The big top passed through Portland, Ore., last year with Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities. One of the first things you notice about Kurios’ steampunky design is its centerpiece. A clock is positioned up high, visible for all to see. Auspiciously set to 11:11, it doesn’t take long to realize, as the show gets going, that time has stopped and we have been transported. According to a few numerologists, 11:11 is a significant moment because it gives you access to the mysteries of the universe and the deepest parts of who you are and what is true. It is synchronistic—an opportunity to reflect and focus on your highest potential. The Kurios universe quickly becomes an amusement park for the senses.
The Victorian fantasy realm of Kurios (with some cues taken from Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction movie Metropolis) slowly comes into focus and you begin to see where the subconscious mind intersects the conscious mind, where an elaborate, fanciful dream becomes reality—or parallel reality as Cirque is so adept at creating. The industrial looking stage is overtaken by a host of gadgets and thingamajigs like flying machines, oddly shaped musical instruments and a gramophone, along with provocative characters wandering about a laboratory: Klara the Telegraph of the Invisible, The Curiosistanians, The Kurios robot, Nico the handyman, The Seeker, Mr. Microcosmos and Mini Lili. All of whom are festooned in dreamy costumes and tantalizing make-up.
Which brings us to the show’s make-up artist, Eleni Uranis. Kurios marks Uranis’ seventh show as make-up artist with Cirque, having started with the company in 1989 as assistant costume designer. It was in 2004 when she joined Cirque’s make-up workshop, and saw her ideas spring to life in Dralion. And in 2005, Uranis designed the make-up for Reflections in Blue, the show Cirque produced for the opening ceremonies of the 11th FINA World Aquatic Championships.
“The creative process is long,” Uranis says. “It takes about two years to develop a concept. And I arrive six to eight months before opening. I work closely with the director and costume designer.” Before designing the make-up, however, Uranis explains that she needs to see the face of the performer who will wear the make-up. “I do three or four tests of the make-up,” she adds, before locking down a design.
Kurios has a large cast of 44, which is typical of a Cirque du Soleil show. Once Uranis and the director have agreed on the right look for the show, she begins to train all performers in technique and application of the make-up design. Most of the acrobats, she says, unless they have worked with Cirque before, do not have experience applying make-up. So, it’s a lengthy teaching process that involves two additional assistants, to ensure the performers know how to be precise and nuanced when executing the design. Once the make-up is approved, Uranis takes photos so the performer(s) can practice. They can use the image(s) to refer to until they have perfected the make-up application themselves, which takes about an hour.
Kurios, which takes place in a wacky Fellini-esque universe that somehow feels like our own, but with an abstract magical flare and, one could argue, expanded impression of consciousness. And part of the challenge, according to Uranis, was to keep the characters human but invoking a feeling of something different in each of them, of a world that is both familiar and foreign simultaneously. The other challenges with Cirque shows (and Kurios is no different) are two-fold. One is to make sure the character make-up can be seen and has impact from far away, according to Uranis. “The biggest thing that changes are the shapes and detail,” Uranis says of playing large venues. “Distance will change those.” Another is that she likes to have a deep understanding of the psychology behind each character. “I need to invent stories about the character(s). The (performer) and I need to have an understanding of their psychology.” Delving into a character’s feelings and thought processes gives Uranis a roadmap to the overall design and color palette she chooses. “When I design something,” she says, “I try not to do what’s been done before.”
As the lights dim and the Kurios macrocosm unfolds, Uranis’ skill and passion for make-up and theatricality help sweep the audience into an upside down world full of invention and new perceptions, where time ceases to exist and anything is possible.