International cast finds ways to celebrate the Holidaze during perfomances at the Fox
When director Neil Goldberg set out to create a Cirque du Soleil-style stage show celebrating the holiday season, he brought together a globe-spanning cast with wildly diverse holiday traditions of their own.
Cirque Dreams Holidaze, which returns to the Fox Theatre on Nov. 22-26, is an elaborately designed holiday variety show, featuring dancers, singers, acrobats and circus performers in 20 different holiday-themed acts. The show features 30 performers from 12 different countries.
“These artists start these hobbies where they’re becoming a contortionist or a ballet dancer or a musician at an early age,” Goldberg says. “That’s what they do every single day for their entire life until they realize ... that they’re doing it better than anyone else in the world.”
And when they come to the Holidaze show, they bring some of their own cultural holiday traditions to the table while also participating in American Christmas traditions. Goldberg, who was raised an Orthodox Jew, knows a thing or two about that. In addition to spending much of the year at the company’s Pompano Beach, Florida-based offices preparing for the show, Goldberg spends November and December hop-scotching between Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations with family and the casts of his three different touring companies nationwide.
“I just celebrate the holiday season,” he says. “I don’t know that I celebrate any one in particular. The holidays for me, you have to realize, is a year-round celebration.”
Here’s a look at how some of the cast members celebrates their native holidays while on the road:
Sisters Erdensuvd and Buyankishig Ganbaatar will be on the road with Cirque Dreams Holidaze straight through the holiday season, performing contortionist and aerialist acts in the show. But fortunately for the Ganbaatars, the holiday season in their home country of Mongolia won’t roll around until February. The Mongolian Lunar New Year, or Tsagaan Sar, falls on Feb. 26.
Although the Ganbaatar sisters have lived in America since 2002, they return home for Tsagaan Sar every year. Erdensuvd Ganbaatar says Tsagaan Sar festivities will carry on for a full week, but the first three days are generally considered the most important. Families exchange gifts and make food together; Erdensuvd Ganbaatar says she particularly enjoys making dumplings from scratch with her mother. Four generations of her family will be present for this year's celebrations.
“In Mongolia, that’s the family reunion every year, no matter who (you are),” Erdensuvd Ganbaatar says. “They come from the countryside, no matter how far they have to come, to be close to family.”
The Ganbaatars have also cottoned to some American Christmas traditions while on the road. Buyankishig Ganbaatar doesn’t hesitate when asked what her favorite part of the holiday season is.
“On Christmas Day, when we find out who’s our Secret Santa,” she laughs.
A Russian New Year’s Eve
Having attended circus school and worked in Russia before coming to the United States in 1993, Latvian Holidaze performer Victor Dodonov is well-versed in Christmas and many other holidays.
“Russians all the time celebrate everything,” he laughs.
But the biggest holiday of the year for Dodonov is still New Year’s Eve, when both Russians and Latvians spend time exchanging gifts, visiting friends and family and, most importantly, feasting.
“Everybody starts planning like a month before,” he says. “You buy a lot of food.”
Dodonov performs a balancing act in Holidaze in which a chandelier is constructed on the tip of his nose (see sidebar), and also appears as Elvis Presley in a number set to Presley’s “Jingle Bell Rock.” When he’s touring with other Latvians, Russians or Ukrainians, Dodonov says he often organizes a traditional New Year’s Eve celebration with them — at least to whatever degree professional obligations will allow.
“Usually Russians don’t go to sleep until next day if they have a party,” he says. “But if you have a show, you cannot do a lot of partying. It’s really important to be in the show in a good condition.”
Christmas on the road
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Holidaze cast member Billy Jackson grew up accustomed to having the quintessential American Christmas at his grandmother’s house.
“I come from a very large family,” Jackson says. “My mom is one of 11, so we would all go over there and just share presents with all my cousins. ... I have great memories of that.”
Jackson performs in multiple segments of the Holidaze show, but the former competitive jump-roper’s star moment is a four-person “skipping reindeer” jump-rope act that he choreographed. In his eight years with the show, Jackson says his fellow cast members have become his “family.”
“It’s almost now my Christmas tradition to be on tour, to be on the road, on the bus, in a hotel,” he says.
And while he’s on the road, Jackson still recreates the Christmas festivities of his childhood in small ways, both for his own enjoyment and to introduce his international mates to American traditions.
“Last year, I set up a Christmas tree in my hotel room, a small one, just to create a more familiar Christmas morning,” he says.
Jackson says the “intense, extreme, crazy experience” of working on a show like Holidaze causes performers to become “very close, very quickly.” He describes a rewarding experience in the resulting exchange of cultural traditions, whether introducing fellow performers to the custom of Thanksgiving dinner (as he will this weekend in Detroit) or enjoying the late-night merriment of a Russian New Year’s Eve.
“You just get a very eclectic group of people,” Jackson says. “It’s really fun and interesting to learn.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 22-25; 3 p.m. Nov. 25 and 26; 8 p.m. Nov. 26
2211 Woodward, Detroit
The many holidays of ‘Holidaze’
Although Cirque Dreams Holidaze features reindeer, gingerbread men, Santa Claus and plenty of other Christmas standbys, other holidays of the season are represented onstage as well.
“I have been really cognizant of trying to expand it every year to really touch on all the holidays,” says Holidaze creator and director Neil Goldberg.
That includes three brand-new acts this year celebrating the holidays of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. The Hanukkah act is heaviest on stagecraft, requiring the construction of what Goldberg describes as “an enormous menorah” onstage.
The New Year’s Eve act required a different kind of creative challenge. For the sequence, which features a ballerina costumed as a champagne glass dancing on another performer’s shoulders, Goldberg and his team were challenged to come up with appropriate musical accompaniment.
“There really aren’t a lot of great New Year’s songs out there,” Goldberg laughs. “There’s just one that really moves you emotionally. So we wrote a really beautiful new pop ballad.”
The Thanksgiving number, entitled “Take a Seat,” features performers sitting down around a dinner table laden with china, glasses and candles. As the act progresses, performers slowly stack the tableware onto performer Victor Dodonov’s nose, building a precarious chandelier-like structure.
“He walks up a 10-foot ladder balancing this on his nose,” Goldberg says. “It’s really pretty spectacular.”
Those looking to spice things up at their own family holiday gatherings this year may take note — but also take caution.