Last week when I went to the Cirque du Soleil for the first time, I expected to be entertained. But I also expected the entertainment would come with reservations. The show would be too full of Las Vegas glitter for my taste, and any success would be despite a residual corniness that I would have to condescend to ignore.
Or so I half-expected. In practice, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There are always experiences that are flawed yet defy criticism: King Lear, a soapstone sculpture I own, done in the Haida style, Alec Guinness’ performance in Smiley’s People, Dylan Thomas reading his poems, and Loreena McKennitt singing among them.
To these, I have to add Cirque du Soleil, whose organization and headlong pace overwhelmed me so completely that for two and a half hours, criticism was not only impossible, but irrelevant. For that time, I was a child, caught up in a sense of wonder that I never wanted to end.
The bare facts are that the show was Amaluna, a story loosely-based on The Tempest, , but with a female twist. At the time, I was vaguely aware that the story was about a young princess’ coming of age, as she moved from childish things and found a lover, but the story was the least of what held my attention – frankly, the story was as thin as filo pastry, and about as reliable for connecting the scenes together. Things happened so fast and so continuously in the show that each scene was self-contained, and the unfolding story only one more minor detail.
From the moment I passed into the general tent, I was aware of just how much a smooth-running machine Cirque du Soleil actually is. Everything from the placement of the concession stands and the souvenir shops to their selection of merchandise – popcorn to Toblerone and wine, T-shirts to Carnival masks – was designed to play on the sense of a circus, but, in keeping with the price of the tickets, a circus that was both expensive and in good taste.
The layout also boasted an unpressured efficiency, with entrances all around the perimeter of the theater, complete with ramps for wheelchairs and scooters. Inside, the theater was well-insulated against the January cold, and full of every theatrical device imaginable, including towers for acrobats, and a revolving stage with trap doors at its edges. Fifty feet up, almost hidden in darkness, was a catwalk that performers could descend from or ascend to. An oversized fish bowl dominated the stage, and ramps ran from each side that always seemed full of dancers or musicians.
The show began slowly, with performers wandering through the aisles. A lizard man, the princess’ childhood companion, appeared on stage and jumped into the crowd, stealing popcorn and showering the crowd with kernels, then leaping up to a platform to deluge them with a smirk on his face before running off into the crowd with the princess (no doubt on another adventure) A female clown waddled out and gave the obligatory warnings against smoking and taking pictures.
Then, suddenly, the show was under way, and so much was happening on stage that it was next to impossible to catch all the details in a single number, let alone in the whole show. All I can really say is that, if you can imagine a theatrical device that doesn’t involve animals, it was probably in the show. There were dancers, musicians, gymnasts, acrobats, unicyclists, clowns, and jugglers. Props included magnified glass, teeter-totters, trapezes, high-wires, flaming torches and water, all used at such a neck-breaking pace that it was hard to remember them all.
An intermission came and went, at the start of the second act, things grew quiet for a while, with a balancing act accompanied by only the barest hint of music. But the pace soon intensified, rising to a climax that – impossibly – was even wilder and more high-energy than the opening act, and at the end of it, those of us in the audience were slumped back in our seats, overwhelmed and breathless.
But only for a moment. The performers took their bows, which was a performance in itself, and everybody was clapping. Some time later, the audience staggered out into the sub-zero night, and somewhere halfway to their cars or the Skytrain station, realized that it was over, and they were as exhausted as though they had been part of the cast instead of the audience.