Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Tale of Two Cirques

I recently visited Las Vegas and had the rare and expensive opportunity to view not one, but two, Cirque du Soleil shows: and Zumanity. Both shows surprised me with how different they were from my preconceptions of what Cirque du Soleil was. Like most people, I had a passing familiarity with Cirque: acrobats in colorful skintights, extreme contortionism, and that dude who lies on top of that other dude.

Yeah, that’s the one.

I had my first glimpse of Cirque as a child, viewing the televised versions on Bravo. Though strange and impressive, I thought the acts were sort of one-note – supremely flexible people doing unconscionably weird things with their bodies. I suppose these French Canadian wunderkinds were rescuing the circus from the likes of Bozo clowns and the guy fighting a lion with only a whip and a tiny chair. Now, the concept is so popular that there are six Cirque du Soleil shows in residence in major Vegas casinos, and it seems that you’re not hardcore as a casino until you score a Cirque show. I’ve even seen a Cirque-style show (knockoff?) at Sea World; their Cirque de la Mer is the Cirque formula with jet skis.

Going in to the first show, KÀ, I had an ominous feeling that I would not be amused. I think I had some notion that Cirque was an overly precious bourgeois kind of entertainment, lacking the history and gravity of the theater or opera worlds, as well as the glitz and youthful exuberance of a rock concert.

Here are my impressions of the two shows. (Warning: Spoilers and adult situations ensue.)

KÀ, at the MGM Grand, has the distinction of being the first Cirque show with a true narrative. That doesn’t mean there’s any talking, aside from a brief prologue voice-over. It’s more like watching a Tchaikovsky ballet, where the music and dance tell a story without words. Actually, what’s special about KÀ is that it’s like many different art forms at once. It’s like a ballet or silent stage play in its presentation, but there’s also an epic feel and emphasis on technology that make it about as cinematic as live performance gets. The cup holders and surround speakers built into the seats make it feel even more like being at the movies. It’s also a lot like one of those stunt shows at Universal Studios, with the enormous infrastructure and audience interaction before the show. In a less than enthralling way, it even feels like an amusement park ride, when staff members go around taking your picture and then giving you the option of purchasing the photo after the show.

I was skeptical about whether the show would be worth the exorbitant cost, which, even after student discounts and seasonal promotions, averages about $70 for the mid-range seats (we’re talking about $150 regular price for the best seats). Cirque du Soleil is notorious for its steep sticker prices, so I would be happy with nothing less than being utterly blown away. Well sir, consider yourself blown. KÀ is an amazing show, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

That’s a cliché statement, but think about how rare it is that you actually see something and don’t immediately categorize it as a type, another example of a style you’ve experienced many times over. A movie, a play, a sporting event, a museum, etc. – only the finest examples really slap you in the face and make you wonder, “What did I just see?” Otherwise, a movie is just a movie, and you don’t feel like you’ve experienced something more.

The story of KÀ, as a “story,” is rather minimal, and not always easy to follow. Two imperial twins, brother and sister, are separated from each other when enemy forces attack. They endure various adventures before finding each other again and reclaiming their rightful place. There’s a vaguely Chinese/Asian feel to the show, with a heavy emphasis on martial arts action and Asian-style costuming.

In addition to martial arts, KÀ has straight-up acrobatics, just as I expected from a Cirque show. But the show isn’t about acrobatics or any kind of athletic prowess as an end in itself. Rather, the human physique is placed in the service of a visionary dream. KÀ consists of a series of brilliant set pieces that don’t necessarily make up a great story, but individually, the pieces are gorgeous and, at their best, poetic.

My favorite section involved the twin sister being tossed overboard into the ocean during a storm. The thrashing ship, impressive on its own, gives way to the serene sight of the girl falling slowly down the entire height of the theater. Images of bubbles and watery ripples are projected onto a transparent screen at the front of the stage to render a perfectly convincing scene of a girl sinking deeper into the ocean. Then we see her find her bearings and swim downward to save her nursemaid who is in danger of drowning. It ends with the girl swimming upward to the surface, nursemaid in tow. The scene is simple and sparse, accompanied by a beautifully simple melody. I know what it is and what technology was employed, and yet I’ve never seen anything like it.

KÀ is as much about technology as acrobatics, and the most impressive piece of technology is the stage itself. It’s a floating platform operated by a gigantic robotic arm, and it seems to spend most of the show tilted toward the audience at various angles, so that the cast is constantly performing on a slant. At one point, after a scene at the beach, the stage goes completely vertical facing the audience, thus dumping I don’t know how many pounds of sand in a shimmering cascade into the pit below (I’ve read that the “sand” is actually cork).

I thought I had really seen something there, but the climactic battle scenes of the show involve the cast clashing on the same vertically-oriented stage. The cast members are in harnesses and suspended by wires, of course, and it created a melee in 2-D, kind of like a moving painting, with swordsmen flying all across a stationary background.

Even that was not as much fun as another use of the vertical stage: at one point, thin posts protruded from all over the face of the stage. The acrobats proceeded to chase and fight each other by swinging and climbing from post to post, all without wires or support. I saw one guy falling from the top to the bottom through the posts, shifting from side to side; it was like watching human Plinko.

There’s much more to the show, including shadow puppets, rock-climbing, aerial tissu, the wheel of death, archers shooting what looked to be real arrows over the cast-filled stage, and some small-scale pyrotechnics. It’s all accompanied by a grand score, the kind of music someone would write for a movie if told that the music would take center stage instead of the actors.

I came out of KÀ with enormous respect for what Cirque du Soleil is all about: challenging established art forms and melding them together to create new experiences in live performance. What began as a band of preternatural acrobats is now almost a myth-making enterprise. I don’t think it’s an accident that each Cirque show is given a meant-to-be iconic name (Mystere, O, Love, Varekai, etc.), as if they are new worlds in themselves.


Zumanity, at New York New York, has the distinction of being the first 18-and-over (aka “R-Rated”) Cirque show. From the name, I had originally thought that the show might have something to do animals, maybe even animals versus humans, à la Grizzly Man; I was sorely disappointed. Zumanity is essentially a cabaret-style burlesque show with acrobatics. Like KÀ, Zumanity is a series of set pieces, but without the narrative and the brilliance. There is near constant nudity, but surprisingly, it doesn’t make up for the lack of fun.

Admittedly, having seen KÀ the previous night, I couldn’t help judging Zumanity against it. Most of what I liked about the former was absent from the latter. In place of an army of cast members, Zumanity offered numbers focusing on couples and individuals. Instead of technology, we were given intimacy. The by turns martial and dreamlike score of KÀ gave way to dirges rooted in bluesy saxophone. Warriors in Asian robes were replaced by a woman in ass-less pants.

The best part of Zumanity came before the actual show started, in the pre-show banter and audience interaction. Bawdy cast members would take turns smothering defenseless audience members in their unyielding bosoms. Flamboyant male actors would bait some of the men in the seats into homoerotic innuendo. Ironically, the more the men resisted, the gayer they seemed. The lady doth protest too much?

By the time the 7-foot-tall drag queen came out to MC the night’s festivities, I was ready for an entertainment distinct from KÀ, but just as engaging. And yet the show, from its structure to its music to its acrobatics to its cringe-worthy attempts at humor, just didn’t do it for me. (This was a show that thought funny was an out-of-shape woman using liquid-filled Ziploc bags as breast enhancement devices.)

Numbers include two girls writhing in an oversized fishbowl, a young Fabio lookalike doing a strip tease, and two chiseled dudes engaged in what can only be described as steel cage tango-wrestling. None of the numbers were really bad, though I’m sure I would have been more impressed with the aerial work if I hadn’t already seen the same thing for free at Circus Circus earlier in the day. I was mostly disappointed by the unnatural attempt to marry a sex show with a circus show.

There is enough raw sexuality in the sight of a woman spinning and flipping her body in mid-air while clinging to a strip of aerial silk. Having her do it topless is not only overkill, but it distracts the viewer from the beauty of the movement, leaving it with a tawdry feel. Most of the pieces gave me the same uneasy feeling of stumbling upon some great acrobats who were trying too hard to be exotic dancers.

The most impressive performance of the night was also the most inappropriate. A solo contortionist took the stage, just a bony dude in short shorts who could twist his body into one godless position after another. He was a methodical loon, maintaining a feral grin on his face as he robotically went through his routine. He’s kind of what might happen if people were Transformers. He had me hooked as no other part of the show did. But what on earth did this sickboy have to do with the “sensual side of Cirque du Soleil”? Aside from a stomach-turning suggestion made by the MC that the man could do a self-inflicted crotchplant, I didn’t see any connection between his brand of contortionism and the show’s stated goal of titillation. Especially as a solo act!

For some sad reason, the show ended not with a bang-up group number, but with the MC inviting an old couple on stage and having them do a slow dance to celebrate their 40 years of marriage. Really? This is the right way for the reinvention of burlesque to climax? There is something subtly sadomasochistic about Cirque du Soleil as a whole. I mean, look at all the ropes and the dangling and the bodies bent double over themselves. But instead of playing that up and taking it to its natural conclusion, Zumanity misguidedly tries to serve lechery and romance on the same plate, and ends up shortchanging the hungry audience on both counts. When the MC asked a guy in the front row what he was going to do after the show, it’s no wonder that his response of “Have sex?” sounded more like a question than a statement.

Ultimately, the problem with Zumanity is that it doesn’t do justice to either burlesque or Cirque du Soleil. (I’ve heard the same problem afflicts another of their shows: Criss Angel Believe, Cirque fused with illusionism.) They are impressive enough as acrobats, and they provide the “sex,” but they’re missing the all-important next word: “appeal.”

1 comment:

Henry said...

"Well sir, consider yourself blown."

The process should not be hard to pull off, but it sounds like Zumanity was just a lot of misspent energy.