Michael Curry is primarily known as a puppet designer, but his work goes far beyond what we typically considered to be puppets. The hyenas and warthogs he created for The Lion King on Broadway have spawned a new generation of high-tech creature costumes that merge puppets and performers. Some delightful examples of these can be seen in KÀ, which opened in February at the MGM Grand as Cirque du Soleil's fourth permanent show in Las Vegas. Curry created 13 creatures for the show, ranging from crabs cavorting on a beach and a showy starfish to a slow-moving turtle, a slithering snake, and a two-headed creepy crawler. “These are living, breathing creatures that help tell the story,” says Curry. “The costumes extend the scale of the performers, often with just symbols of a creature.”
Each of these characters has its own personality: the turtle is wise and maternal, and its movement represents new discoveries in how the human body can move. Ditto for the crabs, who breathe artificially through tubes while buried in the sand waiting for their cues to pop out. The actors playing the crabs must be total contortionists as they are performing in a crab-walk, or upside down in a backbend as they scurry across the stage. “I wouldn't give the performers anything I couldn't do, except the crabs,” says Curry.
“The costumes are lightweight yet durable. There is never more than 35lbs. on a body, or 25lbs. on a head,” says Curry, who is interested in the boundaries of kinetic movement. He also points out that the costumes are user-friendly, making a connection between the “puppets” and the actors' bodies. “The pieces are not anatomically correct,” Curry explains. The snake, which appears in a colorful forest scene, is one performer in an 80' body that spirals down an extremely tall tree. “This is a dangerous looking creature, with beautiful, graceful movement,” says Curry. “It is an engineering feat in terms of the rigging. You have to be an engineer and an artist at the same time.”
The KÀ creatures represent over seven months and over 100,00 hours of labor for Curry and his staff at Michael Curry Design, Inc. in Oregon. The crabs alone represent 1,270 hours of labor for each costume. There are many fittings and alterations made so that the performers are comfortable as their creature counterparts, yet there are adjustments that can be made to the interior of most of the costumes so that they can fit more than one actor in case of injury or new cast members.
The frames for many of Curry's creatures are made from state-of-the-art materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar, proof that these are not your ordinary puppets, but truly feats of structural engineering with which Curry is pushing the envelope of puppetry and human movement. “It was an incredible opportunity to work with Cirque du Soleil,” says Curry. “Clients like this help make your dreams come true.”