Dressed to Thrill

For the past two months, Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” has been performed beneath the bright blue-and-yellow tents in front of downtown’s Staples Center, the acrobats in costumes as bright and bizarre as the mystical world they inhabit. But those jagged edges and spiked points that lend a dangerously thrilling look are anything but dangerous. Crafted from soft high-tech fabrics, the costumes are the creations of Japanese visual artist Eiko Ishioka, whose credits include numerous Broadway productions, 1999’s film “The Cell,” the music video for Bjork’s single “Cocoon,” and skiing, speedskating and ski-jumping uniforms for competitors in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. As the production moves to Pomona this week, with shows running through December, we check in with Ishioka, who talks about her otherworldly creations that are as integral to “Varekai” as the acrobats performing in them.

What were some of the design challenges for this project?

On my first visit to Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal, Andrew Watson, the artistic director of “Varekai,” took me on a tour of the building. One of the first things I asked him was: “Are there any taboos I should avoid in the costume design?” As I had imagined, his answer was, “The costumes cannot be dangerous. And they need to be easy for the acrobatic artists to move in.”

As a designer, my perspective comes not just from knowledge of what happens behind the scenes or backstage but also from the perspective of the audience. That dual perspective led me to the idea: “Why don’t I design costumes that look dangerous but are actually safe?” In other words, if the audience sees the artists wearing costumes that look comfortable, they won’t feel thrilled by the performance. Even though the acrobatic artists are performing very dangerous, high-risk acts that will make the audience “ooh” and “aah” for the first few minutes, if the artists look comfortable in what they are wearing, the audience will lose that thrill pretty quickly. I want to design costumes that keep the audience in suspense until the very end of the show.


How does character movement dictate design?

With the exception of action movies, the movement of actors on stage and screen does not come close to approaching the very dangerous and demanding physical performances of acrobatic artists. Designing for film and stage allows more freedom of expression in that sense. For Cirque, the absolute priority must be the safety and comfort of the artists

The costumes are on the one hand reflective of Cirque du Soleil and yet also distinctly your style. How do you explain the synergy? Where does Cirque leave off and Eiko Ishioka begin?

Cirque du Soleil has created many wonderful and successful shows over the years, but they were ready for a change of creative direction, and that is how I became involved in the show. Accordingly, my task was twofold: to maintain the sense of creativity and style that has become Cirque’s selling point, but at the same time create a new vision, one more creative than ever before.


I wanted to design a world through [the costumes] that could only have been created by me. I wanted the design to be something never seen before in Cirque, something truly original. I think the result is what you perceive as the synergy: While keeping alive the “Cirque” flavor, I feel that, thanks to the support of [“Varekai” writer and director] Dominic Champagne, I was able to achieve a world uniquely born of my own vision.

Traditionally your work has been dark, but with Varekai, we see vibrant color. What is color’s role in this production?

I knew that I didn’t want to do anything you might find in an amusement park, with calculated-to-please colors and cliche costumes. I wanted the costumes to go beyond just being colorful, and express some magic and mystery.

How did you become involved in Cirque du Soleil?

One of my dearest friends, the great, great filmmaker Francis Coppola, invited me to “Saltimbanco” in New York a long time ago. That was perhaps Cirque’s first production in New York. I was impressed, of course, and I especially enjoyed the originality and sensibility of the show. All of us said that the production was much better than a Broadway musical.

Since I first saw the performance of “Saltimbanco,” I had the feeling that one day I might be asked to design for Cirque du Soleil. It was in late 2000 that the creative director, Andrew Watson, and Champagne [who had seen her book “Eiko on Stage” in the window of a New York City bookstore] first asked me if I’d be interested in being part of Cirque’s new production. [Founder and CEO] Guy Laliberte and [president and COO] Lyn Heward had made it clear that they wanted to go in a totally new direction with the next show, so they felt a totally new creative team was in order.

What is the collaborative process in designing these costumes?

My collaboration with Dominic on “Varekai” was quite different from my past experiences with directors. Dominic writes and directs his own scripts, primarily for the theater, and often acts in his own productions as well. While I’ve done set and costume design for theater, much of my design work has been for film, opera, museums, advertising and other more commercial media.


In the beginning, I felt a gap between our values and creative processes, and it was somewhat difficult for us to reach a consensus. But through very thorough discussion, approaching problems together from new angles, and lots of trial and error, I feel ultimately that we have had a mutually satisfying collaboration.

In the beginning, his direction of the design was very, very precise. But the huge amount of very detailed information he gave me ended up making me feel penned in, and I felt I lost the freedom to truly create from within myself. At that point I said to Dominic: “You are the director, and I am the designer so let me think about the design.” From then on out teamwork was much more successful.

How was this project different from others?

A film begins with a script, an opera with a score. “Varekai” started with nothing, and had to be built from zero. The only inspiration to work from was the Greek myth of Icarus, which Champagne wanted to use to explore the idea of falling--a taboo in the circus.

The circus is first and foremost about the acrobatic performers. It is the skills and incredible talents of performers from all over the world that really “create” the scenario for the show. Unlike traditional circus shows, Cirque does not use animals or “freaks,” which is one of the things I like most about it.