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A huge movable disc suspended at the back of the stage is used as a visual anchor point, at various times symbolizing the sun, the moon and the circular Mayan calendar.

Cirque du Soleil

Who else but Cirque du Soleil would cast a performer as a demigod and a cockroach in the same show? Those are just two of the roles taken by Benjamin Courtenay in the Cirque's new Mexican-themed spectacle Luzia, which opens in Montreal on Wednesday after two weeks of previews.

Courtenay is a straps acrobat, who was hired straight out of Montreal's National Circus School to perform a moody-looking number set in a watery natural sinkhole known in Mexico as a cenote. The young Canadian is a rain god in that solo spot, but scampers through other parts of the show as a swimmer, soccer player and gigantic roach, whose appearance is all too realistic.

"At one point I run off the stage and literally change my costume as I'm running back on," Courtenay said. This kind of stagecraft was new to a performer whose primary focus until Cirque came calling was to build up the strength and finesse to excel at his very specialized calling.

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Like other Cirque vehicles built for years of touring, Luzia heaps a lot of responsibilities on its 44 performers, none of whom can simply do their set pieces and then chill in the dressing room. The show is compressed thematically too, frequently alluding to several Mexican themes in a single image.

Near the opening, for example, a woman runs on a rotating conveyor belt, as other performers groom her six-foot gossamer wings. It's a striking image, but I had to talk with creative director Patricia Ruel to discover that the wings referred to the monarch butterflies that migrate from Mexico to Canada every year, that the running was a nod to the long-distance abilities of the indigenous Tarahumara, and that the runner was a woman because Mexican culture has strong matriarchal aspects.

It isn't necessary for the audience to notice all those allusions, Ruel said. "We're not trying to teach people about Mexico. We want them to get a feeling for it, to be inspired by it." The show often has a surrealistic look, which she relates to the magic realism of Latin American fiction, and even to the peyote-inspired Mexican writings of French theatre guru Antonin Artaud.

The concept for the show originated with Daniele Finzi Pasca, the Swiss-born director behind Cirque's 2005 show Corteo, which toured for more than 10 years. But Pasca was obliged to withdraw due to a family illness, leaving actor-director Brigitte Poupart in charge of the action – the first Québécoise to direct a Cirque production.

"Daniele left a skeleton for each act, a mosaic of things from different places in Mexico," Poupart said. "I had to find a story to link all the parts of that mosaic." Coming to circus for the first time, working with people not trained as actors, she said she felt a real affinity with the central clown character, who in the first scene, tumbles from a plane into a beautiful but foreign environment.

Poupart said the essential thing for her was to find an emotional thread and a narrative in each of the acrobatic numbers. Courtenay's straps solo, she said, was about moving from pain to some kind of relief, while attempting things – performing while soaking wet, for instance – that straps artists don't normally do. Luzia has three acrobatic choreographers, including Cirque veteran Debra Brown, to help give dramatic flow to the routines.

Water is a big theme in the show, said Ruel, because water and rain in Mexico are often a matter of extremes – a glut during rainy season and a stark absence in arid regions. A computer-controlled rain curtain frequently douses the perforated turntable stage and the performers. Luzia is the first big-top Cirque show to give a leading role to water, Ruel said, which meant providing a system to capture, clean, warm and recycle the water during the show's run in each city.

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The creative team wanted to avoid clichés, Ruel said, which is why, for instance, each scene favours one colour, rather than the riot of tones seen in tourist brochures. A huge movable disc suspended at the back of the stage is used as a visual anchor point, at various times symbolizing the sun, the moon and the circular Mayan calendar.

Composer Simon Carpentier met with musicians in Mexico while working on the score, including members of Nortec Collective, a dance-oriented group that he said "had an international sound but also carried the real Mexican vibe." They helped steer the show away from a default mariachi sound – never a real option, Carpentier said – and even worked as co-producers on the Luzia soundtrack album.

The show's eight musicians include an East Indian singer, Mahesh Vinayakram, whose florid melismatic solo partway through the show feels like something from another world. The singer was Finzi Pasca's idea, Carpentier said, adding that he had to work hard to find a way to integrate that sound into the show – or rather to find a creative way for it "to destabilize everything we have organized."

High-level acrobatics are all about finding dramatic ways to destabilize a situation, usually by making it more daring or complicated. The adagio routine performed by the sylph-like Naomi Zimmermann looks plenty daring, as three brawny porters catch her out of plunging dives, and hurl her up to new precarious positions above their heads.

But just before she goes on stage, she said, she's not thinking about the moves, which they've been rehearsing for months, but about the mood. The character she's playing, she says, "is a little bit stuck in her world, in her nostalgia. What she sees are all memories, and things that she's not sure whether she's seeing them or not. Those three guys are people who have been very important in her life, and she knows that whatever she does, they're always going to catch her."

We're not sure at that point in the show what we're looking at either, as the stage around Zimmermann and her partners fills with elegant-looking people, some of them with the heads of iguanas or fish. Mexico, in this circus evocation, is certainly a magical place, where nothing ordinary stays that way for long.

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Luzia runs in the Old Port of Montreal from May 4 through July 17. The show plays at the Port Lands in Toronto from July 28 through Oct. 2 (cirquedusoleil.com).

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