Water, Guitars and Fireworks – The House of Dancing Water remembered by its performers

Macau Business | February 2021

Inaugurated in 2010 at City of Dreams, The House of Dancing Water show came to a sudden and unexpected end in a pandemic ravaged year.

During those 10 years, hundreds of performers from all over the world had a chance to be part of one of the most iconic shows in offer in the city, with Macau Business/MNA interviewing some of them and remembering the unforgettable journey they carried on and off the stage.

Written and directed by show maker Franco Dragone, The House of Dancing Water intended to be the world’s largest water-based show and an exclusive to City of Dreams.

It premiered in September 2010, in a 2,000-seat theatre with a 19 million litre pool that took five years to complete for an estimated US $250 million. At the time, Melco’s CEO Lawrence Ho described it as the “most extravagant and thrilling live production ever seen in the world”.

During those 10 years, hundreds of performers from all over the world had a chance to be one part of the most iconic shows in offer in the city.

All roads lead to Macau

For Joris Kondjia the show was an interesting change from his former life as a gymnast and a chance to finally be in contact with the Chinese culture that so fascinated him.

“I had been practising gymnastics since I was 5 years old on a daily basis. This was my life for 20 years, and at some point, I became part of the national junior team. I kept practising at a lower level between the ages of 21 to 24, and I had a dream to become an olympian but there’s a little bit of politics in sports,” the Lyon-native told MNA.

After a gymnast friend advised him to try and apply to the Macau show in 2014, Joris decided it could be a good career opportunity and initiated the long audition process, including a two-day audition in London and three and a half months of training in Belgium in 2015, until he finally signed his contract and arrived in Macau in 2016.

Joris Kondjia

Meanwhile, American Sammie Pearsall was working at LuluLemon Athletica in her hometown of Chicago, as well as for her father’s financial planning company helping put together investment portfolios and doing extra research on finance.

At the same time, she managed to find time to train for circus auditions and ended up applying to the show.

“I came to the House in April 2017 for my Cast Change Overtraining […] hoping to get a contract and work for this circus because it had been my dream to perform in a circus since I was seven years old. I actually had never heard of the show prior to my audition, but I took a chance on it because it took a chance on me,” she told MNA.

Hungarian Olívia Kapitány had a career as an acrobat performing in variety’s, festivals, new circus shows. She was performing in different countries as a professional performer until a friend employed in the show reached out to her in 2015.

The most recent addition to the show, Portuguese Diogo Romero, already had a 20-year-long career – most of his life – as a high-level artistic gymnastics athlete for the Portugal national team.

“I was studying for my architecture thesis but my priority was always my high-level artistic gymnastics career. I was also working part time as a gymnastics coach and surf coach in Portugal. I had a close friend in Macau, and noticed there were some other friends from the gymnastics world that was also in the show so decided to give it a shot,” he told MNA.

In December 2019, he put an end to his work as a gymnast coach and athlete and travelled to Macau, in what would prove to be an ill-fated timing.

Olívia Kapitány

A routine of magic

In total, the show included almost 100 gymnasts, circus artists, dancers, divers, actors, and motorcyclists working alongside 160 production staff, technicians, and professional scuba divers from around the world.

Some 8-10 show performances were carried out every week from Thursday to Monday; artists would rest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

During Christmas and Chinese New Year, up to 12 shows a week were performed.

During their normal workweek, the performers would carry out rehearsals including training, cleaning sessions, and validation at special facilities; this is when newcomers would be shown the show’s conditions, lights, and effects without any audience.

“The first thing they do is put us in the best seat in the theatre so we can see the show for the first time. Just that was amazing,” Diogo told MNA.

“We are provided with a free Professional Association of Diving Instructors course, house allowance, and a good salary for the first three months; then, we have to try and complete a two-year contract. When I arrived I got all the specific training. Gymnasts are very mechanical, we have the skills; but to be there we had to be a bit more artistic, we had to do choreographies that had existed for almost 10 years already, so everything was very specific. It was an amazing process.”

For Joris, during his first two years in Macau his main priority was the show and his integration in it, with little space for anything else.

Diogo Romero

“When you arrive basically you have a month to integrate, meaning that you are making your way into the show, learning safety rules, how to move on stage, etc. I performed my first show basically one month after arriving, in February 2016,” he noted.

“In June 2016, I was chosen to substitute the main character, so I basically arrived and while I was still learning I was placed in this backup role. It was one of the best opportunities I ever had, but of course it required a lot of work.”

The year when everything changed

Since January 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a decrease in tourist arrivals to the city: from as many as 1.8 million daily visitors to as low as 6,383.

The HODW schedule included four “dark period” weeks with no performances – two weeks around March, one week around June, and another week at the end October.

As the performers returned to their usual rehearsal routines after their March break, it was easy to see something had changed.

“When we came back at the beginning of March 2020, we didn’t perform for one and a half months so we had to get back to our routine, starting with the physical test and the validations back to the show,” Olívia remembers.

“By the end of March we had had our first shows, but we could already see there were not many people in the audience. They just became less and less until it was just the CCO watching our show. We could really feel the impact of Covid-19. It was very weird to see almost empty the audience in such an amazing show”

The usual weekly show schedule was then reduced, from featuring at least one show per day to three shows per week.

On June 14, 2020 and unbeknownst to all the performers, the last performance of the 10-year show was held.

Shortly after Melco announced the show would be suspended starting from June 18 for a revamp to be conducted by creator Franco Dragone and a renewed show to be presented in January 2021.

The decision entailed for 60-70 non-resident workers employed by the show to not see their work contracts renewed, and the remaining staff informed that a final decision on the show would be further announced in November.

Samantha Pearsall

Sammie was in the first group that was laid-off, with 2020 classified for her as a year that started and ended in a blink of an eye, while at the same time seemingly lasting forever.

“It was a year of waiting. Nobody knew what was going to happen. I still don’t see 2020 as the year the show ended, because for 90 per cent of the year we all thought it was going to come back. I don’t think anyone wanted to believe the end was coming,” she remembers.

“It was the best show I had ever laid eyes on, and it was an honour to be part of it. The most painful part of this whole situation was how long and drawn out the dissolvement was. Its ending deserved fireworks and electric guitars, and crying and laughing, and everyone having a moment to mourn its end. It needed a final goodbye.”

Sammie remained and continued to train and study for a while, keeping her hopes up that the show would return sometime in 2021, but she eventually ended up travelling back to Chicago.

“The whole thing felt like a dream that I couldn’t wake up from. […] Maybe in a few months it will sink in, but for now, I don’t know how I feel about leaving. It is bittersweet in my mind. I had the adventure of a lifetime in Macau, and a part of me thinks it would have been selfish to make it last forever, but the other part of me wants to get back on stage for another show and finish the evening with some hot pot.”

As a new recruit, Diogo was also in the first group, and his first year in the production was also his last.

“The virus stopped our training, so I couldn’t get into the routine and the costumes, or the makeup. We just did a validation, starting from the beginning with all the performers, with the music and effects but without the audience.

“As a gymnast, I’m used to a large audience and I was expecting to see it as a performer too. In the end, I was not able to get it.”

Unable to work legally, he stayed in the city while the remaining performers awaited updates and keeping his workout routine but struggling to pay rent.

Then, in November Melco confirmed the show would remain closed and not resume operations as per the previous deadline, with most of its non-resident workers forced to depart after their work permits expired.

As for many other people, the current travel bans and restrictions made necessary by the pandemic have made leaving the city a considerable endeavour for the former cast members. Most of them are expected to leave this month.

“After Taiwan closed its route, flights got more expensive. We were afraid they would cancel our flights the same way it happened to some of our friends in the beginning,” Diogo noted.

A decision by Taiwanese health authorities at the beginning of January, 2021 to ban entry for transit travellers removed one of the only pathways for Macau residents to travel to and from outside Asia was cut, Tokyo being one of the only choices at the disposal of the former cast.

“Right now there is not much opportunity to find a stable entertainment job as an artist. I wouldn’t start anything that would last for 3 months or less and then I’m in the same situation again,” Olívia added. 

“As this second coronavirus strain come up, feels like we are in last January when the first time the show closed, a lot of countries are closing the borders again with that closing the opportunities”.

Fond memories in the house

Despite its rollercoaster final year, all four maintain mostly fond memories of the show, Macau and the HODW team.

After immersing himself in learning Wing Chun and Tai Chi, Joris already imagined remaining in Macau for many years more.

“The House of Dancing Water gave me indelible opportunities. Macau as a city and culture showed me many different things. I could learn more and stay even longer. I have to thank all my colleagues, teammates, people who I have met in Macau: wardrobe, lighting, carpentry, rigging, medical staff, security, coaching staff and the artists. Thanks to all these departments, almost 300 people, we have been able to put magic on stage twice a day.”

Diogo will always remember the music and soundtrack of the show and the unique training he received.

“There is a lot of underwater swimming and dancing the audience doesn’t even see. Just to be able to understand that and one day be able to join in that dance; they were very good moments”.

Olívia appreciated the stability of life in Macau what the show provided for the performers.

“After the formation, you can count on a two-year contract that they can renew after the two year ends. It was a much easier life for me as I didn’t need to think about where I was going to go next. Here, everything was already prepared. You just needed to come to learn the show, perform it in front of the audience safely, consistently, and of course, while enjoying it. I think it was the most stable and most unique show in my life,” she told MNA. 

She will also miss performing in the theatre and the connection and comradery she developed with the remaining cast.

“During these two and a half year as I got to know all the departments from the show, we had daily habits lot interactions with each other. When someone would leave the dressing room or you would just meet five minutes before the show we would say to each other to have a good show. None of us would ever imagine June 14, 2020 would be our last show”

Sammie chooses as her fondest memories the times she “full-heartedly screwed-up in the show”

“At the moment, it always felt like I had done something so horrific and embarrassing that I would never be able to recover. I am such a perfectionist when it comes to performing. I wanted every show to be free from error when in reality we are constantly tripping, falling over, standing in the wrong spot, or facing the wrong direction,” she adds.

“But the brilliant part is that the audience rarely notices, it’s only the ones you share the stage with that make you laugh about it at the end of the night. It is these moments that I will look back on and smile at”.

Meanwhile, Joris chooses to believe that one day the show will re-open but is ready for whatever will come next.

“I still believe in the show, our training and what we have been doing for five to 10 years. I will always believe until we re-open. For me, it is not finished. It was a slow process. There was not a moment where we said, ‘oh the pandemic really hit us’. I still believe things will restart at one point,” Joris expressed.

“We have a saying in French, ‘Ducks will never be in a row, it’s the nature of ducks to fly about’. I believe the show will re-open the curtains and provide magic once again. I depart Macau feeling grateful. I will continue performing. I’m turning 29 soon, and I still have all of my teeth”.