown territory for me. Ultimately, its challenges like this that I find so inspiring and drive me to make the music that I do.”

The performers involved also share the same enthusiasm for the show in trying to find the freedom behind their inspirations. “For me, the best feeling in the world is when I’m on the stage, because I can connect with my pure and true self,” said classically-trained dancer Elena Suarez. “And I dance with something that grows inside of me and it comes close to the heart. So for me, that’s the freedom [I get from performing].”

“[About a couple of years ago] every weekend, I would escape from my job and I would just get in the car and drive somewhere,” said parkour artist Rikki Carmen. “I realized (then) that I had a passion for just going into the world and freerunning out there and exploring and adventuring. I quit my job, and I just decided that every day I should wake up and do what I’m passionate about. So I bought a plane ticket to Hawaii and then just sort of travelling the world and just doing what my heart wanted me to do. And that’s the first moment that I felt free.”

“I really think it’s going to be spectacular. I’m very, very excited at how the costumes are progressing, how the (show) numbers are progressing (and) the staging,” Goco said, in having the final word on VOLTA. “Everything has just come together so beautifully. I think this is going to become my favourite [Cirque] show.”


VOLTA’s Toronto engagement run begins September 7 to October 29 at the Port Lands (51 Commissioners Street at the corners of Commissioners/Cherry Streets). For tickets and information, call 1-877-924-7783 or visit cirquedusoleil.com/volta.