Cirque du Soleil wants to start a new holiday tradition. Their Christmas show, “‘Twas the Night Before Cirque du Soleil,” premiered at Madison Square Garden on December 9. The show originally premiered in 2019, then took a break in 2020 due to COVID restrictions, but the creative team is hopeful that the show will have a long future.
The show retells the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, better known by its opening line “‘Twas the night before Christmas.” “What I love about it is there’s some really beautiful imagery in the poem,” says Director James Hadley. He wanted to deconstruct the poem and make something new from it. “I decided that instead of literally retelling the poem, I would take little pieces from it and see how could we creatively link those to different acts or different characters.”
The story follows Isabella who in growing up has lost some of the wonder of Christmas. A group of Christmas elves whisk her off the a magical world of Christmas where she encounters a cast of holiday characters. Isabella’s father follows her into the this magical land in search of her. She eventually learns the magic of giving and she and her father return home just in time for Santa to arrive.
“It’s a glitter-filled Christmas bomb,” says Evan Tomlinson Weintraub, an acrobat and diver in the show. Weintraub was invited to be part of the 2019 production after having done some previous work with Cirque du Soleil. He and the other divers went through eight weeks of training and rehearsal in Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil is headquartered.
Weintraub started training as a gymnast when he was three and half, but switched to acrobatics when he was 12. “I didn’t like the competition of gymnastics,” he says. He attended circus training throughout high school and later officially trained at the National Circus School of Montreal. Part of his love for circus: “It had the community and camaraderie of being on stage and putting on a performance.”
“The Greek Chorus”
While Weintraub grew up in San Francisco, the performers for the new production come from twelve different countries. They all traveled to Montreal for rehearsals before going to Chicago for their first set of shows, then onward to New York for Christmas. The show will continue running until December 27.
“It’s really amazing we’re actually able to come together from a bunch of different corners of the world to come together and bring the show together,” says Weintraub. But coming together also comes with oodles of COVID restrictions. Cast members get COVID tested every Monday, and masks are required while not on stage.
Masks were also required throughout the rehearsal process. “It’s hard to give notes and to give feedback when you can’t see such an important part of their performance, which is their face,” says Hadley. But despite struggles with restrictions, Hadley was able to bring together his international cast. “I had each person go to the other end of the room and take their mask off and introduce themselves.” That initial introduction was one of the only times members of the production saw each other’s faces until the show.
In bringing the show back this year, Hadley was able to rethink through the 2019 show and improve upon it. He added additions like a number in which an acrobat is suspended by her hair doing dance moves in the air. In addition to acrobatics there is a core group of dancers. “They really are the Greek chorus, they take you through the show,” says Hadley. The group also does a pre-show performance to hype up the audience.
Hadley and other creatives on the team wanted this year’s show to be different from other Christmas experiences audiences can see. “What makes it different from every other Christmas show is that Cirque aspect,” says Weintraub. “You’re not going to see this kind of high quality acrobatics anywhere else.”
Along with the show, the atmosphere of the theater brings in the kitschiness of Christmas. There are holiday cocktails at the bar served in ornament cups and people walking around selling Santa hats. This show was designed for families with small children and tourists coming to town, but Cirque du Soleil hopes to create a long lasting place in all of our hearts.
“‘Twas the Night Before Cirque du Soleil” is one more sign of New York edging back to normal. According to Hadley, “There’s really nothing like this human interaction that is so specific to theater that I think is so beautiful.”