Franco Dragone is famous for his splashy, aquatic shows such as House of Dancing Water in Macau.
The Italian-Belgian dramatist was a key architect of the Cirque du Soleil phenomenon.
You may not know his name, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of his shows.
Franco Dragone was one of the key architects of Cirque Du Soleil’s unique theatrical style. Between 1985 and 1998, the Italian-Belgian dramatist directed nearly all of the Canadian entertainment company’s most prestigious shows.
Then in 2000, he left.
Founding his own eponymous theater company, Dragone went on to create a live residency show for Canadian pop singer Celine Dion, and launch death-defying aquatic spectaculars in Macau and Las Vegas. Both became runaway hits.
Today, the company says close to 100 million people have seen Dragone’s heart-stopping work.
And now for the first time, his magic is taking a permanent seat in the Middle East.
The pearl of the Middle East
On September 13, La Perle – a show that took $400 million to bring to life – had its world premiere in Dubai at the state-of-the-art, purpose-built theater of the same name, which holds 1,300 seats and will host 450 productions a year.
The stage alone is an engineering feat, holding a colossal 2.7 million liters of recycled water – enough to fill an Olympic pool – which can be drained in less than a minute for land-based exploits.
But it’s the water stunts the crowds want – performers flying across the stage at 15 kilometers an hour before diving from heights of 25 meters into the 860-square-meter pool and seemingly disappearing, only to return from land seconds later.
Dragone is no stranger to the United Arab Emirates, having produced the short-run “A Story of a Fort” in Abu Dhabi, in 2013. But for his debut permanent Middle East show, Dragone says he has tried to capture the essence of Dubai – a city whose inhabitants are constantly negotiating opposing elements: water and desert, tradition and modernity, the loud and silent.
That feeling of conflicting elements, combined with the sheer speed of the metropolis, are central to the show.
Dubai’s past as a pearl diving hub, meanwhile, underpins the storyline.
For thousands of years, the area of present-day Dubai was sustained by fishing and pearl diving – it is what brought trade to the Gulf region.
Mingling that history with modern Dubai proved irresistible to Dragone.
“Dubai is a laboratory of the future,” he says. “But it’s also a good example of how different cultures can live together.”
To sit down with Dragone is a rare privilege.
The 64-year-old rarely grants interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself.
Born in southern Italy, Dragone relocated to the mining region of La Louvière in Belgium in the 1950s. Reflecting on those beginnings, Dragone tells CNN that “artist” was not considered a serious career in that mining community.
Thankfully, Dragone’s father was broad minded, enrolling his son at a liberal “lycée” where students were taught a wide range of subjects and free to choose what they wanted to pursue.
Dragone chose the arts.
In the 1980s, his passion took him to Quebec, in Canada, where he saw a flourishing theater scene. There, he joined the Cirque Du Soleil team, becoming a key player in the company’s phenomenal worldwide success until he struck out on his own.
While Cirque Du Soleil’s signature was contemporary circus, Dragone’s solo work embodies more theater, dance – and, of course, water.
In 2005, Dragone made headlines when he launched Le Rêve, in Las Vegas.
A bombastic, splashy celebration of life, it featured his now trademark aquatic stage, diving feats and stunning special effects, all with the audience sat close enough to the action to get water on their face.
Five years later, The House of Dancing Water launched in Macau, following the same winning formula.
The way a Dragone show evolves is, perhaps unsurprisingly, unorthodox.
There is no script. Instead, the director lets his acrobats, divers and contortionists showcase their skills and then molds the story around their talents.
It’s a process that has produced award-winning shows, but isn’t one he claims to enjoy.
“When some people are directing, they are joyful, they dance,” he says. “Not me. I have to say with humility that I am suffering … but I am addicted to this.”
When people enter his theater, Dragone says he is inviting them to forget reality for 90 minutes, the length of all his permanent shows, and simply dream.
“There is no stronger, no bigger technique than your imagination,” he says.
“Your imagination can create mountains, (it can) create journeys to the moon, journeys to different planets.”