Kurt Browning on creating Crystal by Cirque du Soleil

April 04, 2018
By Tina Tyan
Photos ©Matt Beard @Cirque du Soleil 2017, Alissa Czisny, Debi Oreste, Tina Tyan

 photo 13_BALLROOM-3587.jpg Cirque du Soleil is a world-famous institution that has created a dazzling array of high-flying, creative shows integrating a wide variety of acrobatic and athletic disciplines throughout its 34 year history. However, it had never explored the world of the ice and skating. That all changed in 2016, when videos of Kurt Browning at a Cirque du Soleil workshop, experimenting with aerial straps and off-ice skating, surfaced on YouTube, and when rumors of casting calls began circulating around the skating world. Then, in 2017, Cirque du Soleil unveiled Crystal, its "very first show fusing circus arts and the world of ice.". On its creative team? Kurt Browning as "Skating Performances Senior Designer" and ice dancer Ben Agosto as "Skating Performances Designer".

Given the integration of acrobatics and ice, I was very curious about the creation process of such a show, and took advantage when I caught up with Kurt Browning at Scott Hamilton's show in November to ask him all about it, and to ask him a bit about his own plans for the future.

What should people expect when they come to the show?

What they should expect is a real first meeting of two cultures. Don't expect a Cirque show, and don't expect a skating show. Keep an open mind. Expect a story, a great, really interesting story. And flourishes of skating. Don't come in expecting to be left or right. Just stay in the middle and let this new experience come to you.

 image6.jpeg How did you get involved with Cirque du Soleil?

I was asked 6 or 8 years ago for an interview, and so was the whole skating world. We were canvassed. And then, when nobody got offered a job, we just assumed that Cirque went in another direction. But that didn't seem to be what happened. I got the call. I think because I was Canadian, I had a big leg up on some of the competition. So they called six years later going, "Remember us?"

I got to be part of the choreographic team for a show that I wasn't in for the first time in my career. And it was interesting, because my job was to spearhead. I was the representative of skating, and Cirque's staring at me going, "How do we do this? How do we do that? Do we buy them skates?" Basically, it was meetings and meetings and meetings and then workshops where we did crazy stuff that I had never done before. Not all of it made the show, but maybe the next one that Cirque hopefully does with skaters? Skating upside down and doing double Axel into a trampoline and bouncing off, and really fun fun stuff. Skip rope, backflips over skip rope. All sorts of cool stuff. It was all just experimentation and learning.

 image1.jpeg Then, when the show got choreographed, I knew that I wanted to not be away from my kids the whole summer, so I hired Ben Agosto, and Ben was there the whole time. And Alissa [Czisny] was on the team as well. One of my unexpected jobs was teaching. I was teaching people how to skate who couldn't skate. Musicians, hockey players, gymnasts, aerialists, trapeze guys and girls... Some choreography, but not as much as I expected. They came in with a rigid choreographic idea so there wasn't as much skating choreography as I had hoped. For Ben, it was more, because he was there every day and he worked more the choreography.

It was great, it was a real challenge. Long long long days. 13 hour days were not uncommon, and we worked 6 days a week often. And it was hard, being away from my two boys. But I'm glad I did it. The show looks amazing, and I am sure that if Cirque does this skating experiment again, that it is only going to get even better.

 image3.jpeg Of all the creative talent you know, what made you think of Ben Agosto to help you with the show?

I knew that Ben had already worked with aerial acts in a skating show. And I knew that Ben had worked kind of extensively with Christopher Dean, and he had more legwork in this kind of big show than I had. And I knew that he and I get along. We think kind of similarly. We think fun in our skating is important. And they liked my sense of creativity within workshops and stuff, and I knew that Ben thinks like that. So I phoned him and was really hopeful that he would just say yes. It's a huge time commitment, and he was able to make that. If they do another show, then I'm pretty sure he would be involved again. So, it was great, it was perfect. He was awesome. Everyone loved him, as I knew they would. But he did the lion share of work, choreographically.

 wasting1.jpg How was Alissa Czisny involved?

Alissa Czisny was on the creative team as, basically, an assistant to Ben and I, as well as being in charge of teaching skating. Her title was Skating Coach. This was especially needed for the acrobats and musicians. She also subbed in for any missing skater since she knew all the choreography, and occasionally dangled from the ceiling as well.

What's the coolest trick or thing you tried yourself?

Myself, within the show? There are ramps, and I wanted to jump the whole thing. There's a ramp with a flat spot, and then another ramp on the other side, and it was like 8 or 9 feet [apart]. But, I would jump, and always my blades would just touch the edge of the flat spot before going down. What I wanted to be able to do was to clear the flat spot and land on the ramp like the Cirque skaters. So, I knew I needed to practice it a little more. And then I realized one day that when I eventually hurt myself doing this, and I'm in a cast or wobbling around, that I'm not much help to the show. So I still went up and down the ramps but no more jumping them. Even though I never fully cleared that ramp, I had so much fun on them. I skated upside down in the sky. Double Axel into a sideways trampoline, hit my back, and then bounce back off. That was cool. A lot of fun stuff with bungies that we didn't really use.

Did you try everything yourself?

A lot of it, yeah, because I kind of had to come up with the ideas. But many of our ideas we never used, which is great to have that many options of ideas for any possible shows with Cirque in the future.

 photo 07_PLAYGOUND_HOCKEY-2648.jpg Was there something you wish could have been included that didn't end up in the final show?

Good question. There was this big huge tabletop thing that was massive, like 14 feet across, that we turned and it broke into pieces. We worked really hard on what to do with that, and they built it, the whole thing. And then in a meeting that I wasn't in, they decided not to do it. Logistically, it wasn't working. There was a lot of cool stuff of like people from different angles jumping on it and criss-crossing and flipping off of it, and interactions between skaters on the ice being flipped and stuff by gymnasts. So it was going to be this menagerie of action. Shawn Sawyer and I were doing double Axels off of it.

 photo Tempete_Matt_Beard_2017.jpg The show seems to be filled with high flying tricks without a high margin for error. How do they keep things safe?

Validation! That's the Cirque word for slowly working towards a trick. It can mean working on an athlete's body strength and doing certain exercises that prove they are ready, and then many repetitions in harnesses and with mats and pads. Basically, full preparation and then time and repetition.

Do you know if they plan to keep this show running for a while?

This one will probably run until it can't run. And it will change. It'll morph morph morph. I've learned that we built the house, and then we give it to the Cirque touring group, and then they decorate it any way they want. They can fire skaters, and hire new skaters, and move group numbers around, and get rid of that number and create a new one. It's really interesting. We really don't give them something concrete. It's very pliable, and then they take it and they watch the show and they learn and change.

 IMG_9997.jpg Moving on to you. What are your skating plans going forward?

I'm not going to do Stars on Ice anymore. I was happy to quit after the 25 year [anniversary tour] because it was about me. I choreographed it. You know, win, lose or draw, whatever it was, it was a party. And it was fun. And it was the way I wanted to go out. And then they said, "Do you want to guest?" OK, so I guested. And then last year, "Do you want to do the whole thing?" I thought, "Elvis [Stojko] is in it? I'm skating good. Sure!" I feel good about my decision to leave Stars on Ice. I'm going to let it sit beautifully in my memory. The last shows in Vancouver and Victoria were...I couldn't have skated them any better if I'd wanted to. So I'm going to leave it. I'm going to leave it.

What about other skating?

Others? Like this? [Author's note: We were speaking at An Evening with Scott Hamilton and Friends] Scott finally called me, so I'm here. But I'm doing a number on my hockey skates. You know, I'm not training anymore. I'm not going to the rink to keep my skating up, so I'm expecting it to really dwindle.

You still skate, just not regularly? Or you don't skate at all?

Well, I worked with Cirque all summer, so I didn't train all summer. I trained for this event (Scott's show) for 10 days, so I skated 7 times. So no, I'm not training anymore. I'm training off the ice. I have to stay healthy or else my back will...what I've done to myself physically throughout my career, if I don't stay in shape, I'm going to be an unhappy physical specimen, so I need to stay in shape. And I love skating, so I'm sure I'll stay skating. But I don't really know what I'm going to do. If some TV special comes along, and I get to play the wicked witch, I don't know, I'll do it. So I want to stay close enough to my skating that I could ramp it back up if some cool thing comes along.

 IMG_1291.JPG Do you have any other projects, aside from the "Skating Classics" symphony shows you've been hosting in Canada?

A couple symphony shows, only two right now, hopefully more. I don't have any skating projects right now. I've got a few ideas to maybe put out little numbers and stuff on the internet, just for fun. We'll see.

Are you still choreographing (outside of Cirque du Soleil)?

I do not promote myself much, so I actually have no choreography plans at this time. Maybe some will come?

Disson Skating stopped producing shows this year. There's no Holiday Festival on Ice. There's no televised pro skating in North America. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think Stars on Ice is next?

Stars on Ice in Canada seems really healthy. Stars on Ice in the United States has been rumored to be dead a few times, and keeps going somehow. They keep it alive. But it's certainly not the juggernaut it used to be. I didn't know about Holiday Festival. That's kind of sad. But you know it used to be 8 shows, then 6, then 4. So that's why I think it's important that Cirque survives, because our great talented skaters need a place to go perform. And live. And make a living skating. And keep skating alive and viable and inspire young people. So, I'm not really happy to hear that, because the sport's been good to me, and I want it to be healthy and viable.


Thanks to Alissa Czisny for the photos from Crystal rehearsals.
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