August 01, 1999

Grande, or de Trop ?

Cirque du Soleil
Ellis Park

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is called the Grand Chapiteau and massive it certainly is. With its turrets, minarets and domes the massive $18m travelling venue for Cirque du Soleil is a show in itself. Almost phosphorescently white it is a formidable feat of engineering. And it can hardly be accidental that it resembles Fantasyland, which as all mouseketeers would know, is the happiest land of them all.

With seven different entertainments currently on the road or in permanent venues in Las Vegas, Cirque du Soleil is certainly a show biz sunrise company, one that has come a very long way from its origins fifteen years ago in Montreal, Quebec. It has been said that the company has been influenced in part by Circus Oz, one of the first to put together a different mix of carnival and theatre. No more animals in cages, no more sexist division of labour. Heaps of zany colour, loud electric music and plenty of edge to the acts. Plenty of trapeze, and the cloudswing, and, influenced by the virtuosic Chinese companies, formidable acrobatics, juggling and tumbling.

As the name suggests Saltimbanco is brilliantly acrobatic. The skill levels are ferociously high. The opener Adagio features Andrei and Oxana Vintilov with their nine year old daughter Daria. In bodysuits of blue and gold they perform with sylph-like ease enveloped in music and light. Chen Wei on the double wire twirls a parasol at a nosebleed altitude. Twin sisters Elsie and Serenity, their hair brightly braided, take to the duo trapeze while twin brothers Daniel and Jacek Gutszmit stack themselves two high, performing handstands and headstands of vertebraic implausibility.

But the performances are never the only focus. At any one time there is a seething mise-en-scene of costume, colour and closely calculated effect. The music, a composite of synth rock and Celtic pop is driven by Sylvain Boucher’s keyboards and singer Sheena Anderson’s cooing vocals. In feathery plumes and diaphanous cloaks she raises her arms in invocation, often from the dish-like top of the musicians’ stage.

The costume and masks designed by Dominique Lemieux and Andre Henault are carefully gaudy in stripes and rich reds. Performers wear intricate feather and threaded headpieces, ski-jump noses and sinister face make-up suggestive of decadent period Split Enz. Every performer has a distinctive costume. Some have shredded, pelt-like appliques giving them a Rum Tum Tugger look. In fact, the show pulls together all kinds of half-familiar ingredients. The feline slinkiness of Cats, the boot stamping flamenco of Flatley, melancholy harlequinades, a black cowled ghoul from a heavy metal fantasy, and vacant-eyed white masks from the Venice carnivale.

Punk clowns prowl the audience before showtime. One guy loses his shirt, a row of senior Crows come in for attention. Later Lee Ross, master of microphone sound effects, works his way through the crowd recruiting two mime gunfighters and a distressed damsel to come up on stage. It runs way too long though the punters don’t seem to mind.

But as the show unfolds with astounding logistical precision- the cues like what used to be the workings of a Swiss watch, the sound beautifully managed and pin sharp, the lighting rigs pirouetting from vertiginous heights above, the performers choreographed down to the last twitch, you start to want something to break loose. It is unreasonable of me to say this. It smacks of ingratitude. I am awed by Maria Choodu’s juggling, so intricate it defies the eye. I nearly give myself whiplash watching the Russian swing performers propel themselves in sickening arcs down to the catchers’ pad. I am agog at the bungee quartet springing from the stage to somewhere near the height of light aircraft.

But I start to remember fondly the sweaty endeavours of the recent Moscow Circus, and the scungy menace of Archaos, and the good-natured self-irony of Circus Oz and wonder why their lack of world’s best practice seems suddenly enticing. One spokeshomme for Cirque du Soleil talks of the show as transcendental, as a rekindling of the collective imagination, as a force for world peace. But it is really a brilliantly confected Disney on Ice. Just the way advertising reclaims images and fashion from the under-culture so Saltimbanco is corporate carnival. It is effortless, ultra-professional, apolitical, generic. It is the circus according to Celine Dion. It is like airline food in heaven.

The Adelaide Review, August, 1999.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment