Cirque du Soleil's 'Varekai' bringing fantastical creatures, amazing feats to Gwinnett Arena

By: Katie Morris

Published: Friday, July 24, 2015 

Attending a live show can be a form of escape, a way to slip into another world and forget about daily life.

Next week, audiences will be able to leave this world behind and embark on a journey, traveling deep within a forest to the summit of a volcano. Here they’ll discover a hidden place full of possibilities — the world of “Verakai.”

Cirque du Soleil’s latest arena touring production of “Varekai” will be performed July 29 through Aug. 2. at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

The production meshes drama and acrobatics to tell the story of Icarus, a young man who flies too close to the sun with wax wings and ends up falling out of the sky and into the world of “Varekai.” After landing in the mystical forest, he embarks on an adventure both extraordinary and unbelievable, meeting a variety whimsical creatures along the way.

Written and directed by Dominic Champagne, the production is described as paying tribute to the nomadic soul, the spirit and art of the circus tradition as well as to those who quest with infinite passion along the path leading to “Varekai.”

The production features original costumes uniquely designed to accentuate movement, a musical score played by a seven-piece band and a set designed in harmony with all aspects of the performance.

The show also boasts an international cast of 50 performers and musicians from 19 different countries, who bring the fantastical creatures of “Varekai” to life, performing amazing feats that seem truly unbelievable to the average person.

Kerren McKeeman performs her solo act on the single point trapeze, a versatile apparatus that’s suspended high above the stage with the ropes attached at a single point allowing it to a wide range of motion, including spinning and moving up and down.

McKeeman’s act requires both flexibility and strength, so she performs weekly exercises, in addition to show performances Wednesdays through Sundays and rehearsals on Thursdays and Fridays.

She has a pilates regiment as well as a flexibility and stretching regiment, and she builds strength using therabands and her own body weight.

“I like to use my body weight because that’s how it is in my act, and it makes me more familiar with my own body,” she said.

In addition to physical training, Cirque du Soleil performers also have to work on developing their character. McKeeman said her character is based on Diana the Huntress, so she serves as a protector of the forest.

“She’s fierce and she’s graceful and strong, and light when she needs to be, but also has an edge to her,” she said.

McKeeman said she enjoys sharing her act with young girls in the audience who may benefit from seeing a strong, dynamic female character.

“Sometimes I hear feedback online … and they tell me how inspired they were by my act and how their daughters were inspired, and that means the world to me,” she said. “Sometimes it just takes five minutes to show someone that they can be who they are.”

McKeenan said one of her favorite “Varekai” acts to watch is Brazilian performer, Raphael Botelho, performing a form of dance on crutches.

“Just watching the way he moves is amazing and every show’s a little bit different,” she said. “Since he has so much vocabulary in his body, it’s almost like he always has a different way to tell the same story, and it’s really beautiful.”

Botelho has a wide-range of skills to draw from for his role as an injured fallen angel who is trying to guide and encourage Icarus to pick himself up, so he can learn to fly again.

The performer is from Rio de Janeiro, and at the age of 9 he first began studying capoeira, a form of Brazilian martial arts that mixes dance, acrobatics and combat moves into one art form. A few years later he began performing breakdancing on the street with his friends, and in the early 2000s he began training for the circus, studying the trampoline and hand balancing.

Botelho said his diverse performance background has helped him create his own unique style and learn to use his body to communicate on stage.

He said it was a challenge at first to learn and train for his role because he’d never worked with crutches before.

“It was very challenging to do something with crutches. I had to put them under my arms, and it was painful for the shoulders and everything,” he said. “It inspired me, too. It brought something for myself and for my character to express on stage.”

Botelho reciprocates McKeemans feelings about his act, saying he likes all of the acts in the show but really enjoys watching her act.

“She makes it different every day. It’s the same motion but different,” he said. “She lives the character. It’s very powerful.”

McKeeman advises audience members to come to the show familiar with the story of “Verakai” but to stay open-minded because it’s up for interpretation.

“Some people come to the show to escape as they would say, but I hope they can find a little of themselves somewhere in the story and take that away with them at the end of the night,” she said.