Creative minds behind Cirque du Soleil's 'Iris'

Last week previews began at the Kodak Theatre for "Iris," the latest big-top extravaganza by Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. The show, which its producers hope will run at the Hollywood & Highland complex for the next decade, is a valentine to the art of cinema that combines circus acts, avant-garde theatrics and a touch of Hollywood razzle-dazzle.

The two top-billed members of its creative team are director Philippe Decouflé, a Paris-based director-choreographer, and composer Danny Elfman, former frontman for the progressive rock band Oingo Boingo and author of dozens of feature film scores, including Tim Burton's "Batman" and "Alice in Wonderland." We spoke with them about "Iris" this week at Elfman's studio in Los Angeles. In conversation, the pair work together like an aerial act. Elfman, humorous and upfront, maintains a steady patter of anecdotes and impressions about the show and its progress. Then Decouflé swoops in with elegantly crafted thoughts in Parisian-accented English. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

This show is about cinema, not about Hollywood, although here in L.A. we sometimes think of them as synonymous.

Elfman: It's almost like cinema as an idea, rather than "movies." We're not trying to make you think of "Lawrence of Arabia," not trying to make you think of Alfred Hitchcock, we're not trying to make you think of specific movies. It's almost as much of an homage to [Louis] Lumière as it is to any single director.

Decouflé: The basic subject is cinema. For me it was so dangerous, I didn't know what to do for a long time. Because if we talk about just one school of cinema — like, I'm a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, but I cannot do a show which is an homage to Hitchcock because I have to give an homage to cinema in general. So I decided to work mainly on what was before cinema, about the fascination we have for images. It's the beauty of movement.

Danny, how does doing "Iris" compare with working on a film?

Elfman: Well, there's no comparison, almost on any level. Film, first off, you have a finished product, or semi-finished, by the time I come in. Secondly, it's a film, and you know what you're supposed to do. I knew that "Iris" was going to be in a constant transformation. But the thing that is most interesting is that there was no template to look to, to follow.

How did you two begin working together?

Elfman: We started two years ago. Philippe already had a lot of work done. He was creating the show in Paris. I just started writing music and sending it over to him.

Philippe, why did Cirque want Danny involved in this show?

Decouflé: Cirque du Soleil asked me to work on this show and to find a creative team. So my very first idea was let's ask Daniel, because he's one of my favorite composers. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a movie I have seen 50 times. And I had the chance that Danny, he hadn't seen a lot of dance shows in his life, but he saw my solo work in New York a little while before.

Elfman: It was really a bit of fate. I had an agent who was booking concerts. So one night in New York, he says, "We're going to go see a show, a dance show." And I get to the theater and there's just this picture of one person. It's a solo. And I go, "What?! You've taken me to a solo performance? Oh my god, I'm going to see a modern dance solo performance! This is going to be horrible!" And I loved the show. I said, "Whoever this Decouflé is, I'd love to work with him some day." And six months later I get this call saying Cirque is interested. And you also have to remember I started out as a street musician. I was a fire-breather, same as Guy [Cirque Chief Executive Guy Laliberté]. My first performing in my life was with a French musical-theatrical group, Le Grand Magic Circus.

The music for "Iris" incorporates many different styles, from Latin jazz to Balinese gamelan and Japanese taiko drums to serialism.

Elfman: Sometimes I'd get an idea thrown at me, just something to grab hold of. So there was lots of things, like doing Gershwin-esque, or doing Leonard Bernstein, doing something romantic.

Philippe, you often use live music for your dance pieces, right?

Decouflé: Since, I don't know, like 15 years ago, I decided to play only with live music. Because I think it's always better for the audience when all the elements that I use are live, and when they play together. And the relationship between dance and music for me is really very close. Dance almost always needs music, except you have the [Merce] Cunningham and [John] Cage style, where they decided to have the music independent from the choreography, but I'm not from that tradition.

Danny, are you the only Hollywood guy involved in the creative team?

Decouflé: Are you a Hollywood guy?

Elfman: What a scary thought!

Decouflé: It's true that I have a very French team [for "Iris"]. For example, my set designer, he's mainly working in cinema.

Elfman: I guess I would have to be the "Hollywood guy" in the team. Although, it's funny, after 26 years of working in Hollywood, I still don't consider myself a Hollywood guy. I'm not a Hollywood guy in the sense that I don't connect with Hollywood. I go to openings when I absolutely have to. As much as I support the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] and all the good things they do, because I love cinema, and cinema was my inspiration to get into music.

How did that translate into making music?

Elfman: All accident. My early designs in life were to be in movies — not an actor, but a cinematographer, an editor, a writer, maybe a director. Everything but an actor or a composer. My training was spending every weekend of my life at a theater. And I lived in an area where the kids went to the theater every Saturday and Sunday.

Philippe, does the culture of Hollywood — the Academy Awards and that kind of thing — interest you?

Decouflé: I don't know it so well, so I can't say. But I could say almost the same as Danny in many points, because I do what I do by accident also. Because it's a bit the same. When I was a kid, every day when I was in school, at midday I was escaping to go to the movies, mainly to cartoons. When I was a kid I was always crazy about Tex Avery.

Did you like cartoons because you can do anything in them?

Decouflé: Yeah, it's something about freedom, freedom of movement. So there is something about reaching the impossibility which interested me a lot. And voilà, I began to do what I did also by accident. I thought I was going to work in the movies, to make lighting, or the film credits at the beginning and the end of the movies.

Is there anything you haven't been able to do in the Kodak Theatre?

Decouflé: I have a model of the Kodak Theatre in my house in Paris, a big one, and I've slept with it for three years. (Laughter.) There is a basic problem in the Kodak: It's the American sickness of king-size. It's too big. It's a reproduction of an Italian theater, but really like king-size. So we had to fight to try to twist the relationship that the spectators have with the space. Because if you respect the normal aperture, it's too big, too far.

Elfman: That's what I noticed right from the beginning. "Iris" is much more human-based. There's a sense of anticipation that's more old-school circus than the new Cirque du Soleil shows. Because I've seen "O" twice, I've seen "Ka" twice. And I never feel that anything could ever go wrong in those shows, they're like clockwork. But here, you have four people, two people, six people, just doing their act, there's no help, there's nothing but them and their bodies. I bite my nails and grit my teeth much more than in any other Cirque show that I've seen. I know they're going to be OK, but I have to look away at moments because it just looks too insanely difficult. To me, of all the Cirque shows I've seen, this one, its unique quality is that connection with the human element. You don't need $100 million of CGI. You're just watching performers performing. And what a joy that is.

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