A Cirque du Soleil production is a feast for the eyes, a visual masterpiece of color, style, light and action.
But sight isn’t the only sense Cirque can stir, with each production boasting an original score delivered by a superb house band.
Charles Dennard has served as band leader for Cirque’s TOTEM since its inception four years ago. His job is to manage the band (composed of six instrumentalists, all of whom except Dennard also sing, and two lead vocalists), problem-solve, conduct the show and make any necessary changes in the arrangement of the music.
“My job first is to maintain the integrity of the music as it was composed, to support the vision of the show’s creator, Robert Lepage,” Dennard told The Beat.
“But we don’t play the music the same for every night. I take cues from the stage manager in my headset, but I have to pay attention to the acrobats and sometimes we have to adjust the music according to their performance. There are sections of music that go with each act. We have to be focused on what’s happening on stage and make sure the music and action go together.”
A Georgia native, Dennard has degrees in music from the University of Miami and jazz studies from the University of New Orleans. He was a working musician and teacher in New Orleans for 10 years before joining the Cirque du Soleil tour of Alegria in 2002 as keyboardist and assistant band leader.
Dennard said the music for TOTEM is special because the show is, in part, concerned with the variety of indigenous people from around the world. The music reflects those cultures, he said, including a significant American Indian influence.
The influence is personified in Christian Laveau, a Native Canadian of the Huron nation who sings in his ancestral language. He was personally invited by Lepage to participate in TOTEM after the show’s creator heard Laveau sing during the 400th anniversary celebration of Quebec City. Laveau said his community’s elders discouraged his participation at first (“I respected the wishes of my elders and my parents,” he said), but after receiving assurances that the Huron nation would be represented with respect, allowed it.
Laveau said he sings in the style of “social songs,” songs for fun and enjoyment, for dancing and joining together in singing and community. These types of songs would have been sung, Laveau said, 2,000 years ago as they are today, when the community has a powwow. That the language is so ancient makes it especially apt for TOTEM.
“(The producers) brought me to see the acts and told me just to be inspired about what I sing,” he said. He was allowed great latitude in the worlds and the style of singing.
“Christian has contributed a lot to the score,” Dennard said.
“It’s an honor for me to sing and to share with audiences my culture and show that native people are still there, that we are still an alive nation,” Laveau told The Beat.