This year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival has an outstanding schedule, once again celebrating the “incredible diversity of Jewish life, culture and history through innovative film and invigorating programs.” I am always inspired by the scope and quality of the films in this festival, a combination of documentaries, feature films from Israel, the US, Argentina, Germany, the UK, and more, and re-discoveries, including the only appearance on film by legendary Yiddish theater star Boris Thomashefsky in a comedy with a “My Favorite Wife”-style plot called Bar Mitzvah and the rarely shown film noir Force of Evil, starring John Garfield from blacklisted director/screenwriter Abraham Polonsky. The festival will also have the premiere of The Debt, with Helen Mirren and “Avatar’s” Sam Worthington as Mossad agents who tracked down a Nazi war criminal.
Neil Goldberg brings dreams to life. As director of Cirque Dreams, he is the man behind the gasp-inspiring live shows that combine music, movement, and visual splendor in shows filled with dance, acrobatics, humor, and the kind of wonder that only happens in theaters. As he prepared to bring his Holidazeshow to Washington’s Kennedy Center, he took a break from rehearsals to talk to me about the show the New York Daily News called “so full of energy it could end our dependence on oil.” The Holidaze show features an international cast of over 30 artists costumed as holiday ornaments including gingerbread men flipping mid air, toy soldiers marching on thin wires, snowmen daringly balancing, icemen powerfully sculpting, penguins spinning, puppets caroling, and reindeer soaring — and people singing, dancing, balancing, juggling, and tossing each other around, black light, strobe light, audience participation, and quick change artists who transform in less than the blink of an eye.
The costumes for this show must be quite a challenge.
We design and manufacture all our costumes in our studio in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. For Holidaze, there are probably more than 500 pieces including the hats and other accessories. It’s important for me as the captain of the ship to keep the process all done simultaneously under the same roof. In more traditional shows a producer will find a costume designer and they’ll shop different shops and you don’t put it together until the rehearsal process. If someone is swinging through the air and something isn’t right around their waist, it has to go back to the shop. Here it all happens simultaneously and under one roof. The singers are learning their songs at the same time the acrobats are doing their performance artistry and the set is being constructed and the costumes are being designed and it’s all being put together at the same time.
What makes Cirque Dreams unique?
Cirque Dreams is an American-based company, since 1993, designed exclusively to be performed on proscenium stages. We’re not affiliated with Cirque du Soliel, which is Canadian and shown in the round. I’m born and raised in New York. I’m a theater guy. My degree is in theater arts. People who love to go to the theater have an expectation of being engaged with the story that’s coming to life on stage and taking the journey as opposed to sitting in a tent or arena and having a circus experience. What distinguishes us is that it’s all English, it’s very relatable, it’s narrated, it has all the components of traditional music theater. But it also has the spectacle of the aerial acrobatics, the unusual and inventive artistry. The cast is very international. We have over 30 artists from 10-12 different countries. They’re all at the top of their game. They’re all world class. In some cases they’re the only ones who do what they do. This year we have over 150 artists in two identical companies touring this season.
Tell me about how you communicate with so many international performers.
It’s a business like everything else, with challenges every day. We have a commissary here on site and we have interpreters for Chinese, Mongolian, Ethiopian, African — it runs the gamut. It’s very exciting to learn about different languages and cultures. But for me, as the artistic director, I only have to learn to count to eight in every language! It’s all musically driven, and music is all about eight counts.
What was so exciting for me is that the journey took almost five years. I told presenters and producers who are our partners in many of our shows I wanted to take this particular genre and set it in the holidays. There’s a certain expectation from the word “Cirque” that the costumes and make-up and artistry are going to be elaborate and bizarre, and that does not seem to go with the holidays.
So five years ago, I came up with the idea for this heavy, metal Christmas tree that’s 30 feet tall, and taking 30 performers from all over the world and costuming them as ornaments. When the curtain comes up on the show, it is a big wow because there is this centerpiece of the tree and all the artists are hanging from the tree, dressed as ornaments. One by one, they come down and tell their particular story through the amazing acrobatics and aerial feats that they perform. The angels are flying. The soldiers are marching but on thin wires that cross the stage. The penguins are balancing and walking on globes and on roller skates. The dolls are climbing 24-foot candy canes up to the ceiling. We build a four-tiered chandelier with lit candles and crystals that is balanced on a performer’s forehead and he climbs up, balancing it, to light the tree with it. It draws people to the edge of the seat and leaves them with a smile on their faces.
What age group are you aiming for?
This show has something for everyone and it brings out the youth inside everyone. You know when you wished for a bicycle for Christmas — we have bicycles that come out of the presents. But they are for 24 beautiful Chinese girls who ride them and go on top of each other’s shoulders jump from bicycle to bicycle. The kids see the visuality and excitement of it. The more sophisticated theater-goer is fascinated by the acrobatic audacity and amazing performance artistry.
What is the music like in the show?
We have some traditional songs like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But we also blend it with original music that has a cold, wintry, holiday, festive, celebratory feeling to it. It ends with a spectacular version of “O Holy Night” that sends chills up people’s spines.
Why is live theater still so important?
People understand that technology lets you do anything. Everything is attainable and reachable. Spontaneity is fascinating and shows real human emotion. This genre takes the art of the human mind, spirit and body and anything can go wrong at any time or any moment so it feels real. Theater feels very human, very real. I still get chills when I watch it, even in rehearsal.
Holidaze touring schedule
Nov 30, 2010 – Dec 05, 2010 Atlanta, GA – Cobb Center
Nov 30, 2010 – Dec 01, 2010 Bloomington, IN – Indiana University Auditorium
Dec 03, 2010 – Dec 05, 2010 New Brunswick, NJ – State Theatre
Dec 07, 2010 – Dec 09, 2010 Waterbury, CT – Palace Theatre
Dec 07, 2010 – Dec 12, 2010 Washington, DC – Kennedy Center
Dec 10, 2010 – Dec 12, 2010 Buffalo, NY – Shea’s Performing Arts Center
Dec 14, 2010 – Dec 15, 2010 Sarasota, FL – Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Dec 14, 2010 – Dec 19, 2010 Cleveland, OH – Palace Theatre
Dec 17, 2010 – Dec 19, 2010 Tampa, FL – David A. Straz Jr. Center / TBPAC
Dec 21, 2010 – Dec 29, 2010 St. Louis, MO – Fox Theatre
Dec 21, 2010 – Dec 26, 2010 Pittsburgh, PA – Heinz Hall
Dec 29, 2010 – Jan 02, 2011 Sacramento, CA – Community Center Theatre
One of my favorite actresses, Nancy Travis, stars in “A Walk in My Shoes,” part of NBC’s terrific Family Movie Night series. In this very touching story a stressed out teacher has a student suspended from the team for poor performance in class. She thinks it is the fault of a neglectful mother. But when she finds herself living his mother’s life, she sees things very differently. This is an important story about the importance of understanding and compassion, sure to inspire some meaningful family conversations.