Iranian-born Canadian Nobahar Dadui was getting ready to hang up her skates when she got a surprise phone call from an unexpected company: Cirque du Soleil.
The famed contemporary-circus troupe was workshopping a new show on ice and was looking for talent. Dadui, still a young 26 after years of competitive figure skating and professional shows on cruise ships and in theme parks, was game for a change.
Now the athlete has become an acrobat, taking a starring role as the title character in Crystal, Cirque’s first show set on a frozen surface—an NHL–sized one, to be exact.
“What I found out was that I would be flying, and I was going to be in straps,” she says of the aerial routine she performs in the show—while wearing skates. Dadui is speaking to the Straight from a tour stop in Arizona, before Crystal heads to Abbotsford, the closest it will get to Vancouver. “It took me out of my comfort zone—but what’s good is that I don’t care about comfort zones,” she adds with a laugh. Even after years of competition in her chosen sport, the physical challenges of the acrobatic show were formidable: “I had done gymnastics when I was young, but it took me long hours to get upper-body strength. I couldn’t even do half a pull-up when I started.”
The show’s artistic director, Paris-born former ballet dancer Fabrice Lemire, explains that Cirque’s first challenge was to understand and “tame” the ice surface—and find fresh ways to use it. “It wasn’t ‘Let’s do another skate show’ like was being done elsewhere. It was about finding the right creative team, finding the right experts on the ice domain, but also to find the right performers,” he tells the Straight in a separate interview from the same site.
The ever-innovative Cirque explored a variety of technical elements, like finding the right density of ice for both tumbling and skating, and developing new crampons for gloves and shoes so that acrobats could spring across the ice, Lemire explains.
From there, salchows and high-wire work began to meld, with skaters learning acrobatic techniques and some acrobats—even the juggling clown—donning skates for the first time. Hockey even managed to cross-check its way into the mix.
“I’ve never worked with such a supportive, resilient cast as there is here. The acrobats were helping the skaters and the skaters were helping the acrobats, and it was really nice to see those two worlds collide and work together,” says Dadui.
The result is a show that blends ice work with Cirque’s mashup of music, tricks, and narrative, telling the story of a young woman named Crystal who feels alone and misunderstood. One day, while strolling on a frozen pond, she falls through the ice and ends up in a parallel world, where she learns to trust her own creativity. “She’s so relatable,” Dadui says of Crystal. “When you’re young, you’re seen as weird if you have a different imagination. For me, the worst times were middle school and high school. Then she falls into the pond and she’s able to create this world.
“At the end she doesn’t need to fall in love. She doesn’t need anything other than her strength. So she’s not a beautiful Disney princess,” she adds, suggesting that Crystal is far from a traditional ice show.
During her physically pummelling performance, Dadui finds she has to call on a sort of hyperalertness that goes beyond even what she needed in competitive skating.
“You cannot get comfortable doing this. You have to have this certain focus,” she explains. “When I’m skating and everybody is tumbling around me doing tricks, and the acrobats are sliding around on the ice, I’m 100 percent aware. I mean, we have knives on our feet!
“So you need to do whatever you have to do—like have an espresso shot or eat an apple or have some chocolate or do a headstand.”
In the end the show has a much different feel than other shows over Cirque’s three-decade-plus history, Lemire observes. “The ice is giving us something we didn’t have before,” he says. “Sometimes, you forget that it’s an ice rink because it gives us a beautiful palette for projection.
“And there’s a notion of speed we didn’t have before, watching them glide,” he adds. “There’s a different kind of energy.”
Cirque du Soleil: Crystal is at the Abbotsford Centre from next Wednesday to Sunday (April 11 to 15).