Cirque du Soleil's giant blue and yellow striped big top currently dominates the skyline at Melbourne's Flemington Racecourse; a perfect setting for the magical show that is TOTEM. Written and directed by Robert LePage, TOTEM has already had a season in Sydney and will move on to Brisane, Adelaide and Perth when the Melbourne season finishes at the end of March. Neelanthi Vadivel is the Artistic Director travelling with TOTEM and Jan Chandler had the pleasure of talking with her about her career and the demands of her current role.
Dance was Neelanthi's first love and it was what ultimately brought her to the notice of Cirque du Soleil (Cirque). She began dancing as a five year old when her mother, believing that all young girls should be trained in dance and piano, enrolled her in ballet classes and, because her father is Sri Lankan, Indian dance classes; for Neelanthi it was ballet on Saturdays and Indian dance on Sundays. She came to love dance and at eleven decided to devote herself to it full-time. She joined the Le'Ecole Superieure de Danse du Quebec, a performing arts school affililated with the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. “I don't have a ballet dancer's physique and that was told to me again and again in my youth” [laughter], so she turned to contemporary dance. In 2006 she co-founded Ezdanza, with Edgar Zendegjar and Julien Gagnon.
Neelanthi continued to maintain her interest and skills in classical Indian dance and when Cirque came calling saying “we have just the contract for you”, their timing was perfect. Neelanthi, not yet ready to retire, had begun to consider her options and here she was being presented with the opportunity to play the role of Oceane in Cirque du Soleil's production Dralion. Why not give it a go?
So began her initiation into the distinctive and unique environment that is Cirque. Instead of being on tour for say six months, and spending the rest of her time creating works, she now had to adapt to being part or a large production which could be on tour for several years; she was with Dralion for 2.5 years. Whilst playing the leading role of Oceanne, Neelanthi also worked as Dance Captain. This meant that all the choreography in the show was her responsibility and she was no longer working just with dancers, but also with circus performers, athletes, musicians and singers from many different countries. Her role was to keep her eyes open for any weaknesses in the show, anywhere where the lines weren't working as well as they might, and also to work with those artists who did not have a background in dance so that they would feel at ease on stage and perform to their best. If for any reason an act needed to be removed or replaced, she would assist with the choreography to insure a smoothe transition so that the flow and standard of the show was retained.
As Neelanthi moved from performer to Assistant AD (Saltimbanco) and now AD for TOTEM she found that her experience as a dance captain had been a great training ground; it had allowed her to become more aware of the needs of performers other than dancers. TOTEM is acrobatic rather than dance oriented. The choreographic demands are less, however an acrobatic act still needs to flow, to move well, to read for the audience. “A dancer will understand the terminology, the references immediately, whereas an acrobat might not … I had to really be humble, hold back, and decide/reassess how I was going to approach these people to get the results I needed without offending or being too harsh or critical.” Some artists have more body awareness or choreographic experience in terms of improvisation, some don't. There's a need to slow down the process, take it in small steps. “I've never been a contortionist or an aerialist, I'm scared of heights [laughter], but I can still explain or draw pictures; it can be a challenge to verbalise what you want."
Patience is an important skill for any AD. At Cirque, the creative side of the role, dealing one on one with artists or delving into the movement or character work, makes up only about half of the workload, the rest is administrative. Along with her own staff Neelanthi oversees several departments: Artists & Coaching, Physio/Peak Performance Medicine, Wardrobe and Stage Management. She has to liaise with each of these, as well as the technical department if everything is to run smoothly and the quality of the show be sustained from one performance to the next.
TOTEM is already five years old, and Neelanthi has only been with the show for a year. She admires and respects Robert LePage, the writer and director, whom she describes as “a brilliant man … a creative genius”. His aim in creating TOTEM was to highlight exceptional performers, so the cast is smaller than in past shows and the acts consist of solos, duos, or small groups. LePage loves to work with technology and has created projections that add depth, colour, richness and intimacy, embracing and complimenting every aspect of the performance.
One thing that has always impressed me about Cirque is their obvious interest in, and respect for, traditional cultures. TOTEM has a strong Amerindian flavour which is unsurprising given that singer-songwriter Christian Laveau, from the Huron-Wendat reserve in Wendake, Quebec, has been involved from the very beginnning. Robert Lepage heard him sing at a Quebec cultural celebration and asked him to work with LePage on a new show. Everything that was brought forward by the creative team was passed through a group of elders from Christian's tribe for their approval. This same respect for local cultures is continued when on tour. Wherever they tour local people perform traditional welcoming ceremonies – the Maori in New Zealand, Aboriginal elders in Australia and a Shinto ceremony to bless the stage in Japan.
Given that Neelanthi's career seems to have progressed without major difficulties, I had to ask her whether, as a creative person who happens to be a woman, she had encountered any particular obstacles. “There's always a feeling, If you're a woman in a leadership position, that perhaps you need to be a little more firm handed, or maybe you need to be a little stricter and efficient or organised.” Perhaps as a result some women in leadership roles can tend to overcompensate, risking burnout and/or failing to let “the feminine ... qualities come through as in the compassion or the time you spend with people … there's always a balance you have to fight for ... even more so than with male directors … that obstacle is always there, whether we like it or not.” She has never felt this way with Cirque, who she says are very open minded, but “it's a kind of self-created obstacle that I see with women in this position”.
So what's to do? Neelanthi laughs, “ignore that wall! … follow your passion, believe in yourself and work hard and the rest will come.”
So where to next for Neelanthi? She fell in love with TOTEM in a matter of weeks. “It is a very happy, evocative, beautiful production … an evening's entertainment where you can immerse yourself in another world, forget about the real world, take yourself away and just be entranced … beautiful music, awe-inspiring acts.” Her hope is that audiences will walk away thrilled and inspired.
TOTEM by Cirque du Soleil is now playing in Melbourne, before touring to Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth later in 2015. Visit: www.cirquedusoleil.com
Top right – Neelanthi Vadivel. Photo – Matt Beard Photography
Bottom Right – Christian Laveau. Photo – OSA Images