Standing 25 feet tall and covered in human ornaments, Neil Goldberg’s Christmas tree is a bit different from everyone else’s.
“The performers are hanging from the tree and everything is frozen still,” Goldberg says. “One by one, everything comes to life. And just watching the audience’s reaction at that moment is probably my favorite part.”
Goldberg is the creator of Cirque Dreams Holidaze, a lavish touring holiday show returning to the Fox Theatre through Saturday. Throughout the show, 30 acrobats, contortionists and other circus artists from around the world clamber down from the massive tree set to enact a series of musical vignettes emulating the shape and spirit of the ornaments they portray. Goldberg says he conceived the show eight years ago, inspired by his own lifelong fascination with Christmas ornaments.
“It’s ironic because I’m Jewish, but on my way home from Jewish day school when I was a kid my mom used to get frustrated with me because after Christmas I would pick up discarded tinsel and ornaments that I found on people’s trees when they were put out after the holidays,” Goldberg says. “It turned into a collection and a hobby of mine over the years.”
Goldberg’s personal ornament collection now amounts to over 300 pieces, and many of them directly inspired characters and vignettes in Holidaze. He says that while audiences generally expect awe-inspiring physical feats in a show bearing the name “Cirque,” Holidaze stands apart for the way it presents and uses those feats. (The show is similar in format to the well-known Cirque du Soleil but is a separate company.)
“You’re not really seeing the performance so much as you’re looking at candy canes twisting and turning, and gingerbread cookies flipping, and angels flying through the air, and toy soldiers marching on wires, and reindeer skipping and jumping rope,” Goldberg says.
One of those jump-roping reindeer is Billy Jackson, a Shreveport, Louisiana, native and former competitive jump roper. Holidaze was the first touring stage show Jackson had ever been a part of when he joined the cast in 2009, as part of what was then a two-man (or two-reindeer) act. The scope of his segment has expanded over the years to include four jump ropers doing what Jackson describes as “things you’ve never seen people do with a jump rope before.”
“Everyone has jump-roped, I think, in their life at some point,” he says. “But we want to take what you think you know about jump rope and blow your mind a little bit.”
In addition to his big moment in the spotlight, Jackson and all his fellow performers fill a variety of other supporting roles throughout the show. Even after five years with Holidaze, Jackson still derives considerable enjoyment just from watching his cast mates strut their stuff.
“I am just as amazed as the audience is sometimes with what they’re doing,” he says. “Their strength and athleticism and the dedication they’ve shown to their craft just amazes me every single night when I get to watch it, and I’m standing three feet from it.”
Given the sheer amount of action happening onstage, Holidaze took a considerable length of time to develop. Goldberg says he spent a year and a half preparing the show before its first performance, and six to eight months of each year since are devoted to training and rehearsing performers between holiday seasons. In the beginning, some of Goldberg’s elaborate visions for the show proved especially difficult to realize onstage, like his desire to end the first act by creating the largest gingerbread house ever erected on a theater stage.
“I had a lot of constrictions in figuring out how to transform performers into flipping gingerbread men, coming out of fireplaces and being tossed through the air, and ultimately having a 20-foot gingerbread cookie inflate right in the center of the stage, rise right out of the fireplace,” he says. “It took me a long time to figure it out, but we figured it out.”
Goldberg says he intends the show to have a broad-ranging appeal to audiences from “ages 3 or 4 to 95.” While adults may appreciate the music (which includes both original compositions and reworked holiday classics) or acrobatic feats, children will be drawn in by the ever-changing parade of spectacles onstage.
“One of the formulas I have for the show is to never let anything transpire for more than four minutes,” Goldberg says. “If you take two hours and you divide it into four minutes, you can calculate just how many times things change. And young people who may not understand some of the things they’re seeing, they’re fascinated.”
Goldberg has created numerous shows under his Cirque Dreams banner, but he says Holidaze is the largest and one of his personal favorites.
“Someone once said to me, ‘What is it that you want for Christmas, or for Hanukkah, for the holidays?’ ” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t really want anything.’ The greatest gift I have is being able to put this show out in cities across the country and get the responses from audiences that we get.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor freelance writer.
Cirque Dreams Holidaze
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Friday-Saturday
2211 Woodward, Detroit