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Cirque du Soleil captivates, educates during campus symposium

October 26, 2011

 

Dance major Chloe Albin '15 strikes a Cirque du Soleil pose.

Dance major Chloe Albin ’15 from Seattle couldn’t resist playing the ham next to a dancing manikin decked out in a stretch zebra suit and dramatic black-and-white theatrical makeup. Albin mimicked the manikin’s arching, cat-like pose and burst into laughter. Friends joined her and they all did it again. Then they laughed some more.

“The fact that Cirque du Soleil is coming to Chapman and at no cost to us is amazing. I think it just hit me this morning what a big deal this is,” Albin said.

That kind of excitement and energy crisscrossed the campus during the three-day Cirque du Soleil Entertainment and Technology Symposium, held Oct. 21-23 at Chapman University. Nearly 800 students from Chapman and neighboring colleges and universities attended the symposium, directed by assistant professors Alicia Okouchi-Guy from the Department of Dance and Don Guy, head of Entertainment Technology. Both professors have a working relationship with Cirque du Soleil.

The program is the first of its kind at a university and helped students see first-hand the sort of behind-the-scenes talent and skills needed for what is becoming an increasingly technological industry. With support from Cirque du Soleil, its industry partners and the Chancellor’s Office, the symposium was free to Chapman students and available for nominal fees to others.

The symposium and the relationship with Cirque du Soleil also put Chapman University in an advantageous position to lead the way in theater technology, said College of Performing Arts Acting Dean Dale Merrill.

“We’re working really hard to develop a new theater technology program, and this is the kickoff to stimulate some interest in the enormous possibilities for such a program,” Merrill said.

Sarah Stavich '15 learns a new knot in rigging class.

Cirque du Soleil had explored working with larger universities, but it chose Chapman for its ethic of collaboration, Merrill said.

“What attracted them to Chapman was our interest in new technologies and our interest in an interdisciplinary approach with sciences and film. There was a synergy here about growth and the future,” he said.

Indeed, the combination of working with Okouchi-Guy and Guy and Chapman’s welcoming environment was attractive to the entertainment company, said Kim Scott, director of show support for the company’s resident shows division.

“It has a great close-knit feel and is family oriented, just like Cirque du Soleil. It’s a comfortable fit for us,” Scott said.

At the same time, the university is big enough to serve the changing demands of entertainment technology, she said.

“The traditional technicians are the flat builders and the guys who hang lights, and we still do that. But the technicians of the future will also be mathematicians, engineers and experts in computer networking,” Scott said.

Thanks to the success of the symposium, everyone involved is optimistic that workshops, master classes and symposiums will be able to continue in the future.

Judging by the response to the inaugural Cirque du Soleil visit, there should be no shortage of interest. An energized audience filled Memorial Hall, beginning the first day with cheers and applause for welcoming remarks. Then over the next three days they filled conference rooms, the backstage of Memorial Hall, classrooms and Waltmar Theatre classes in audio, automation, casting, company management, costuming and makeup, health and safety, lighting, projections, props, rigging and stage management. Mock auditions and warm-up workshops were offered for dancers and theater students. There were even presentations about working on cruise ships.

The hands-on experience of it all was terrific, if a little challenging at times, said theater technology major Sarah Stavich ’15, who attended a rigging class. As she wrestled to splice a permanent loop into 12-strand polyester rope, she eyeballed her progress.

“It gets hard,” she said, holding the bright blue rope up to reveal a bit of a knot. But by the end of the session she had a loop and like the other students they were wearing them like really long neckties, with the ends trailing across the stage floor, swishing like bright blue tails. It definitely looked like the circus had come to town.

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