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Local Leaders/Melanie Lalande - The curtain goes up on a rising choreographer

Posted on Oct 31,2008
Filed Under Local Leaders , Community,

Photos by John Arundel - Melanie Lalande of Fairfax City, Kooza's Artistic Director

Managing Editor

When the lights went up on Cirque du Soleil's first performance at National Harbor, Artistic Director Melanie Lalande had lots of company sitting in the front row.
The Fairfax City native learned dance and choreography from some of the best tutors the field has to offer, from Dan Joyce, her modern dance instructor at George Mason University, to the legendary Alzine Cuppett, founder of the Cuppett Performing Arts Center in Vienna.

Photos by John Arundel -

"It's nice to be able to share this with them," said Lalande, taking a break from rehearsal Tuesday under the grand chapiteau. "Mrs. Cuppett was sitting in the director's seat, right beside me."
Lalande, in her late 20s, was a prodigy of sorts, arranging her first choreography while still in bobby socks.
"Someone allowed me to choreograph a whole show in the fifth grade," she recalls, as the world's top juggler is tossing six bowling pins in the corner of the Artistic Tent. "I made up six or seven dances and choreographed them to music. I don't know how, but I just did it."
A military brat, Lalande and her two siblings moved around a lot as kids while her father served in Army Intelligence, something which might have prepared her for the grueling process of pulling up stakes every 6-8 weeks with Cirque du Soleil. This is her fifth stop, with several more cities to go.
"Every few weeks you pick up and move with a whole village of people...You have to put down all of your tools and watch the whole environment. It strips you down to being very honest."
The traveling Canadian-based troupe opened its new show, "Kooza," on Oct. 30 on a windswept hill overlooking the Potomac in National Harbor, MD. Lalande's parents, sibling, niece and mentors were all there, no doubt gushing with pride as their daughter sat in the director's chair, taking artistic notes.
Growing up in Fairfax, "dance just consumed my life," said Lalande, who graduated from James Madison High School before getting her bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from George Mason. "I plowed through high school, choreographing every play imaginable."
After college, she taught dance at the Fairfax Academy of Arts, where she learned that most teens "don't listen to their teachers as much as they model them." After three years, craving a larger scene of dancers and artists, Lalande moved to New York City. "I wanted to work and create on a different level," she recalled.
In New York, legendary modern dance instructor Lynne Simonson took Lalande under her tutelage at Dance New Amsterdam, where Simonson taught her how to work with "both right and left brained people." She also choreographed a national dance tour for Pepsi Cola, picking up needed commercial epaulets and putting her on the radar of Cirque's roving recruiters.
In 2007, Cirque du Soleil called Lalande in for a satellite interview, but afraid that the video equipment might malfunction, thus freezing her facial expressions into "something unimaginable," she bought am airline ticket and headed to Montreal for a series of grueling interviews. Cirque takes its artistry seriously.

Photos by John Arundel - A costume designer makes
his final stitches before the curtain raise

Working with longtime director David Shiner, who wrote and conceived Kooza, Lalande formulated the moves and the music which makes the two-hour show crackle under the Grand Chapiteau. "David is amazing," she said. "He's taken Kooza back to its circus roots, with a strong emphasis on clowning. He's handpicked some of the best in the world. Every gesture they make is spot on."

A co-writer of Cirque's Euro-centric "Nouvelle Experience," Kooza is Shiner's American-centric conception, completely. "It doesn't pretend to be sophisticated," Shiner said last week. "It appeals to everyone alike. It celebrates the artists with a lot of emotion. It's more raw, it's more visceral. It's broad, physical slapstick comedy in the grand American comic tradition of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello."

Unlike the more complex, darker shows of Cirque du Soleil's national tours, this show has a strong American rock influence to it, with a hint of Indian brass and Spanish horns drawn from Shiner's many trips to India and Spain.

But don't be mistaken: "Kooza" has many of the heart-stopping eye candy of its predecessors, from its daredevil high-wire, trapeze and unicycle acts to anatomy-defying contortionists.  "It's kind of a wink to the Walt Disney movie, Fantasia," Shiner said.

The show finds Cirque at the top of its game, without the artsy or complicated comedic nature of some previous offerings. It tells the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world. The Innocent's journey brings him into contact with a panoply of comic characters such as the King, the Trickster, the Pickpocket, and the Obnoxious Tourist and his Bad Dog.

"The show takes you along for a journey," he said. "But it's also silly and uncomplicated...You shouldn't need to think before you laugh."

With 53 performers drawn from 16 countries, Kooza showcases the talents of Russian, Ukrainian, French, Spanish, Mongolian, Indian and American artists, with the youngest performer, an 11-year-old Chinese contornist, still in school.
Kooza has massive technical demands. In the days before the show opened, 800 tons of tents and circus equipment arrived by 61 container trucks from Boston and opened up in a dusty field like a huge, bright canvas. The performances are held six days a week at 8 pm, with Mondays dark.

Kooza: Cirque du Soleil. Written and directed by David Shiner. (October 30 thru December 14. National Harbor, Oxon Hill, MD.; Two hours, 50 minutes. Tickets: $38.50-$90. Call (800) 678-5440 or go to

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