It’s midday on a pleasant Friday afternoon in February and Franco Dragone, the legendary theatre-circus director, is standing on a beach on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi looking out at the sea.
“I love the wind,” he says, pensively. “I like listening to it. It inspires me.”
Dragone, widely credited with turning Cirque du Soleil into a global phenomenon, is only a day away from unveiling his next big production: Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation.
The “visual poem”, which will be the centrepiece of the newly launched Qasr Al Hosn Festival in the capital, will see him delve deep into Emirati history, interpreting it in his own theatrically unique style. The newly-established festival is built around the historic 250-year-old Qasr Al Hosn fort located in the heart of Abu Dhabi.
“It’s amazing to stand here and think that 40 years ago there was nothing here. Now, there is sophistication all around me,” he says. “But having spent some time here, and after months of research and preparation, I can say I feel really close to the people here.”
That intimacy is exactly what he wants audiences to feel when he debuts his live show tomorrow. The massive production, billed as a “visual extravaganza”, will combine music, performances and special effects on a scale never seen before in the UAE, he says.
“It will give you goose bumps and make you cry,” he assures. “I would like people to come and experience the beauty of a culture, be overwhelmed by the beauty of the desert, of the people who live in it and how you can find beauty in simple things in life.
“It will rekindle that appreciation for life and how to see beauty in everything. And although it is based on Emirati history, the story is universal and every one will be able to appreciate it.”
Tall claims, especially considering the 60-year-old had just three months to put the show together.
But then again, he IS Dragone, the man known for productions fusing theatre and circus told through impressive narratives and eye-popping performances.
He is also behind the most well known productions of Cirque du Soleil, the company he left in 2000 to start the Franco Dragone Entertainment Group.
Dragone says he met festival organisers in Belgium in September last year and immediately agreed to do it.
“Three beautiful women in abaya came to me and told me about the festival. They had seen my work and asked me if I wanted to be part of the festival. Then I came to meet Shaikha Maryam Bint Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who told me something that really touched me.
Life of the Bedouin
“She told me that after 41 years, the young generation was forgetting where they came from and that some even found it hard to even speak the language. For someone who came from a poor farming family in the south of Italy, I was very affected by it.
“I felt really close to the way of life of the Bedouin and I understood just how much they cared about preserving their heritage.”
For the production, Dragone says he started out by asking himself one question: What’s the lesson we need to teach the younger generation about the story of Abu Dhabi?
Using the two-century-old Qasr Al Hosn fort as a starting point, he says he began weaving the answers into a story about a boy who goes on a soul-searching historical journey with a falcon.
“We had access to thousands of amazing archive pictures and slowly, the concept began to appear,” he explains. “I wanted the story to be simple but told in an unique way, through film, music, projections and some amazing technology.
“Also, I wanted to make sure not to do something that will look like a propaganda.”
While Dragone would not reveal production costs, he says he was given free reign in putting it all together.
“You will see screens moving and flying, sails rising, storms in the sea and sand dunes coming alive on the stage. Emirati actors will be joined by an international cast of performers.”
He’s only managed about four hours’ sleep a day since work began in November, but Dragone says there are other things keeping him up.
He is also busy choreographing a show for the opening ceremony of the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil and putting the finishing touches to a theatre in Dubai “close to the Burj Khalifa”, set to open in 2015, which will feature a permanent show. Plus, he is also working on five more theatres in China.
“I believe that live shows will never disappear,” he says. “I really believe in the ceremonial relation that an audience has with theatre, that ability to create something extraordinary and to make people laugh and cry.
“A few years ago, people were talking about 3D as the next big medium and that it was going to be a revolution. But there is no human touch. That’s why our Kung Fu Panda shows have become such a huge success. So I think theatre has a long future.”
For Story of a Fort he says he has one mission.
“We have to prove that it has to be beautiful enough to appeal to all the people, especially the young generation. They have so many communication tools and forms of entertainment today and we want to rekindle that love for theatre and for performance art. We have to be beautiful for people to have the hunger to come and see it.”
Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation begins tomorrow as part of the Qasr Al Hosn Festival in the Qasr Al Hosn Fort in the heart of Abu Dhabi, and lasts until March 9. Tickets, Dh250 (adults) and Dh150 (children), include access to the festival and other events. Tomorrow and Friday are sold out. Go to qasralhosnfestival.ae for more.
By David Tusing
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