The House of Dancing Water… Remembering a Masterpiece
By Liam Klenk
The House of Dancing Water in Macau, another one of the true legends in live entertainment, is no more. The show might re-open in a different form at some point in the future. However, with Covid still active around the globe, nothing is sure for now… except one thing: even if Franco Dragone’s masterpiece will be revived in the coming years, we will never see it again in the majestic grandeur and uniqueness of how it was originally created.
The House of Dancing Water had been temporarily closed in June of 2020, with the idea of re-creating, adjusting to new COVID regulations, and re-opening the show for Chinese New Year 2021. However, this plan changed. On 22nd of November 2020, the remaining cast and crew’s contracts were terminated.
As with many shows which were closed during the course of 2020, even though expected, the closure comes as a shock for all who are and were involved in this magical endeavor.
Often, with creations of such brilliance and beauty it is on some level unimaginable that they can ever just cease to exist. Hope remains until the very end. Even though we all know: Nothing lasts forever. Change is the essence of life.
However, whilst even the most beautiful moments must come to an end at some point, the memories remain. The lessons we have learned and the experiences we have made remain. And our lives are forever changed.
To honor The House of Dancing Water which has greatly impacted my life in many ways, I dug into my archives and found something I wrote right after I left the show in 2013.
While this little trip down memory lane can’t soften the pain of the 140 people who are presently packing up their lives to find new horizons, I hope it can give them and all of us, who are and were involved in this great creation, just a little something to hold on to.
As we remember an extraordinary time and place together…
Even though our four months of creation for The House of Dancing Water were exhausting, I was wide-awake most of the time. I was fascinated and felt so privileged to be able to watch Franco’s vision take a clearer shape with each passing day.
We found out quite late in the production process that our show was going to be called The House of Dancing Water. A perfect name considering what happened on stage…
Geysers shot sixty-five feet high and could catapult a person into the air. If they happened to stand in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Jets and rain were additional attractions augmenting the – in itself breathtaking – pool which was hidden under eight hydraulic lifts. These lifts could be moved at any time to reveal either a flat surface, or a body of water, alive with bubbles.
Imagine you are sitting in a theater-in-the-round, the size of a football field. A sixty-five foot long and thirty-seven foot high pirate ship rises up on the lifts. Out of the depths of the circular stage pool…
All of a sudden, thirty scary pirates surface and jump onto the edge of the stage. They face you, muscular, menacing, and dripping with water. The music ramps up and the pirates climb the boat, performing tricks and jumping from great heights over and over again.
These tortured souls have been trapped in the dark depths of the ocean for a very long time. They have now been freed for just a moment and rejoice with daredevil acts. At the end of the six-minute act, the pirate ship, shrouded in fog, sinks back into the depths, disappearing forever.
Thunder rolls, lightning strikes. A torrent of rain plummets from the almost incomprehensibly high ceiling of the theater, pushing the fog aside on its way down.
The dense wave of fog rolls over your head, revealing a shipwrecked sailor, all alone, lost on the vast ocean.
Unbeknownst to you, the telescopic masts of the boat are being retracted underwater and the ship driven off stage to a large aquatic backstage area hidden under the auditorium.
Moments later, the shipwrecked sailor finds himself beached on a dry stage.
You and the rest of the audience gasp at witnessing the sudden appearance of solid ground where only moments before there had been a life-sized pirate ship and then nothing but water and a struggling survivor swimming for his life.
This is only the beginning of the magnificence to come…
Every so often during my four years of working for The House of Dancing Water, I would take an extra day off, to go see the entire show from the auditorium. To remind myself of what I was working for.
Each time, The House of Dancing Water would sweep me away and leave me in tears of joy.
Franco Dragone had essentially managed the impossible and choreographed a masterpiece uniting people of all ages, genders and cultures, artfully weaving together Chinese and Western symbolism.
He created a timeless story:
A beautiful princess endowed with magical powers had been locked away by an evil, power-hungry queen. Then a stranger appeared from a shipwreck, freeing the princess with the help of a mysterious tribe. A fast-paced battle of good against evil ensued, keeping audience members at the edge of their seats for ninety minutes.
While it was in essence a fairy tale story, it provided action galore.
Moto riders would catapult so far over the audience’s heads, they almost seemed to touch the ceiling. Cliff divers would jump from unbelievable heights, presenting death-defying stunts. Dancers and acrobats would fly through the air and dance over the surface of the water.
And, of course, there would be a dazzlingly romantic, happy ending.
The size of our stage made it impossible to process all the detail during one show, turning every single one of my visits to the auditorium into a brand new experience.
The lifts would make our stage come alive as if it was a breathing land-and-seascape.
Earthquakes would shake the ground while geysers would erupt with a loud hiss. Props and artists would magically appear and disappear under the water surface.
Sometimes, all lifts would descend as one, colorful lighting from underwater and above would turn the now gigantic pool into oceans of different colors, signifying our journey through life.
Dazzling lights, rain, jets and fountains would aid the story with their grand visual and sensory impact, leaving an unforgettable impression in the hearts of all who came to see this incredible creation.
Whilst seeing the great performance as just another member of the audience, I would always experience the joys of a coach seeing his charges rise to never-imagined heights – and, in our special water environment, depths.
Like a father watching his children grow from their first clumsy steps to charismatic perfection, my heart would almost burst with feelings of love and pride.
As the beauty on stage mesmerized me, I would remember why I worked there in the first place: because I believed in the vision, and the beauty of it all.
With mind and heart refreshed, I would dive back underwater, where I would resume my work as a show diver and performer trainer with dedication and passion.
Some of my favorite work moments were the small rituals and encounters with our artists backstage.
During a part of the show called the “Fountain Dance”, a group of swans would appear out of the dark blue depths of the stage pool to bring the lost princess and her savior together in a moment of budding romance.
In order to magically appear out of nowhere, a group of fifteen dancers, dressed in tutus as swans, would need to get across an expanse of water.
But, once saturated, the dancers’ tutus were too heavy to swim in. So they pulled themselves along a rope that led from a dry backstage area across the water surface to a set of stairs hidden at the edge of the stage, just out of view of the audience.
Ready in case of an emergency, I would watch the swans. I would hover underwater as they pulled themselves slowly towards the stage.
At the last moment, just before their cue to appear in front of the audience, I would kick up to the surface and the swans would wave to me, laugh happily, blow me kisses and we would splash each other with water.
I would delight in watching the first minute of their performance from behind a dark curtain, before I needed to continue to my next cue.
Another highlight for me was the moment when performers would first come underwater at the beginning of each show.
We would all share complicated handshakes and fist bumps in greeting or play a round of rock-paper-scissors. Some of the artists were only half-dressed and finished donning their costumes underwater, in full control of their movements even while immersed.
I loved being responsible for reveals or catches.
During a catch, the artist would jump into the water, relying on me to catch him (or her) and give him air within a split second. I would then swim him underwater to the nearest pool exit backstage, or towards his next cue, so he could magically re-appear on stage.
For a reveal, I would simply swim the performer to his cue position. Hovering just underneath the water surface, I would hold him, then, at a signal, let him go up for his cue on the water surface.
One of my favorite catches would happen just off the edge of one of the lifts. Thirty seconds before our catch, I would swim out to where the performer was standing.
The pool water was crystal clear, so I could see his toes hanging over the edge of the lift.
I would gently squeeze his toes, letting him know of my arrival. In turn he would wriggle them, saying hello to me, his invisible rescuer. Moments later, he would enter the water. I would grab him in one practiced, swiping move and swim him, as fast as possible, to safety. The audience would never be the wiser.
Then, there were moments full of adrenaline and heightened responsibility. When performers would fall off the chandelier for example. Their costumes would be so heavy, it would make it hard for them to swim to safety without a show diver holding them from beneath.
Or, there would be other moments of performers sinking underwater inside a cage or pagoda.
Each scene usually accompanied by perfectly timed underwater rescues to keep everyone safe yet be invisible… so as not to destroy the illusion for the audience.
If I had to wait with a performer underwater, we would entertain each other with elaborate good-luck handshakes, snap our fingers to see who could get the loudest sound, blow air rings, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company for a few seconds before the music told us the time for action had come…
When I returned to work as a stage manager for another show in Macau, I took every chance I could get to return to The House of Dancing Water. To venture backstage, as well as to watch the show from the auditorium.
I must have been in the audience for another thirty times. My heart beating loud and fast each and every time. I could never get enough of the incredible melange of human talent and beauty shrouded in water and light.
Even the unique smell of our theatre, due to the pool water, immediately triggered a wave of happiness and feeling at home.
Now, I am glad I experienced The House of Dancing Water so many times, with all its subtle changes over the years.
And, as I write this article on the day of the show’s closure, I think of the entire show family of The House of Dancing Water, past and present. I think of all who made this show come alive. And I think of all we can still accomplish together in the years to come.