United Kingdom Kooza: Performers of Cirque du Soleil. Royal Albert Hall, London. 6.1.2015. (JPr)
Guy Laliberté: Founder and Creative Guide
David Shiner: Writer and Director
Serge Roy: Creation Director
Stéphane Roy: Set Designer
Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt: Costume Designer
Jean-François Côté: Composer
Clarence Ford: Choreographer
Martin Labrecque: Lighting Designer
Jonathan Deans & Leon Rothenberg: Sound Designer
It all began in Baie-Saint-Paul, a small town near Canada’s Quebec City: at the start of the 1980s, street theatre performers roamed around, on stilts, juggling, dancing, breathing fire, and playing music. They were Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul (the Baie-Saint-Paul Stiltwalkers), a group founded by Gilles Ste-Croix. The locals were impressed and intrigued by the young performers – who included Guy Laliberté soon to become the creative force behind Cirque du Soleil. Skip a few years and Guy Laliberté, Gilles Ste-Croix and others were now part of the Le Club des talons hauts (the High Heels Club) and began to dream of a Quebec circus that could travel the world. In 1984, Quebec City was celebrating the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada, and they needed a show that would appropriately carry the festivities throughout the province. Guy Laliberté suggested a show called Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun), and they haven’t stopped since!
From the original small group of 20 involved when it all started in 1984, Cirque du Soleil is now a huge entertainment ‘brand’ with close to 4,000 employees, including 1,300 performing artists from close to 50 different countries. Their publicity proudly claims that since they began Cirque du Soleil has brought wonder and delight to close to 150 million spectators in more than 300 cities in over forty countries on six continents’ – and it is a regular visitor at the start of the New Year to the Royal Albert Hall. Despite all these millions having enjoyed their performances over the last 30 years, this was the first time I have seen a Cirque du Soleil show.
This year they return with Kooza which is described as ‘the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world’ and promises ‘a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil: It combines two circus traditions – acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. The show highlights the physical demands of human performance in all its splendour and fragility, presented in a colourful mélange that emphasises bold slapstick humour. The Innocent’s journey brings him into contact with a panoply of comic characters such as The King, the Trickster, the Handyman, the American Tourist and the Mad Dog. Between strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony, Kooza explores themes of fear, identity, recognition and power. The show is set in an electrifying and exotic visual world full of surprises, thrills, chills, audacity and total involvement.’
Don’t get me wrong because it was a very enjoyable evening, but this language is a little overblown and pretentious for a show that just throws money at traditional solely–human circus and reinvents it for a new audience in the twenty-first century. My review for a similar – if smaller scale – evening just prior to last Christmas (review here please https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/11/mechanika-combines-circus-arts-with-music-dance-and-threatre/) was given the heading praising the combination of circus arts, music, dance and theatre and indeed it was good enough in its own way, Cirque du Soleil strives for perfection in their synthesis of these disciplines and almost achieve it. My only problem was that there was a little too much padding in the two-and-a half hour show from the clowns and that – evidently unlike many around me – I had seen many of the acts before in various circus tents often in muddy fields over several recent decades.
It all begins with a childlike figure trying, without much success, to fly a kite. Almost as a very late Christmas delivery, a large package is brought on that contains a Jack in the Box who comes to life as the ‘Trickster’ who like the familiar circus ringmaster is a pivotal figure welcoming the myriad performers into the unfolding ‘story’. Some sail-like coverings open to reveal a tall and elaborate, tiered, bandstand suggesting we are accompanying ‘The Innocent’ (a sort of ‘Where’s Wally/Waldo?’ figure) on a journey into a magical kingdom.
Interrupted by the antics of the clowns – here ‘The King’ (disturbingly looking like film director Tim Burton) and his two cronies – are those ‘traditional’ circus acts including Charivari (basically a balancing act), Contortion, Solo Trapeze, Unicycle Duo, Double High Wire, Hula-hoops, Teeterboard (tumbling and more balancing) and Balancing on Chairs. The act that thrilled the audience the most was the ‘Wheel of Death’. This is difficult to describe, but has two performers leaping or running around like hamsters inside and outside two circular cages attached to what is like a huge spanner suspended over the performing area and whirling fast like the blades of a wind turbine. This – like all the acts – was performed with an impressive degree of skill and consummate artistry by a multinational cast of performers. While I do not want to see anyone hurt, my only quibble was that when a safety line is used to protect a performer – as occasionally during Kooza – it removes that ‘skill’ and just makes it a stunt.
Apart from the almost balletic movement of some of the artists we should not dismiss the high degree of other ‘choreography’ involved in presenting a show as slickly as this night after night … and indeed Kooza has a listed ‘Senior Director of Show Quality’, as well as, an original choreographer, Clarence Ford. What we see is described as ranging from ‘urban military formations to electric boogaloo’ with an Act II ‘skeleton act’ that goes ‘from dark underworld moods to flamboyant cabaret-style moves inspired by 1940s and 1950s swimming musicals and by vaudeville.’ Also an important part of the evening’s success was Jean-François Côté’s songs and music performed live by six talented musicians and two fine singers. The music also pays tribute to ‘Golden Era’ Hollywood but especially ‘draws heavily on traditional Indian music’. The two beautifully dressed female singers warbled away often proving an atmospheric backdrop to what we were watching; however, I wished I had heard more of the words … although I suppose that was not really important for this type of evening.
For those in need of a different night out – and who particularly are new to the laughter, thrill and spills ‘circus’ can provide – this uplifting sophisticated show will kick-start this New Year wonderfully for you.
Kooza performances continue until 19 February for more details visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza and to book tickets www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/cirque-du-soleil/default.aspx .