Katherine Hill & Ben Agosto Talk Cirque du Soleil and AXEL

by Anne Calder

Cirque du Soleil had a humble beginning in the early 1980s when a group of jugglers, dancers, and musicians began entertaining on the streets of their small village near Quebec City, Canada.

Four decades later traveling troupes worldwide and permanent shows in Las Vegas casinos, continue to treat audiences to a unique and contemporary vision of circus art.

In 2017 Cirque du Soleil stepped outside its familiar box and launched Crystal, a totally new kind of performance that mixed the circus acrobats with world-class ice skaters. Four-time World Champion Kurt Browning and five-time US Champion, Ben Agosto coached the ice skating performers.

A second show on ice has now evolved from Crystal’s continued success. The world premiere of AXEL will take place on December 19 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada.

Katherine Hill and Ben Agosto are members of AXEL’s creative team. They recently shared their thoughts about the show with ice-dance.com while in Las Vegas to choreograph the Skate America post-competition gala.

Katherine Hill comes from a skating and dance background with a degree in Dance from Northwestern University. She skated competitively out of Chicago, but always knew she wanted to choreograph. For the last few years, she has been working with several of the competitive skaters at the World Arena in Colorado Springs.

Ben Agosto and his ice dance partner Tanith Belbin were the 2002 Junior World Champions and 2006 Olympic silver medalists. After several years on Stars on Ice, Agosto honed his choreographic skills with the Disney shows. He also assisted Christopher Dean with Holiday on Ice in Europe.

Prior to heading to Montreal, the duo received a nice confidence booster from Dean. “He assured us we were ready for our new AXEL challenge and sent us on our way,” said Hill.

Cirque du Soleil Press Release: “AXEL is the story of a young man whose passion for live music and graphic arts come to life in an exhilarating adventure as he falls for the fascinating Lei in a high-speed chase for love and self-realization.”

Agosto’s official title with AXEL is Skating Performance Designer, which in figure skating terms is “Skating Choreographer”. He and Hill are in charge of taking the Director’s vision and conceptualizing and creating all the skating that happens in the show and presenting it in the very best way.

It was a big challenge, but very exciting to work with this 16 member team that was focused on creating the show,” Agosto said.  “We were fortunate to have the incredible Sam Chouinard, who works with the Montreal ice dancers, choreographing with us.”

“The theme of AXEL draws from a rock n’ roll show,” Hill explained.  “When the Director, without a figure skating background, thought about an arena show, to him it was all about a musical act – like when he went to see a concert with his favorite band.  It has great live music and the lead character is a guitarist and singer.”

As for the name, AXEL, they tied together the skating element Axel with Axl Rose, the lead vocalist of the rock band, Guns N’ Roses and made that the title of the show. 

From the beginning, the acrobats learned to skate and the skaters learned acrobatics and other circus moves. Hill and Agosto wanted to feel first hand what the skaters were experiencing.

“We had a pair team, and we needed to choreograph their movements in the air,” Hill said.  “We said we weren’t quite sure how to do it unless we were to go up as well.”

“So we got harnessed up and flown on some cables,” Agosto said. “They connected us to a little rig, and then lifted us up into the air, and we got to fly and it felt like we were actually flying.”

“Also, they have skating on stilts in the show, so we had the privilege of being a part of helping those skaters learn to skate on stilts,” Hill noted. “So once again we needed to feel how that felt like.”

A cast member, who had skated on stilts for many years, preferred it with ski boots, so the acrobatic design team created a special ski boot with a 3½-foot stilt and a blade on the bottom.

“It took some time with the safety line,” Agosto said, “but they learned how to skate on it.”

To keep up with the performing skaters, each costume has a spotlight tracking system with two channels with one installed in each shoulder. An infrared light above the ice follows each skater.

Prior to joining Cirque du Soliel, five of the skaters had trained in Colorado Springs. Agosto had worked with ice dancers Karina Manta and Joe Johnson for several years, and also knew Erika Smith & AJ Reiss, the pair team. In addition, the female lead, Japanese single skater, Miyu Nakashio had trained there with Hill for few a years.

“When I approached Karina and Joe about the show, they were very excited,” Agosto explained. “I didn’t tell them I was choreographing. I just told them there was an opportunity at Cirque du Soliel.”

“When they called Ben to hear more about the opportunity and more details, we were in Australia,” Hill added. “That’s when we told them Ben would also be at the show as the choreographer.”

From the very beginning, Agosto wanted to be involved with the casting because he had a vision of what the skating should be. He wanted skaters who were fully capable of bringing that vision to life.

“It was very important to me to have a dance team, so it was a natural fit to want Karina and Joe in the show. It was the same thing for Erika and AJ. We were looking for a pair team who could do big throws and tricks.

“Ben worked very closely with Cirque du Soliel casting to make sure there was a nice blend of fresh blood in the professional show environment and those who could lead them,” Hill explained.

“We couldn’t have been happier with the way Karina and Joe adapted,” Agosto noted.  “They had a great attitude, were hard workers, and learned the choreography quickly.”

“They were natural leaders who helped teach the other skaters the choreography because they knew it right away – the counts and steps. They were familiar with me and my movement quality.”

At one point they told Hill and Agosto that all their previous training had led to this opportunity. They were now able to perform comfortably and express themselves without the stress of competition.

“Since skating has always been a creative outlet for them, they now feel like they are presenting their art;” Agosto said.

“This was especially true when Joe was told he could vogue. He almost fainted; he was so excited,” Hill said with a laugh.

“The creation process is very collaborative, and that doesn’t mean just for the creative team, but also with the artists,” Hill added.

“The most impactful example of collaboration in our experience is where Karina and Joe are one of three featured couples in this large number each with a two-minute solo,” said Agosto.

The music composer shared his own initial thoughts about the instrumental sounds for this “Gala” production. However, Agosto had his own ideas for the music.

“I wanted the three couples to each have a very distinctive character to them. I showed him a video of Karina and Joe’s free dance from last year [Sweet Dreams by Eurhythmics]. I wanted the music to be very vogue. The second couple’s video was very classical, and the third one was very rock n’ roll.”

“I told him to compose the music for the skaters, for the actors, which he did just looking at their videos – almost like doing a soundtrack for a movie,” smiled Agosto.

“So he created the music, but it was still a lot of back and forth tweaking – a different sound or a new trick here and there,” Hill added. “It was a collaborative effort – the composer, skaters, and choreographers together.

“As for Karina and Joe, this performance is very true to who they are. They are not being put into the show and saying you are this character,” Agosto said. “This is Karina and Joe. This is very special.”

After four months of six-days-a-week rehearsals in Montreal, the 41 performing cast members plus five musicians and the lead singer/guitarist headed to Cornwall, Ontario where AXEL made its debut on October 4.

Next the troupe crossed the US border to Syracuse, NY before continuing on to six more American cities.

“This is just the second ice show so there’s still a lot of learning to be done on how this new environment works on their apparatuses, and how they can best showcase what they want for the audiences,” Agosto noted.

“There’s an understanding that when it first opens, there’s a period where it’s going to keep growing; it’s going to evolve,” he continued. “There’s an artistic director who is now with the show touring, and he has full control. He can make little tweaks and changes.

“We will also be called in from time to time as needed. There are some things we’re scheduled to help to expand and keep adding to, and we’re excited about that. I’m also excited to see how it has already grown based on performing it every night – when they get in the groove and find their rhythm.

“Since the really big premiere in December is in Montreal, the home city of Cirque du Soliel, everyone wants it to be in good shape,” Agosto concluded.

The duo hopes audiences will leave the arenas with an appreciation that figure skating can be as awe-inspiring as the circus acts that are synonymous with Circus du Soliel.

“We hope people walk away thinking not only is skating beautiful, but we hope we can turn some of the circus fans into skating fans also,” Hill said.

Finally, we asked our guests to tell us why we should attend an AXEL performance if it came to a nearby arena.

“I would say [because] it’s a show that’s unlike any other you could see anywhere else because you have the known quantity of incredible acrobatics that Cirque du Soliel brings with great production and theatrical wow,” Agosto said. At the same time, you have very high level skating.”

“We worked hard to bring the highest technical level of skaters we could find and really challenge them and give them space to breathe and skate and show off their talents.”

“You will not find those ingredients combined anywhere else. I think it’s a very exciting and unique show. There’s a storyline to follow. It has something for everybody.”

“You won’t see it in any ice show; you won’t see it in any circus show.”