Some of the best parts of Cirque du Soleil are the things that go wrong.
It's not that I have a sadistic impulse to see injuries or mishaps under the blue-and-yellow stripes of the Grand Chapiteau. The performers' reactions to accidents or slip-ups simply add an additional charge to the show. I caught two apparent mistakes on the opening night of Cirque du Soleil's latest show, Kooza.
First, during the tightrope performance near the end of Act One, one man came up behind another and jumped over him, leap-frog style. His feet landed on the wire but he lost his balance and had to grab hold to keep from falling. Then, during the gravity-defying teeterboard stunts near the finale, one acrobat perched on a single metal stilt, hopped onto the low end of the board and was launched into the air. He did multiple flips in the air with the stilt deliberately still attached. He landed upright on the stilt, but stumbled.
Such moments can make a greater impression than the same circus acts performed without a hitch. In its nearly 25-year history, the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil makes the wildest feats look easy, but sometimes you appreciate the routines' demands when they look more difficult. Plus, you can't help but share in the performers' espirit de corps after an error. They always do the same routine again, immediately, to get it right, in an almost macho show of bravado and professionalism.
It's possible that such mistakes are actually deliberate and intended to build suspense. If so, they succeed brilliantly. That may not be likely, but I love the idea.
Seeing some of the effort and sweat can take a little of the Las Vegas sheen off Cirque du Soleil's impeccable presentation. Kooza might be a further attempt to evoke old-school circus pleasures and connect with the crowd. Outside the tent at Atlantic Station, old-fashioned ringmasters and jugglers with bowling pins mingle with the new arrivals. Kooza enlisted more audience volunteers than I recall, and featured more English dialogue, as opposed to the silent performance or nonsense words to give the shows universal appeal. Kooza struck me as a mixed effort, lacking the elaborate, lush charm and baroque props of 2007's Corteo, but still delivering enough "Ooh! Aah!" showmanship to dazzle the ticket buyers.
Kooza was written and directed by David Shiner, a veteran clown and Broadway actor probably most famous for originating the Cat in the Hat in Seussical. Kooza puts a greater emphasis on the clowning, with one of the central figures, the King (Gordon White) struggling to manage technical glitches and unruly assistants with a remote control and a cattle prod. A lanky figure with flyaway hair, White mimed a funny counterpoint to the curtain speech and proved an amusingly hot-headed and flailing authority figure.
Nevertheless, the Cirque shows I've seen seldom push the clowning comedy to the same heights as the other forms of circus performance, such as the complex trapeze acts. Kooza's buffoons take pratfalls and cheerfully josh around with the audience, but their shtick seemed designed to break the tension between the adrenalin rushes of the more elaborate acts. Surely Cirque's acrobats could manage more complex forms of slapstick or physical humor than, say, the urinating dog costume. (Perhaps I've simply missed the shows that do.)
Apart from the King's klutzy efforts at stage management, Kooza's other narrative thread involves the Innocent (Stephan Landry), a boyish figure with a kite who discovers the joys of performance, thanks in part to a vaguely devilish emcee-type figure called the Trickster (Justin Sullivan). Cirque du Soleil frequently has a framing device in which an audience surrogate discovers the spirit of wonder, but Kooza takes a dark, intriguing turn. In the first act, the Innocent plays under a leafy tree, but in the second, the tree is bare and a band of skeletal figures with scythes come running out for a voodoo-meets-Cotton Club song and dance number. Kooza suggests that life is both wonderful and fleeting.
The ghostly figures and their mechanical rats build to Kooza's jaw-droppingest, eye-poppingest, heart-stoppingest act, the "Wheel of Death" (according to the program, one never before performed under the big top). The huge device features matching wheels – like hamster wheels on a human scale – on opposite sides of a turning metal frame. A pair of performers runs inside the wheels, which in turn orbit each other, spinning down near the stage floor, and then rising up near the top of the tent. Then one runner runs on the exterior surface of his wheel, where any false move could send him flying. When they start to skip rope while running on the wheels, you want to beg them to take it easy: We're plenty impressed.
Another of the major balancing acts relied on a kind of visual serenity. For the "Chinese Chairs," acrobat Yao Deng Bo stacked, climbed and perched impossibly atop one chair after another, all the while projecting a Zen-like calm. The performance resembled a delicate dance with gravity, rather than a white-knuckle risk of life and limb.
Kooza's three contortionists, wearing red-and-white tights oddly reminiscent of Bodies: The Exhibition, pretzeled themselves into unimaginable positions. What goes on in their minds? "I'm going to bend over backward until I can rest my chin on the floor. Then I'll sit on my own head, while you splay on top of my torso doing a split." They're some of Kooza's most remarkable attractions, and just watching them makes you want to go into traction.
Perhaps the clowning and the acrobatics strike a thematic balance in a show such as Kooza. Cirque du Soleil's tumblers, jugglers and daredevil unicyclists demonstrate how people can triumph over the laws of physics and the limitations of human anatomy. The baggy-pants stooges, on the other hand, keep us humble with reminders that things never go according to plan. And in some of the most memorable moments, the victories and the errors happen at nearly the same time, which is as good a metaphor for the human condition as any.
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