Editor’s note: Columnist John Katsilometes and photographer Leila Navidi have been granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the development of Cirque du Soleil’s charity show “One Night for One Drop,” scheduled for March 22 at Bellagio’s O Theater. Today: a backstage visit with the head of wardrobe at “Zarkana” at Aria, RuBen Permel, who is volunteering his time and skills for “One Drop.”
RuBen Permel faces a simple task: To do what he does best, which is to envision and design stage costumes for a Cirque du Soleil show. No worries here. Permel fairly bubbles over with passion for his craft, and it is his care that keeps the costumes in “Zarkana” at Aria looking as dazzling as they did on opening night.
Ah, but there is a catch in this charge: For this project, Permel’s grand designs must survive a good dousing.
“To be able to work with water is a big challenge,” Permel said as he makes a broad gesture toward the dozens of costumes and wardrobe pieces being designed for the “One Night for One Drop” Cirque production, set for March 22 at the splendidly and appropriately aquatic O Theater at Bellagio.
“I am not used to designing for water, for beautiful movement in water, and we need to make sure the performers can move and the colors don’t bleed.”
Permel has considered the idea of his particularly colorful patterns being dropped into the drink. His initial thought has been, “Ah! No!”
But this show is immersed in water and the concept of water conservation. For this wholly unique project, Cirque founder Guy Laliberte has requested (by use of his legendary skills of persuasion) directors and performers from all seven Cirque productions on the Strip to create a single show, one night only, that effectively mixes water, art and charity.
One Drop was created by Laliberte to help develop water-conservation projects around the world and, borrowing from the foundation’s literature, “reverse the growing water crisis by raising awareness for water-related issues.”
No resort makes more use of water-as-entertainment than Bellagio, and many tourists (and even Las Vegas residents) have noted that the hotel seems to flaunt its use of water even as Southern Nevada has been gripped by drought for more than a decade. But as hotel officials are quick to note, the amount of water used by Bellagio to drive business is but a drop in the bucket compared with the heavy use of water by homeowners in the rapidly expanding Las Vegas Valley over the years.
At Bellagio, of course, the aquatically themed theater that is home to “O” is among the more distinctive in the world, and the show has been famous for its groundbreaking staging since the show opened in 1998.
But the creative team for “One Drop” is hardly exclusive to “O,” as it is plucked from each Cirque show in town. Permel is working on 230 costumes and accessories (“pieces” in stage parlance) to be used exclusively in the one-night production.
Efficiency is paramount, as Permel — along with every other Cirque staffer and performer — is volunteering his time. In one two-week period, he logged 147 work hours, coupling his paid participation in “Zarkana” and volunteering for “One Drop.”
“I’ll tell you this, the iPad has saved me,” he said. “I can call up designs so easily and forward them to somebody at ‘Love’ if we need to collaborate on building a gown, for example. I can’t imagine working without it.”
One of the gowns used in the show, likely the most famous costume in the production, is being designed by Roberto Cavalli. The one-of-a-kind couture gown will be worn by Nigerian fashion model Oluchi Onweagba, who is married to Italian fashion designer Luca Orlandi. Another segment in need of dressing up is the scene titled “Generations,” in which performers from Las Vegas Cirque shows appear onstage with their offspring. Ten artists, total, will be showcased with their kids, including one Cirque family stacked three members high.
“Can you believe that? How special is that?” Permel said. “But what you need to remember is that no matter how long someone is onstage, they have to look good and fit with the theme of the show. Even if it is a few seconds.”
Permel cared for the costumes in “Viva Elvis” before moving (seamlessly, to use a wardrobe term) to “Zarkana” when it opened in December. But there is a wide chasm between maintenance and design, especially for someone who meets Cirque’s lofty creative standards. Permel loves sketching costumes. The table in his backstage enclave at Zarkana Theater is strewn with drawings of costumes in various stages of progress. Not surprisingly, the buoyant costume designer has a background in producing and directing children’s theater, including puppet shows, and also has appeared onstage as the oversized flytrap Audrey II in a touring production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Over the years, Permel has worked as a stage manager, prop supervisor, head of wardrobe, director and, yes, puppeteer. Reality TV devotees might know Permel from Oxygen's “Dance Your Ass Off,” as he lost 75 pounds in 10 weeks while winning the show’s $100,000 grand prize.
Thus, for Permel, theater staging, performing and understanding the needs of performers has become intuitive.
“You need to know how a performer moves,” Permel said, pulling at a costume to be used in “One Drop” that resembles, in a vague sort of way, a penguin.
“You look at a piece like this, and it’s more of an implied look, that accounts for the movements of the person wearing it,” Permel said. “You don’t want them to be walking around like a real penguin, all stiff. They need to be fluid.”
Moments later, Permel is called to a small fitting room. He meets with a performer from “Love” at the Mirage, Michael Moloi, who hails from Johannesburg, South Africa. Moloi is the dancer who works the galoshes in the “Lady Madonna” segment, donning overalls and waders in that role. But for “One Drop,” Moloi is being outfitted in a traditional African tribal costume.
As Permel steps back to review his work and snap a few photos on his iPhone, Moloi smiles and said, “Wearing this reminds me of home.”
That is the point. With Cirque, wherever you are is home — and you can look the part.