It was July 2007, and Wade Robson was teaching his annual master classes at The Pulse in NYC when Canadian theater director Serge Denoncourt called him. Denoncourt was writing a groundbreaking Cirque du Soleil show with TV-celebrity magician Criss Angel. The show, CRISS ANGEL Believe, would be a thrilling fusion of dance and magic. Denoncourt dreamt it up with only one choreographer in mind—Wade Robson.
Denoncourt ignored Robson’s initial claims that he was too busy to do the show. “I had to meet that guy,” Denoncourt says. “Sometimes you have to follow your instincts.”
He wanted Robson so badly that he stopped in NYC on his way from Las Vegas to Montreal for a half-hour meeting with the choreographer. All it took was one drink at a Grand Central Station bar, and Robson was ready to temporarily move with his wife and cats to Las Vegas.
“The first thing he told me was that there’s nothing cute in this show,” Robson says. “There are no little moments of razzle dazzle or ‘ta-da’ magic. It’s a story from beginning to end. The illusions and dance happen for a purpose. Everything is intertwined. In 15 seconds, I was sold.”
The Basic Elements
Perhaps you saw the sneak peek of the CRISS ANGEL Believe cast performing on the season four finale of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Maybe you’ve already bought tickets to the show, which premiered in September. But if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, the cat is out of the bag—or should we say, the rabbit is out of the top hat—this show is mind-blowing.
CRISS ANGEL Believe explores the darkness within all of us. Angel’s character rejects what Denoncourt calls “the cute, romantic side” of human nature and instead embraces “the side we don’t want to talk about.” It’s a scary story—a surrealistic journey of self-discovery. “The show looks like a dream that you’d tell Dr. Freud—a dream Dr. Freud would have a lot of fun interpreting!” Denoncourt says.
The story unfolds on a stage that looks like a broken down Italian opera theater, and it takes on new forms as Angel enters different realms. Characters and puppets lure him along the way. (The puppets were created by Michael Curry, who also co-designed the animals for Broadway’s The Lion King.) And throughout the show, Angel performs illusions with modern twists.
“I wanted to bring magic into the 21st century and get rid of the old clichés of a guy in a top hat shoving a woman in a leotard into a box,” Angel says. “That’s not the magic you’ll see in this show.”
The score, created by film composer Eric Serra, is part rock, part electronic. Its dramatic melodies contribute to the show’s eerie mood and matches Robson’s rhythmic choreography.
The wardrobe, which was constructed by costume designer Mérédith Caron, also tells the story. The couture Victorian costumes are exquisite—enough to give dancer Martha Nichols “chills just thinking about them.” (Remember her from season 2 of “SYTYCD”?) Though they’re layered and heavy, Caron worked with Robson to tailor the outfits in a way that would allow the dancers to move.
It’s become a tradition to use mega technology in Cirque shows, and CRISS ANGEL Believe is no exception. During pre-show rehearsals, technicians on laptops could be seen all over the theater. Engineering the show was a 24-hour process, and when the dancers left their 10-hour-a-day rehearsals, a night crew got to work.
The performers learned a style dancer Logan Schyvynck calls “Wade” (similar to the way Fosse movements are simply called “Fosse”). And there isn’t just a little bit of “Wade” in this show, there’s a whole lot—dance makes up 90 percent of the show, according to Nichols. (She doesn’t even see her dressing room until her eighth costume change!) And it’s not the kind of movement that a dancer can cheat.
“If it was just straight technical stuff, you could fake what you couldn’t do,” Nichols explains. “But you can’t because it’s ‘Wade,’ which is off-center, full-bodied, rhythmic and character-oriented. It’s hard-hitting one minute and smooth the next.”
Beside one designated hip-hop number, Robson describes the genre of dance simply as movement. “It’s free form—whatever the story or music demands,” Robson says. “Serge would give me one word, like this is a ‘torture’ number, and I’d just go nuts! I’d pull out all sorts of props and try things.” Before he started choreographing, Robson conducted workshops with the dancers to learn how their bodies moved, and used this to inspire his choreography. Animal-like steps, which Robson is known for (remember his Emmy-nominated “Hummingbird” choreography on season 3 of “SYTYCD”?) are also used. Expect creatures, such as rabbits, this time.
“There’s nothing Vegas-y about the dancing in CRISS ANGEL Believe,” Robson says. “It’s organic, in your face and dirty. It’s raw and rough.”
Working with the Master
Robson isn’t only known for his brilliant choreography, but also for his charisma. He’s patient and down-to-earth—a true gentleman. “Prince Charming” is his nickname among the females in the cast, and he’ll work one-on-one with dancers until everyone picks up each move. Robson and wife Amanda Rodriguez have been known to invite the cast and crew to their home for BBQ and taco nights. The cast feels like a family.
“One time, the girls were having a rough day and feeling emotional,” Nichols says. “Then we had rehearsal with Wade. He walked in and said, ‘Wow! The energy in this room is really thick. Talk to me. What’s going on?’ He can just tell if something is off and actually cares about how we’re doing.”
The dancers aren’t the only ones who enjoy working with Robson. Denoncourt says that although it’s normal for directors and choreographers to fight, this is not the case for him and Robson. Denoncourt feels lucky to have found someone he’s trusted from the start.
Robson agrees, saying they always try to back each other up. He also believes that while Denoncourt doesn’t dance, he understands the art. “I’m not a choreographer, and I will never be one,” Denoncourt says, “But if I would have been a choreographer, I’d want to be Wade Robson!”
Add a third creator, Angel, to the mix and the result is a trio of geniuses. And they work extremely well together.
Still, Nichols says that at times, the creative process got heated. “Wade would say, ‘I want this choreography to go here.’ Criss would respond, ‘It can’t be here because this illusion has to go here,’” she explains. “Then Serge would say, ‘I have a solution!’ And it all worked out.” Their ability to get along has produced what the threesome says is a show with a clear vision.
What Happens in Vegas
Regardless of how impressive the show might be, getting dancers on board wasn’t easy. In fact, Robson describes it as a bit of a tug-of-war. Up until now, being in a Cirque production wasn’t a goal for most dancers trying to make it in the commercial scene or on Broadway.
There’s always been lots of dancing in Las Vegas—the Nevada Ballet Theatre and Céline Dion’s “A New Day” featuring choreography by Mia Michaels, to name a few. But most labeled Las Vegas as a city for showgirls. Cirque shows like O, KÀ and Mystère only flirt with dance. It wasn’t until 2006, when The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil opened, that dance became a major attraction in a Cirque show. The CRISS ANGEL Believe creators say that this show contains even more dancing than LOVE. It will keep the spotlight on Las Vegas so that dancers will want to go there to find work.
“We’re just at the beginning of a shift,” Robson says. “Cirque is creating a new outlet. People are going to be really surprised when they see the dancing in this show.”
The Show Must Go On
Denoncourt hopes CRISS ANGEL Believe will run for at least 10 years. And when asked what’s next, he and Robson reply that they’d both love to work together again. Robson also hopes to make a dance movie with his wife. And Angel plans to continue doing his A&E Network show, “Mindfreak,” while working on his clothing line, MF13, and appearing in movies.
But before they get there, they’re concentrating on the storm CRISS ANGEL Believe is creating in Las Vegas. They know audiences will not walk away from it unaffected. “We’re doing things that have never been done or even attempted in the theater in general,” Angel says. “Expect the unexpected.”
“The title of the show is CRISS ANGEL Believe,” Denoncourt says. “It means believe in yourself. Believe in what can happen to you.”