UGA grad takes center stage as drummer in Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Kurios’

Kit Chatham grew up immersed in a musical environment. He sang in the choir at a Baptist church in the Austell area where his father was a preacher. His mother was a pianist and gospel singer.

In middle school, his parents insisted music remain an integral part of his life. But he was given a choice: sing in the choir or play an instrument. He decided to play the drums and percussion in school. Before long, he was learning how to play an Irish Bodhran, an ancient frame drum made with a wooden body and a goatskin head, and developing a passion for all things percussion.

Chatham also developed an affinity for instruments and ethnic sounds from around the globe — Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern, Indian.

Today, Chatham, 39, takes center stage as the drummer/percussionist and assistant band leader for Cirque du Soleil’s newest touring show, “Kurios,” which opens in Atlanta on March 3. (See box for more details.)

When Michel Laprise, creator/director of “Kurios,” first saw Chatham about six years ago during the creation of Cirque’s “Viva Elvis” show in Las Vegas, he was stunned by Chatham’s level of talent and skill.

“I was flabbergasted by the energy of that percussionist drummer who was drumming standing up. He was the show,” Laprise said in an email. “Kit is the equivalent of a very high-caliber acrobat. He does his own version of inspired lyrical triple back somersaults. When I first started to write ‘Kurios,’ I thought of him and wanted him to be a musician character. … And when I saw his mastery of playing and manipulating of his sticks, I thought: We have to feature this uniqueness in the show.”

Since opening in Montreal in May 2014, “Kurios” has been garnering rave reviews as it performs in cities across the U.S. and Canada. And it’s not just the visual aesthetics, but the music being lauded for presenting a thrilling new, innovative jazz sound, ultimately deepening the experience of the performance.

After growing up in the Austell area, Chatham moved to central Georgia in high school. He played in the high school band at Washington County High School in Sandersville. He studied music at the University of Georgia.

He has now been with Cirque du Soleil for 11 years, performing around the globe in several Cirque shows including “Kooza” (2013-2014), “Zumanity” (2012-2013) and “Mystere” (2013).

Before joining Cirque du Soleil, Chatham was the featured snare drum/percussion soloist with the Tony- and Emmy-winning Broadway show “Blast.”

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Chatham, who is 39 and based in Las Vegas, looks forward to a long run in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed Chatham by phone.

Q: Why do have such an affinity for playing the drums?

A: Not only do I love the rhythmical nature to drums and percussion and its big-time groove potential, but I think the part of drums and percussion that I really love is the way you can just explore all the different sounds and grooves you can create out of a single drum. There are countless possibilities with not only the traditional techniques but also new things you create outside the box. This exploration of sound is one of the first steps for me to really start learning a new percussion instrument. It also now means that I make a percussion instrument out of just about everything I have in my hands. I’ve become quite an expert in playing a 12-ounce Coke Zero can or 20-ounce bottle.

Q: What can viewers expect with Cirque du Soleil’s “Kurios”?

A: Each show has its own story and sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what that story is, but there is definitely a different theme, a different style to every show. The imagery, the music and everything has a different slant on things and, of course, what drove me to want to be in Cirque — that ethnic flair and world sound.

With this show, what sets it apart is that it’s more of a steampunk style show, and everything is basically from the early 1900s from when we have steam going to electricity, and the age of creativity to all of these new inventions where all of these technical things are being developed and coming to the forefront.

Q: What is your role in telling this story?

A: We are adding an audible sound to go with their action, and so every motion, every detail — whether flying in the air and landing, or juggling — being on the music side, we are there to enhance it to make sure there is a huge audible impact to go along this huge visual impact. … I am on stage in the first act and you will see I am out there drumming, enhancing the juggler. My character in the show is a train worker and I am dirty. I am the one in the band with the dirtiest face, so I guess I am the only who does the work (laughs). … You really get a connection trying to have these elements working together.

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