La Perle anniversary: death-defying circus still pulling tricks

Franco Dragone’s ‘La Perle’ is celebrating its first anniversary. 

Published in The National, UAE, sept 15 2018 by Hala Khalaf

La Perle artists

It’s been a year since Dubai’s permanent aerial and aqua show La Perle was first performed at its custom-made, 10-storey high, state-of-the-art theatre in Al Habtoor City.

Conceived by former Cirque du Soleil artistic director Franco Dragone, La Perle has firmly placed Dubai on the theatrical map, and to date more than 315,000 audience members have attended more than 400 performances of the unique 90-minute show, often hailed as Dragone’s ultimate masterpiece.

Waterfalls cascade mere inches from the audience, fires light up the periphery of the stage, motorcyclists defy gravity as they spin inside a metal sphere suspended in the air, nimble acrobats soar into the caverns of the theatre only to dive from jaw-dropping heights into a submerged pool, not to mention the acrobats who appear out of the dark depths of said pool as if through the ministrations of magic.

Over the past year, the show has been continually tweaked and improved by Dragone, who has assembled a cast of world-class artists to entertain night after night. On its first anniversary, we pay a visit to the theatre and catch up with three members of La Perle’s cast who have made Dubai their home.

Olivier Milchberg, Musician from La Perle

The music that accompanies the performances is as much a character in the telling of this awe-inducing tale as the dozens of acrobats, divers, actors, hand-balance specialists, extreme motorcyclists and artists.

Composed by Michael Brennan, a long-time collaborator of Dragone’s, the music is integral to the telling of the tale. This is why musician Olivier Milchberg, 54, needs to have an eye on what’s happening on the stage every minute of the show.

Milchberg is the show’s soloist. He plays the flute, the bouzouki – a kind of Turkish banjo – the guitar and his favourite, the Bulgarian kaval – a flute-like instrument popular in Turkey and the Balkans that’s similar to the Arabic nai. Milchberg sits, nestled high up in the custom-built theatre, in a dark corner balcony with a fellow musician, a band-leader who launches the recorded tracks in synchronisation with what’s happening on stage in between playing the keyboard and the electric mandolin, and a percussionist drumming away in a nearby booth. “There are fixed melodies composed by Michael Brennan that I play often during the show, but I also have a lot of freedom and am very happy to have it,” Milchberg says.

“I can improvise following what happens on stage, so for example, when there are some people flying and jumping in the water, every day it’s different because sometimes they take a short time, sometimes a longer time. I follow with my flute, I try to make the musical phrase end exactly when they jump in, And it’s very challenging and interesting.”

It is this constant need to challenge himself that brought the French-Argentinian Milchberg into the world of Cirque du Soleil 10 years ago. He describes the move as “life-changing”.

Music comes as naturally to him as breathing. His father, Jorge Milchberg, moved to France from Argentina where he formed Los Incas, the first South American band to tour in Europe.

Paul Simon, from the American folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, attended one of Jorge’s performances then approached him and asked to sample one of his songs, which in 1970 became the hit El Condor Pasa (If I Could), from Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Milchberg Snr then embarked on a touring and recording session with Garfunkel, and his son tagged along. He has been touring and recording with his father since the age of 18. “My father is my master, I learnt everything from him,” Milchberg says. “When I was a child, there were always musicians in the house rehearsing. I learnt just from watching them and listening to them, they taught me.”

Fifteen years ago Milchberg discovered the kaval, and its oriental sound appealed to him. By then, he had built a studio in the south of France with his father, a place international musicians would visit to record.

“My father is a huge champion of traditional music. He says, ‘You can compose around it, but the roots have meaning’. In the recording studio, I met a singer from Iraq, a musician from Palestine, and I began to lean towards this oriental touch in music.”

His mastery of the kaval and the bouzouki, which is played like an Arabian oud, made him the perfect “world musician”, and brings an oriental feel to La Perle.

“This is an amazing work environment to be in as an artist,” Milchberg says, specifically addressing life in Dubai, a melting pot of cultures and musical influences, and a place where he can make music with global artists.

“Meeting musicians, that’s really my passion. As long as I can meet musicians to make projects and make music from around the world, and then during show time play the instruments I love, being part of La Perle is the perfect job.”

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