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It's Raining Acrobats

'Luzia' brings a force of nature into the big top

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Cirque du Soleil's latest production, 'Luzia,' pays homage to the suns and rains of Mexico.

The recent onslaught of storms that has been moving through the Bay has many of us ready for a little sun. But don't put your umbrella away too quickly. The creators of Cirque du Soleil's newest production, Luzia, is bringing the rain indoors.

Inspired by the rich culture and traditions of Mexico, Luzia features the usual splendor and high-flying performance that has made Cirque du Soleil an international hit for decades. This year's tour features more than 40 artists, athletes and acrobats from 15 countries—all under a custom big-top equipped with the power of rain.

The name Luzia is a mash up of the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia), both of which loom large in the performance, thanks to a talented design team and a 360 degree rain curtain that hovers over a rotating stage. The curtain plays a key role in four of the eleven individual acts, which range from a parched clown's quest to capture a precious sip of water to an incredible rain-soaked game of soccer.

Each act represents a specific artistic impression of Mexico. "For a lot of Mexico, rain is something you deal with on a daily basis," says Mark Shaub, the show's artistic director. "It gives us the color and experience of Mexico."

Incorporating rain into a traveling big top has been no small feat. The curtain and its accompanying pool require 6,000 liters of water, which are continually being treated, heated, and recycled. "It was a big technical and design challenge to integrate [water] and make it both feasible and artistically meaningful," Shaub says of the show's R&D. "The whole process is full of things that you try."

Creating the curtain was one kind of challenge. Integrating it was another. "We've gotten extremely creative in how to dry the stage," Shaub says, noting that this process occurs throughout the show and had led to the creation of new acts. Use of the curtain also requires that set pieces, equipment, and costumes be durable and waterproof.

For trapeze artist Enya White and Cyr wheel performer Rachel Salzman, the challenge of working with water was two fold. "It was not just integrating water but using a new piece of equipment," says Salzman, who had to relearn the art she'd been honing for the past three years at Montreal's National Circus School.

Inspired by winter biking, the new "waterproof" Cyr wheel is more of a thick treaded tire, which alters the timing and angle at which Salzman can spin as the water pours down from above. Salzman and White compared working on a wet stage to performing on ice or running in high heels. "In the beginning I was really bad," Salzman says. "My partners called me 'butter feet.' I'd say it was at least 100 shows before I felt [really comfortable]."

Learning to work with water has also been rewarding. "When I'm doing my tricks and the water comes in the show, it's really a magical moment for the audience and also for us," says White. "It's like a relief."

"Our act is supposed to be set in the desert and yet it's raining," says Salzman. "The premise was the idea that the water is an impossibility—this thing you hope for and wish for, but might all be in your imagination, like a mirage."

"The whole show is really a magical experience," White says. "[Both] being inside and also watching it from outside."

Water is just one of the many aspects of Mexican culture that Luzia celebrates and explores. Yet, of all the artistic and technical trappings that the show features—a rotating stage, two massive treadmills, original compositions, giant puppets, impossible contortions—it may be the most magical.

In an age of advancing technology, Luzia reminds us that there are some forces we cannot control and recalls the deep gratitude and great pleasure that can come from something as simple as a shower of rain.

Feb 9-Mar 19, Various Times, $49+
Taylor St. Bridge—E Lot, San Jose