Growing up as identical twins, Andrew and Kevin Atherton say their parents made a conscious effort to separate them.
“We were brought up as individuals,” Andrew says. “We had to go in different classes, we had different friends.” Both were gymnasts, but “we would never travel together.”
“We weren’t even on the same team,” Kevin adds.
Good thing. Because they see a hell of a lot of each other now.
As in, eye to upside-down eye, forehead to upside-down forehead, breathing in each other’s face as both hang suspended in midair from the long straps they clutch.
The Atherton twins have worked for Cirque du Soleil for 13 years, proving themselves to be showstoppers in “Varekai” and “Iris.” The sculpted gymnasts combine their acrobatic and dance training into a mirror-image aerial ballet.
The British duo are a new highlight of “Zarkana.” They will be featured prominently in poster images and, weather permitting, in a promotional stunt planned at 2 p.m. Monday outside Aria, where they are to be suspended under an aerial tram car.
It’s all part of a revamp for “Zarkana” as it launches its second full year with a makeover. The show went down for the month of January while creators worked to make it more immediate, less somber and generally more fun.
“Our public guided us in this,” artistic director Ann-Marie Corbeil says. So did the boss. Cirque’s co-founder, Guy Laliberte, requested the overall tone — and the soundtrack in particular — become less operatic, more upbeat and rhythmic.
“You feel the audience,” Corbeil says. “We decided to be bold and make these changes.”
A bold move and somewhat unexpected, because “Zarkana” was characterized as a sure thing when it was tapped to replace the troubled “Viva Elvis” at Aria in fall 2012.
It had, after all, been a huge seller in Russia and in two summers at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. But some of that popularity turned out to be a matter of location and/or lack of competition, compared with how “Zarkana” landed amid seven other Cirque titles on the Strip.
“It had great success everywhere. But to be here, I don’t think we could have stayed with the darker, more operatic (tone) that we arrived with,” Corbeil says. “I think we need to be more accessible and more fun.”
“Zarkana” may be on its way to some kind of record for the most times a score has been rewritten by a single composer, Nick Littlemore of the Australian pop duo Empire of the Sun (set to play The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas April 9). It launched in New York as Cirque’s “rock opera,” with English-language songs telling the story of a magician named Zark reviving the spirits of an abandoned theater in a bid to be reunited with his lost love.
By the time the show reached Las Vegas, the Zark character sang wordless gibberish, leaving what remained of the story a bit hard to fathom. And Littlemore had replaced his songs with a more cinematic underscore along the lines of “Ka.”
Now the Zark character is gone altogether, and the audience is free to create its own story “and be transported,” Corbeil says.
The Athertons had been a highlight of “Iris,” Cirque’s failed attempt at a permanent show in Hollywood. Performing much of their strap act right over the heads of audiences breaks the curtain line and creates more of the immediacy Cirque audiences are used to at “Mystere” or “Zumanity.”
“It’s a dream of everybody to fly, and we’re getting to fly. It’s like when you have those dreams where you are flying and suddenly you crash and wake up,” Andrew Atherton says. “We’re in that dream all the time and the only time we ever wake up is if there’s a technical issue. Then you see us both wake up,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s a beautiful feeling to be in, but you have to be very conscious of your surroundings.”
“You feel the audience feeling it, too, especially with the music,” Kevin adds.
“They almost don’t want to disturb us, it’s such an intimate moment,” Andrew says. “They almost don’t want to disturb what’s happening between us.”
The twins did 4,000-plus performances together before taking most of last year off — and continents apart — after “Iris” closed. The only time they had ever missed a performance was the night Andrew’s baby was born.
Now, at 38 years old, the two weight train for an hour a day to stay in finely chiseled form, before taking to the air on straps that look like bungee cords, but are actually a synthetic leather.
Cirque often combs the world to hire existing acts and then changes their music and costumes to fit its needs. But the Athertons were in a sense created by Cirque.
The company had long had its eye on the brothers before hiring them in 2000, while they were calculating their odds of making Great Britain’s gymnastics team for the 2000 Olympics.
“It was only when we came to Cirque du Soleil at the age of 24 that we were put together. Literally put in the same room and told to work together,” Andrew says.
“Maybe the first three weeks we worked for like, 20 minutes, and then we fought and went our separate ways. After three weeks something clicked.”
“It was obviously a ploy on their part,” Kevin says with a laugh.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.