The Biggest Show In Waikiki

The new Cirque Hawaii premieres Saturday at the former IMAX Theater. With a cast of world-class performers, it’s sure to be the hottest ticket in town

Friday - December 16, 2005
By Norise Jastillana
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Yuriy Ryzhkov flies toward the audience
Yuriy Ryzhkov flies toward the audience

If the performers are anywhere near as intriguing as the people behind the scenes at Cirque Hawaii, the new show promises to entertain like no other.

There’s partner and producer Cornell Nicholas - better known as “Tuffy” - who quite literally grew up in the circus. The son of a Ringling Brothers ringmaster and a polar bear trainer (dad and mom, respectively), Nicholas was himself a circus performer - trapeze, tumbling, bare-back, teeterboard, magic and the like - until he moved into the promotion and production arena more than 30 years ago.

Then there’s creative director Mathieu Laplante, a Canada native who was recruited by Cirque du Soleil at the tender age of 16. For more than 10 years, he performed around the world in such shows as Saltimbanco and O before forming his own company to coordinate talent and produce live shows.


You can’t overlook Congo-born choreographer Vital Germaine, who’s Belgian by nationality, was raised in London, and has worked and lived around the globe. Germaine has been an actor, dancer, acrobat - even a soccer player in Belgium - and, now, has added artist and painter to his creative credentials. Part of the original cast of Cirque du Soleil’s Mystere,he completed more than 2,000 performances as an acrobat before moving into choreography and production.

And, of course, there’s artistic director and general manager Alan Goldberg, a former lion and tiger trainer who once presented 15 Royal Bengal white tigers on stage. He worked with Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas and was later hired by Cirque du Soleil as aquatic director of O at the Bellagio.

Together, this cast of characters - along with partners Helen O’Connor, James Cranos and Barry Schmoyer - will stage one of the most ambitious shows to hit a Waikiki stage in years. Home for the production is the former IMAX Theatre, now in the final stages of a multimillion-dollar transformation into a state-of-the-art showcase for the Cirque Hawaii cast.

“I’m really blown away by the level of talent,” says Germaine, who arrived in November to begin choreographing the show, which premieres Dec. 17 with a grand opening set for Jan. 5. “I’ve worked with world-class performers, and these have surprised me.”

Ganchimeg Oyunchimeg balances all of her weight on her top teeth while bending over backwards. And you thought your job was tough
Ganchimeg Oyunchimeg balances all of
her weight on her top teeth while bending
over backwards. And you thought your
job was tough

According to Nicholas, Cirque Hawaii scoured the world to find “the best of the best” artists, among them dancers, acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and clowns, for the 15-act production. Many of the artists hail from Eastern European nations and, Nicholas admits, he’s “lost count” of the number of languages spoken on the set.

“Hawaii has its advantages when you’re negotiating with performers for a permanent production,” says Nicholas, who says Cirque Hawaii rented 20 Waikiki condos to house the cast of 16 men and 18 women.

Inspiration for Cirque Hawaii came during a vacation in the islands three years ago, says Nicholas, also producer and show manager of the Moscow State Circus. He discussed the idea with other colleagues, including creative director Laplante, who was the first to explore the empty IMAX site.

“I was on Kauai for wedding, and I asked Tuffy if he wanted me to check out the theater,” recalls Laplante, who got Nicholas’blessing and headed to Oahu for a tour.

“I tried to picture how it would be with a live circus show. There wasn’t much depth but the height was great.”

Laplante headed back to Las Vegas, where he took out a board and started to pencil in different ideas and designs for the show.

“With every pencil line, I’d think, ‘We could do this, or we could do that,’” his excitement building.


The theater has, indeed, been transformed. Against a pitch-black backdrop, the stage stretches 70 feet high and wide, with a second stage level halfway up the back wall. Scaffolds on either side support four platforms each and aerial apparatus dangles from the ceiling.

“The IMAX required a lot of engineering and rigging expertise and lighting,” explains Nicholas, who says they searched the U.S. and Canada for a lighting crew before deciding on a local company, Eggshell Lighting, to do the job. They are enthusiastic about the results, which include synchronized, intelligent lighting with a myriad of special effects. Cirque Hawaii also looked to a local company, Creative Sound, to install their surround sound system and related components.

Audiences are up close and personal to all the action in the 478-seat theater, a far cry from the cavernous auditoriums of Las Vegas where shows seat thousands.

“For artists, it’s a dream-size theater - they like to be close to the audience, and the audience likes to be close to the artists,” explains Nicholas of the more intimate setting, flanked by dramatic red, crushed velvet curtains and refitted with plush new seats.

From this striking vantage point, audiences will watch as the journey of “Josephine,” the production’s main character, unfolds in a fluid series of lyrical scenes and intertwining acts, all set to a specially produced musical score.

“I want the audience to forget their lives from the minute they walk in the door to the minute they walk out,” states Laplante. “I want them to live through the journey, to lose perception of time - what they did yesterday, what they have to do today or tomorrow.”

This fantastical journey encompasses performances on trapeze, bungees, aerial silks and teeterboards that catapult artists 35 feet in the air. The production also incorporates contortion, transformation, Russian bar, multi-participant skip rope and human juggling - all spotlighting the strength, flexibility, balance and beauty of the artists.

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