Getting KURIOS with Michel Laprise

KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities is back in Montreal to celebrate its 10th anniversary!

As part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities, I had the pleasure of meeting Writer and Show Director Michel Laprise to learn more about the secrets behind the creative process.

How did you feel when you learned you were directing KURIOS?

I don’t want to name drop, but I was in Tel Aviv. I had just created a show with Madonna. I happened to come across friends from Montreal and we decided to party together. That’s when I got a call from Jean-François Bouchard, who told me: "Guy (Laliberté) and I had a talk and decided that the next big top event should be yours.” I was so happy! This was such a big and beautiful challenge.

I was lucky, because I had about five years of experience before that. I had done events with Cirque, so I learned how to work with acrobats, and how to tell stories in the specific world of Cirque du Soleil. I met with many partners and clients as well, so this connection with the public has informed the way I worked. Yes, it was a big deal, but I had the opportunity to ease back into things, like a little fish you take home from the pet store, letting its bag soak in the aquarium for a little while. I was very happy, because that meant my first few weeks weren’t spent trying to understand what Cirque du Soleil is. We dove in immediately. I also had the opportunity to work on KURIOS with Chantal Tremblay, an extraordinary person with a lot of experience.

Michel Laprise and Chantal Tremblay unveiling the show title and main artwork.

What’s your fondest memory about creating the show?

The obvious answer is premiere night, because everyone was ecstatic. It was a thrilling time. Daniel Lamarre came to see me after the intermission to tell me what everyone kept saying: “Cirque is back”Cirque is back . The last couple years had been a bit rough, so I was happy because that success didn’t just belong to the show, it also belonged to Cirque Cirque. Montrealers, who really liked Cirque Cirque, were thrilled how things turned out for us, which touched me deeply. I thought: “The people love us and they want things to work out for us.”

The stars were aligned and there was good energy in the creative team. With Serge Côté as Technical Director, the production team did miracles. So there are a lot of great moments. For me, it is a whole reel of beautiful memories. I spent lots of time at training sessions in the studio, because I wanted to understand the artists and write the acts’ staging based on who they were, what their dreams were. I countless hours listening to them. It’s so easy to listen to artists, because they all have exciting stories to share and are just beautiful people that are fully committed to what they do.

Another great moment was when I rewrote the start of the show. I was at home and I remember putting key words in the order of various actions on little papers on the floor, and then starting all over again and trying it!

Where did the idea of exploring a steampunk universe with KURIOS come from?

I went to see the big top that had been erected in Quebec City. I said: “Let’s get a fresh look at things and check out a big top.” I went with Chantal Tremblay, and it’s crazy—it’s still just four steel posts with a canvas. It’s like a big radio antenna channelling this invisible energy into the hearts of the artists in the ring and then into the spectators’ hearts. I felt like I was onto something. I started researching electricity, which is invisible energy. I read about the second half of the 19th century, when not only was electricity discovered, but also trains, which allowed a cart to move forward without horses.

It was a big deal! People were afraid the whole thing would explode. It was a fascinating time. Then came the telegraph, which enabled voices to be heard miles away, and the gramophone, which made it possible to immortalize people’s voices for the very first time, thereby democratizing music, spreading it worldwide. That whole time was utterly fascinating, so with Set Designer Stéphane Roy, we explored this theme. We invented our own steampunk, because we have a bit of a rebellious streak at Cirque du Soleil. I always say that because we are not bound by any journalistic or documentary rigour; we make poetry and works of art, which in themselves must contain contradictions.

Currently, steampunk is mostly set in the Victorian era and showcases what would have happened if electricity hadn’t been harnessed and humanity had just kept using steam. We thought: “No, our steampunk won’t be Victorian, but rather Parisian. Like the fair in 1900, when the whole world came to Paris and Parisians themselves were discovering all kinds of new things.” Instead of steam, it’s electricity. It’s really cool! It’s a beautiful universe that will never go out of style, because it’s already old!

That era saw all the inventions that brought people together. A great many of these were communication technologies that ushered in the golden age of magic. People realized that if they could get around without a horse and light a room without a flame, maybe this woman on stage is really levitating or that rabbit really came out of a hat. Magic often uses everyday objects, because people know what a top hat is, and we still have them today. Magic was based on everyday life, and that’s the route we also took, harnessing fantasy from reality. They are real chairs, real suitcases, a real newspaper.

Stéphane Roy and a miniature version of the KURIOS stage.
Michel and a guest in steampunk attire at the Toronto premiere.

How did the name KURIOS come about for this show?

The folks from Sid Lee were really hard at work after I presented the show to them, and ended up with no less than 30 suggestions. Either I didn’t like them or they had nothing to do with the show, so I said: “Come back tomorrow. I’ll to spend the afternoon with you to show you the project’s ins and outs.” A week later, they came back with a single name.

Do you know how they present show names? They cover it with a white sheet of paper, then reveal it. That’s because, more often than not, the first time people are exposed to a show’s name, they don’t hear it; they see it. So they said: “We’re going to be bold: we only have one name to present today and we’re sure it’s the right one.” And I said: “Oh really? Why?” Because every time you say that word, Michel, your eyes sparkle.” They flipped the paper, I saw the title and said: “That’s the one!” I don’t have time to think, but I did say that I would like it to be a title, not just a name. So it became KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities. I wanted it to be like the title of a Jules Vernes novel.

That’s why there’s a bust of Jules Vernes in one of the cabinets of curiosities we built. That’s the only thing that didn’t work in the show’s design. We wanted it to magically fly, but it was too complicated because we came up with this idea a little late at the technical level, and the ceiling was already full.

I like that KURIOS is the show’s humblest character. Instead of being the stars, robots help everyone. There are different types of KURIOS, and many people play those characters: sometimes artists, other times technicians.KURIOS was important to me. As I told the technicians: “Your mother will be able to say that their son is on the poster.”

I believe the success of KURIOS stems from the collaborative effort of both artists and technicians. This show features some of the most complex technical tracks. The riggers never stop. It was important that the name recognize the collaboration between artists and technicians. We wanted to pay tribute to their work and the fact that the characters are sometimes played by artists, sometimes by technicians. For me, that’s the real strength of KURIOS.

Over five million spectators worldwide have seen KURIOS. Do you have a message for them?

THANK YOU! Thank you, and I hope you had a big smile on your face coming out of the tent. That’s why we created this show. Five million people is huge, especially over a 10-year period that includes a two-year hiatus. So that’s five million in eight years; it was an incredible opportunity. People who create shows know that a lot of people will see it, but that’s crazy. I thought we had hit the three million mark. I remember the first million; we were in Canada. But five times more a few years later, that’s a lot!

What word best describes how you felt at the world premiere of KURIOS?

Well, that would be “happy”. Happy that everyone’s work has paid off and that audiences loved it. But also happy that the bold gamble we took has turned out to be a success, rather than a disaster! I was happy to see that the boldest elements, which had been the hardest to do, were also the ones that audiences loved the most. People know when something’s difficult, and then when you make the impossible possible, they notice. When people say: “Ah! Only Cirque du Soleil could pull that off,” that means we did our job well.

What makes KURIOS returning to Montreal so special?

Well, we’ll be able to see it often! I won’t have to fly in to attend. It’s an anniversary summer, so that’s fun. I’m thrilled that the show is coming back, because there are a number of people in the troupe who have never set foot in Montreal or in the studios of the International Headquarters. I’m glad they can come visit the head office.

What’s the most random fun fact you can share about creating the show?

The first that comes to mind is the drop of mercury, for the aerial strap number. That drop was painted silver, and Guy Laliberté said that it was maybe a little too bright and didn’t blend as well with the decor’s warmth. So Set Designer Stéphane Roy asked the suppliers to come in to redo the mercury drop’s coating. But because he had the flu, when he told them to paint it bronze, they understood “rose” (“pink”, in French). So they ended up painting the mercury drop pink when showed up at night! And it stayed like that ever since.

KURIOS holds the internal record for the most accessories used, a whopping 464, among all our touring shows. Which is your favourite among all this gear?

First of all, I want to say that I believe props make things real. They create a direct link between the show and the audience. Gabriel Pinkstone, who was the Production Manager, once asked me: “Are you aware that this show has more props than any other Cirque show?” I said: “Yes, is that a compliment?” And then I said: “You know what? I have a second list, so let me know when you have some time to go over it with me!”

But yes, 464! Ah... I love them all. I like the book whose pages turn by themselves. I like all the gramophones. I also really like the ballet of light bulbs, this sort of garden of light bulbs moving around, because it was so hard to figure it out. I really like the little puppet theatre tent. In the big top, you suddenly find a small hand puppet theatre, a little tent that’s actually an umbrella. I really like the llama, whom we called Serge in tribute to Serge Lama, and I’m sure only Quebecers will get that reference.

How do you plan on celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary?

I’m going to celebrate with the employees, even though I have a scheduling conflict as we speak. They’ll definitely be some dancing, and I imagine we’ll set something up!

About a year before KURIOS, in 2013, I sat down where the big top is erected, in the Old Port of Montreal, and meditated. Unbeknownst to me, a French friend who was visiting took a picture and gave it to me as a gift. I think I’ll go back with the picture; it’s symbolic. But the real party is going to be when the audience starts coming into the tent!


KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities will be presented under the big top in Montreal from May 23 to August 25, 2024, before heading off on a tour. Get your tickets today!

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