Cirque is including freestyle football alongside traditional circus elements for the first time in "Luzia". Photo: Matt Beard © 2017 Cirque du Soleil

Even after getting that stamp in your passport, traveling to a new country is always an exercise in interpretation; crossing the border doesn’t an expert make.   

That’s certainly true with Mexico, a country spread across rural and urban locales, with a diverse landscape, 31 states, a wide wealth gap and a deep culture mixing indigenous history with colonialism by the Old World. 

When Cirque du Soleil returns to Atlanta for its 17th show this week, it’s promising a widespread interpretive tour of the country, inspired by a journey to find the essence of the place across the many “Mexicos” that constitute it. 

“Luzia” is subtitled, “A waking dream of Mexico” and offers a staggering array of themes drawn from the creator’s decade of experience traveling in the country. Photo: Laurence Labat Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi © 2016 Cirque du Soleil

“The full intention is an ode and a tribute to culture and the environment,” says Gracie Valdez, artistic director for the Atlanta show. “It’s heavily drawing from history, places, locations, climates, influences.”

Some of the scenes are derived from rainforests of the Yucatan peninsula and the heavy downpours that hit Baja California. Water and rain play a central role in the show, enabled by technologies that Cirque had never deployed before Luzia opened in April 2016. The show’s name is a portmanteau of the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia). 

A water basin around the stage is used in concert with a traditional rain curtain, causing performers on the Cyr wheel (a large, rolling hoop used by acrobats), trapeze artists and others to improvise new methods to keep their grips and footing. The more than 1,500 gallons pumped from the basin up to the bridge 50-plus feet above the stage must be used through Cirque’s entire stay in a given city. The water is continually filtered, disinfected and maintained at 82 degrees throughout the whole show. 

The show comprises 11 acts that that use traditional circus elements like contortion, juggling and acrobatics to introduce some things that are commonly associated with Mexico, like monarch butterflies, cacti, lucha libre wrestling, the hallucinogenic peyote and cenotes, deep sinkholes that become entire underwater worlds to themselves and have inspired Mexican mysticism.  

But it also brings in scenes that will be entirely new to many, including an acrobatic nod to Mexico’s golden age of film in the 1920s and costumes that pay homage to the Otomi indigenous people’s embroidery techniques. Even the pace of the show is inspired by the Tarahumara Indians, known for rapid endurance running across their mountainous homeland. The idea is to be vivid and comprehensive without being cliche, Ms. Valdez told Global Atlanta.   

“We just really want to maintain the concept without going too obvious,” she said. 

One unavoidable theme for Mexico is futbol, which Cirque incorporates in Luzia for the first time with two premier performers in the innovative new art of freestyle football that mixes street dance elements with soccer techniques.  

In their act, Laura Biondo and Abou Traore, both world-renowned in the emerging sport, depict a typical street scene where two kids start off in a one-on-one soccer battle, then are joined by the rest of the neighborhood in a rainy pickup game. What’s atypical about the act are the manipulations that the two are able to pull off — in tandem with each other and even as (what else?) water falls on them from above. 

Ms. Biondo, who played soccer professionally in Italy, said she was starstruck coming on stage with the jugglers and acrobats that have given Cirque its longstanding reputation for excellence. 

“It’s actually surreal and very exciting at the same time because I get to share with the audience every night what my passion is and get people to discover and know a different side of soccer,” she said. One of her favorite moves is the “clipper,” where the player moves the back leg across and behind the body, cushioning the ball on the side of the foot. 

Mr. Traoure grew up playing soccer on the streets of Guinea. After suffering an injury in Paris that sidetracked his traditional football career, he followed his brother, a prominent freestyle footballer in France, into the discipline and became known for his ability to blend breakdancing techniques — including uncanny back bends — with both football moves like balancing the ball on the head and spinning it on a stick from his chin.  

“I love dancing, so I try to mix the soccer with dancing,” Mr. Traoure said. 

All this plays out before an array of brightly colored sets and is underpinned by a musical score that mixes a variety of old and modern styles, with instruments including trumpets, guitars and of course, the voice.  

A central theme running throughout is “monumentality,” the sense of being confronted with both imposing architectural achievements of modern Mexico City and ancient Mesoamerican cultures, as well as the magnificence of the natural world. 

Ultimately, the show could change perceptions of Mexico. New travelers could be inspired to go, while veterans might take a second look at the country they thought they knew, Ms. Valdez said.  

“If I didn’t know, it would make me want to go Mexico and see these things in real life and have this soundtrack playing gin the back of my head.” 

The show starts Sept. 14 and will have an extended run through Nov. 19. 

Buy tickets here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...