Behind-the-Scene’s of Cirque du Soleil’s AXEL at Cincinnati’s Heritage Bank Center

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Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil has returned to Cincinnati with their latest show, AXEL, a mind-bending experience where acrobatic stunts, adrenaline-pumping music and stadium-style light projections converge... on ice.

It's the second time the live spectacle company has added ice skating into the mix, the first being Crystal, which came to the Queen City in 2018. Now they're back for a four-day stint (Jan. 23-Jan. 26) at downtown's Heritage Bank Center (formerly U.S. Bank Arena).

Centered on the titular Axel, a young graphic artist and musician, who falls for the stunning Lei, the show is set into motion when supervillain Vi steals a mysterious orb of light from Lei's chest.

As the plot unravels, a mesh of original compositions and takes on the popular music of today — to name a few: Tear for Fears' "Mad World", House of Pain's "Jump Around", the Bee-Gees' "You Should be Dancing" and Rihanna's "Diamonds" — guide viewers through the story's arc.

“All these original songs play the role of a narrative that guides you through (AXEL and) serves to evoke certain moments and highlight the action on the stage," says Julie Desmarais, the show's publicist. "But there was a lot of thought given to the look for those songs. We hope the audience will recognize them and dance along."

Axel, alongside Lei and others, must recapture the stolen light from the greedy Vi, who wears a sinister green costume. His henchman don golden snakeheads.

LED lights flank the stage. Six onstage cameras capture live content, which is broadcast on a screen above the stage. Projections create vibrant manga-inspired imagery that feel ripped straight from Axel's sketchpad.

Desmarais says that, since ice is white, it serves as a blank canvas for the team to play with highly-imaginative, bold designs. 

"We wanted people to forget that we were inside an arena on a hockey surface by transforming the space into a stage," she says.

All of this is meant to enhance the flurry of performers who put their skills to the test throughout. If you go, the tricks you'll see are delivered non-stop and range from aerial and ladder balance acts to martial arts to a person performing on a cyr wheel.  A bungee act near the end is the first time the company has done such a stunt on ice. Bonus: For all you pyros out there, AXEL doesn't skimp on the fire stunts.

Of the 90 members touring internationally, there are four are musicians/singers, 18 skaters, 23 acrobats and one puppeteer. (The latter operates Steel, a robotic dog that provides comic relief.) Having opened in Cornwell, Ontario in October 2019, the show has now been on the road for four months. (Its official premiere was a few weeks ago in Montreal.)

This fantastical show is a collision of light, sound and impressively-honed acrobatics. Seeing Cirque du Soleil's AXEL is like stepping into a world — or an artist's sketchbook — where conventional logic need not apply.

7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24; 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26. $44-$130. Heritage Bank Center, 100 Broadway St., Downtown, heritagebankcenter.com.

| Photos by Hailey Bollinger