Having just finished a matinee performance of “Kurios”—Cirque du Soleil’s latest production to tour Japan—Nicolas Baixas Calafell enters the room with a remnant of his whimsical character: Nico The Accordion Man, who is also a hand-puppeteer.
Still bearing full makeup, this Barcelona native has the night show coming up in a matter of mere hours. But exuding the ease of a seasoned performer, Baixas, who plays an emotionally intelligent yet imaginary being, appears relaxed and happy as he sits down for a chat about the man behind the “Theater of Hands.”
Our conversation begins with the uncanny naming of his character. Much like the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, I wondered whether “Nico” was a pre-existing role or Baixas himself (who goes by the same nickname) had been the muse.
“I previously met [Kurios’ director] Michel Laprise at a casting for Cirque du Soleil,” the statuesque artist reveals as he chronicles the chance meeting that transpired 15 years ago. “After watching my hand-puppet performance—something he had never seen before—Michel wanted to include me in a show he was thinking of making in the future.”
Indeed, Baixas’ artistic feat is in a league of its own, and by every measure, something circus-goers have never laid eyes on. Even he admits that “perhaps there are only two or so people” worldwide who have fine-honed his “handy” craft: a pantomime-esque spectacle that merges remarkable manual dexterity.
However, in a prestigious production company that has become synonymous with acrobats, aerialists, and contortionists, I was curious to know what challenges the laid-back Barcelonian faced when taking his intimate act to the big stage.
“Unlike typical circus acts that require an entire stage, my performance style is on a visibly smaller scale,” Baixas says of his routine, which consists of a giant hot-air balloon that serves as a screen for projecting the spellbinding stars: his flexible fingers.
In the palm of his hand
But as the “Theater of Hands” unfolds, spectators are instantaneously held in the palm of the puppeteer's hand. Through his eloquent and expressive movements, the act conveys more than just a story; it communicates a symphony of language that surpasses both speech and the status quo of performing arts.
Still, he notes that utilizing stage space innovatively was as challenging as adapting to structured rehearsal regimes and highly stylized choreography.
“Before joining Cirque, I was doing freestyle performances,” Baixas reveals on the improvisational element of his artistry. “But when you enter a huge [live entertainment] company with big budgets and global audiences, I had to learn the discipline of showing up at a fixed time. Then during the show, I had to know where to stand and how much time I had left onstage.”
Nonetheless, this multi-hyphenate artist—who prefers the more playful title of “a hand-puppeteer minus the puppets”—is a model of self-discipline. From the moment he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. (starting with a two-hour yoga workout) to the end of the last performance of the day, Baixas is fiercely committed to his craft.
So what is his secret to pursuing a professional career in the arts—let alone the circus?
“If you’re asking yourself, ‘How do I get into Cirque du Soleil?’ then you’re asking the wrong question. You don’t want to be a replica: you want to be authentic. These casting directors, including [Kurios’] Michel Laprise, see many, many performers. But in order to stand out, you need to be yourself.”
Growing up around vibrant artists, including his parents who were puppeteers, Baixas undoubtedly absorbed this philosophy of authenticity from his childhood. “I was naturally encouraged to ‘live on the edge’—versus living life in the comfort zone of boredom and repetition,” he says with a sparkle in his eye.
In fact, “Theater of Hands” is a performance where his past and present come full circle. From an early age, Baixas learned how to convey speech without words because his maternal grandparents were deaf. Profoundly aware of the animated lexicon of sign language, hands were instrumental in developing his “handicraft” as an actor, musician, director, and now, puppeteer.
Even as Nico The Accordion Man, this same emotional sensibility permeates his portrayal of a fictional character that, he admits, possesses similarities to himself. “Nico is sensitive, a little awkward, and childlike—a lot like my identity,” he points out, with a boyish grin.
Yet against the topsy-turvy backdrop of “Kurios,” Baixas’ character projects extraordinary empathy, if not humanity, as he habitually adjusts himself to the eye level of others, including the audience. This attentiveness and raw vulnerability, ironically, brings to mind the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz,” except The Accordion Man comes equipped with a big heart (and an even bigger pair of pants).
“As a performer, you have to embody the emotions, then let it out on stage each day,” Baixas muses—in the words of a true artist—on the labor and love of his impeccable craft.
Cirque du Soleil: Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities
Due to the nature of the acts in the show, changes in the cast and the content may occur.
Until July 8 at Odaiba Big Top; “Kurios” will continue its Japan Tour in Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Sendai.
Tickets: 0570-020-520 (Information Desk -- Japanese only)
Running time: 2 hours & 20 minutes, including a 30-minute intermission
Access: Daiba Station via the Yurikamome Line; Tokyo Teleport Station via the Rinkai Line