Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical, character-driven approach draws on circus styles from around the world. Dralion, which comes to South Africa next month, is an East-meets-West style production which remains one of their top-grossing travelling productions, writes Theresa Smith.

DRALION artistic director Alison Crawford is in Montreal and won’t be coming to South Africa with Dralion, although she does get many chances to travel as the artistic director for Dralion, Corteo and La Nouba.

Corteo is a touring production centred on a clown watching his own funeral take place in a carnival atmosphere, while La Nouba is the resident show at the Walt Disney World Resort that is structured like a fairytale recounted in an attic.

Crawford fell in love with the circus as a child and, in fact, ran away and joined the circus as a professional dancer.

She’s seen every Cirque du Soleil production except Iris, but hasn’t been involved in any of the Cirque film or opera theatre work.

Crawford worked closely with choreographer Debbie Brown on the Cirque du Soleil show Quidam in 1995 and worked as a trainer on Cirque du Monde before going on the road with Dralion as an artistic co-ordinator.

After the birth of her son (who also goes to circus school) she returned to Montreal to work on Corteo and nowadays she fulfils a “guardian of the concept” role with the various productions.

“I’m there to make sure that each show keeps its concept as it was built at the beginning,” she explained, during a telephonic interview.

This includes oversight on the artistic teams which handle costume, make-up, direction, music, sound and daily operations.

“I make sure that we are keeping in line with the high quality that we first started with.

“It’s easy because the teams are passionate about their work,” she said.

Dralion premiered in Montreal as Cirque du Soleil’s 12th touring production in 1999, and was converted to an arena-style production in 2010. The version coming to South Africa draws on 50 international artists from 14 countries, though there are no South Africans in this cast.

“It’s still more or less the same production, but things have been upgraded and acts have been added. There’s a new aerial hoop act that used to be a back-up act and has now been incorporated into the act. The girls’ act in the beginning has changed and a hand-to-hand contortion act called Medusa has been added,” said Crawford.

Dralion combines elements of Western contemporary circus with elements of traditional Chinese circus, with at least half of the cast originating from China.

The name incorporates the two major symbols of dragon-of-the-east and lion-from-the-west.

The performers climb the almost 20m-high metallic structure which forms the backdrop of the stage. They also use three concentric circles suspended above the stage.

On stage, there’s an emperor and an empress, as well as singers and three kooky clowns. The elements each have their own act in which they perform for the imperial couple while the dralions are mythical creatures inspired by the imagery of the Chinese dragon and lion dances.

Crawford said they were constantly upgrading or working on different acts as new artists joined: “They bring another flavour. There is a set choreography, of course, but it is constantly updated.”

The four elements in the show – earth, air, water and fire – were each represented by characters and the performers have changed over the years, though each one of them has some kind of modern ballet background, as well as experience in various other forms of dance.

“They bring some of their own personalities to the roles, and we give them ideas. It’s important that the artists bring a bit of themselves to the role. Fire, for example, has to be a good dancer and also know martial arts. Sometimes the person is a strong dancer, or strong when it comes to martial arts and then we have to work on the other aspect.”

The person who will portray Gaya/Earth, Dioman Gbou, is from the Ivory Coast and helped to originate the role in the late 1990s.

Oceana/Water dances in an Indian style, drawing on an amalgamation of various forms, while Azala/Air has to be a good dancer as well as acrobat. “She does this beautiful tissue as we call it, or aerial fabric dance, with her partner. So she’s partly an acrobat, and contortionist and dancer.”

Crawford said the way the Dralion production was set up in the travelling format was for a small part of the stage to jut out into the audience and they are trying to get their dralions and clowns to go into the audience.

Each of the travelling shows do take into consideration feedback from other Cirque du Soleil productions which have used various venues, so she’s sure whatever problems Saltimbanco may have encountered at the Johannesburg venue last year will be considered when Dralion starts there in March.

“We do try our best to create that intimacy, but sometimes the arenas are so huge,” said Crawford.

• Dralion will be performed from March 5 to 10 at GrandWest Arena, Cape Town and March 21 to 24 at the Coca-Cola Dome, Joburg.