An acrobat flies through the air, body glistening under blue lights, abs like they were chiseled from stone. He swings through the theater wearing nothing but a bushel of leaves at his waistline, each whimsical movement like that of a graceful, beautiful god. The house lights come on as he finishes a memorable test run, flanked on both sides by bungee performers. To the untrained eye, it might look perfect, but this production’s crew has three weeks left to polish everything—acrobats, dancers and actors fine-tuning every scene until it’s all impeccable. That’s the Cirque du Soleil standard.
This is a rehearsal for One Night for One Drop, Cirque’s annual charity event that raises money for communities in need while celebrating the talented performers that keep the heart of Las Vegas beating strong.
Last year, One Night for One Drop featured Grammy-nominated singer Leona Lewis and raised $6.5 million. This year, it takes place March 3 at New York-New York’s Zumanity Theatre.
One Drop, begun by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, is an international nonprofit working to improve living conditions and bring clean water to developing areas around the world through sustainable initiatives. Since 2013, One Night for One Drop has paired with MGM Resorts International and a team of Cirque volunteers to bring a completely original, star-studded show to a Vegas audience for one night only.
The show lasts just a few hours, and the entire event comes together through the performers’ love of their craft. Written and directed by Cirque power couple and Zumanity performers Nicky and Laetitia Dewhurst, the production is a true family effort. (Laetitia’s brother Perry Ray also plays the zany, steampunk-looking Timekeeper.)
“Their concept was something really fresh and new,” director of creation Krista Monson says. “Nicky is a master at writing comedic material, he’s been at Cirque for years, and Laetitia is very strong design-wise and choreographically.”
This year’s show will also feature appearances by William Shatner, LMFAO’s Redfoo and 13-year-old Grace VanderWaal of America’s Got Talent, plus Canadian trio The Tenors, who’ll wrap their charming vocals around the evening’s spectacular circus stunts.
“There are so many people giving so much of their time in training rooms with their bare feet, putting their kids in daycare so they can train and getting out [of work] early to come here,” Monson says. “They all work elsewhere. They have to live and support themselves. This is all over and above, which is pretty amazing, because we want to create a show that has the same levels of excellence as any other Cirque show, but we have to do it in a very concise timeline.”
The theme of this year’s show, conceived by the Dewhursts, could be described as vintage circus meets Ghost of Christmas Past. It will explore the notions of time and the environment, symbolized through a relationship between an angry circus ringmaster and his assistant, and based on a quote from President Obama’s 2014 speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” Those words guide the show, which reminds us we have little time left to right our wrongs.
The Old Ringmaster’s attitude toward his assistant represents humanity’s treatment of Mother Earth. Given the opportunity to travel back in time to a bygone circus, the Old Ringmaster meets his younger self and starts to recognize the mistakes he has made.
“I’m kind of used to doing different things,” says comedian and performer Jimmy Slonina (Mystere, Zarkana, Kooza), who plays the Old Ringleader. “Nicky and Laetitia have been really open to suggestions. They had a really solid bare-bones script, and then I came in with Shannan Calcutt and her husband Darren [Pitura] to work on the comedy portion of it. The five of us all sat down and said, ‘Okay, now let’s fill it in,’ kind-of on our feet on the stage in the moment. I’m not necessarily used to working like that, but I feel super lucky to be part of such a collaboration.”
Over seven years culminating in 2015, One Drop estimates it educated roughly 25,000 people about water issues in Honduras, a country where more than half of the population lives in poverty. In that time, the organization reports that it provided 8,100 people with access to an improved water source and 2,400 people with access to a latrine, while nearly 100 children learned about water issues through One Drop’s artistic training center for youth in the city of Langue.
Ray says he supports the show’s overriding message. “I’m passionate about the change in the environment,” he says. “We have everything, and we forget that. It’s important to remind ourselves that there are people less fortunate [and] without clean water.”
Between 2011 and 2015, One Drop also installed water purification units in 100 villages in Odisha, India, while hosting artistic and theatrical workshops there for youths. One Drop is currently providing access to safe drinking water for 250,000 people in Sheohar, India, and also has ongoing efforts in Guatemala and Burkina Faso.
“This event is about the heart,” Monson says. “I hope [the audience] will be able to laugh and smile and also walk away with a resonating message about our power to see the world.”
Back in rehearsal, sequins fall and sweat pours on the Zumanity stage as the team puts finishing touches on its scenes. With just a few weeks to go, this band of performers is motivated to get everything right. But it’s not just the adrenaline rush of fast-approaching deadlines or a love of artistic expression that gets them here on days off. They’re here because they believe in the act of giving. If philanthropy granted people powers, these women and men could save the day.