Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snark du Soleil

Don't misinterpret that title.  The Memsahib and a grandson and I went to "Quidam" last night and enjoyed it very, very, much.  If you have a chance to see Cirque du Soleil, grab it. Take the kids, if you don't mind exposing them to some pretty skin-tight costumes in some of the routines, and here and there a fairly mild sexual reference.

This will have been my third – or is it fourth? – Cirque show, and was by far the best. But I came away from it with a slightly jaundiced view that I'll get to in a minute. In the meantime, let me recount some of its virtues:

Although one attends Cirque for the acrobatics, I must begin with the highest praise for the music in this show. I am not entirely sure how to describe it. First thing to say about it is that it was live, and strongly interactive with what was going on onstage. The musicians provided sound effects which had to be precisely aligned with certain stage business, and it was extremely effective. However, the real revelation was the beauty of the songs and the orchestration. There is probably a name for music that sounds like this, and I guess "New Age" comes about as close as anything, but there was a (tasteful) orchestral bombast about the whole thing that I found quite moving. Moving enough to shell out twenty bucks for the CD of the score, recorded when the show was new in 1996.

Here are some of the highlights, each one a delight:

     --  Rolling Guy:  An acrobat rolls around the stage in a device known as a German wheel, weaving in and out of it as he rolls and manages not to roll right off the stage.

     -- Asian Yo-Yo Women:  four of them manipulate a device called a diabolos, which is a spool spinning on a string suspended between two sticks that they manipulate. Amazing and a delight to watch.

     -- Naked Skintight Costume Guy on Floor-to-Ceiling Red Sash:   How strong do you have to be to wrap yourself up in a couple of silk streamers way above the floor and more-or-less hang around in different contortive positions for 10 or 15 minutes?

     -- Group Jump-Roping:   You have to see it to believe it.  In and out, over under, and not a single trip or misstep.  This isn't so much acrobatics as it is phenomenal sensitivity to rhythm. I suspect that the music plays a large part in getting this one right onstage.

     -- Slo-Mo Human Sculpture:  A man and a woman engaged in a very close-order floor routine at molasses speed that must require incredible strength. You may have seen similar exhibitions at the halftime of Maverick's games. The last Cirque show I saw featured two men doing the same thing. You can feel parents sucking in their breath all over the arena.

And there's lots more.  Maybe a little too much more -- I thought the show dragged in places and could have done without a couple of what seemed more standard circus-y items.  Not that they weren't good and even astounding, but the show is nearly three hours long, with an intermission.

Highlights -- much needed to break up the routine of the threatening-to-become-routine acrobatics -- were the clowns, and I don't mean pancake makeup, red noses, and fright wigs.  There were a couple of guys who were the jokers of the troupe, and they would come out and do improvised routines with people they would call out of the crowd.  The best was the clown's attempt to direct a movie scene with an attractive young (each of whom had arrived with other dates), a schlubby suitor to the woman, and an overweight director's assistant, each selected from the audience and each of whom hammed it up most amusingly.  All of this, by the way, is without speech, the action carried solely by stage business and the music and sound effects.  Very funny.

As I say, a great evening of  .  .  . 

Well, of what?  Is it a circus?  Is it theater?  Is it an old-fashioned happening?  Does it make a difference what we call it?    Herewith a few general Cirqueular observations:

There are moments in the show when you get a flavor the the French obsession with mime and Jerry Lewis.  And not in an altogether good way.  The whole show is in mime, with a very few and brief shouted exceptions, and it's sometimes difficult to know what story they're trying to tell.

Ah  .  .  .  the story.  The  .  .  .  philosophy of the whole thing.

When you get right down to it, this is a fairly straightforward bunch of acrobatic acts – amazing and fun to watch, but conventional acrobatics all the same -- embedded in a very thin narrative, and I mean very thin, with some choreography thrown in that doesn’t bear any discernible relationship to that thin narrative, exotic costuming, and lots of people on stage (or sometimes hanging from the rafters) who don’t do much except observe mutely or dance around or behave oddly.

So while these guys (and gals) are risking their lives and dignity in doing these amazing stunts, there’s liable to be a woman twirling around in a hoop skirt off to the side, or a cadre of androgynous hooded figures marching about. This show features a pale devilish figure with boxing gloves, and a large headless figure carrying an umbrella, evoking Magritte.  And the little girl and her mother and father wander on and offstage.

This is apparently all in aid of the story, which is this: A young girl has parents who are kind of dull. She tries to engage them but they remain dull. She conjures up this fantasy life which takes place in this imaginary place named Quidam (or maybe Quidam is the name of the headless figure), and she becomes enchanted with all of these acrobatic acts. And if you read about what this story is supposed to be about, there’s a lot of talk about everyone being “everyman,” or “any man,” or perhaps that’s what the headless guy is supposed to be.  I'm not making this up.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

"The entire show is imagined by a bored young girl named Zoé who is alienated and ignored by her parents. She dreams up the whimsical world of Quidam as a means of escaping the monotony of her life

"The show's title refers to the feature character, a man without a head, carrying an umbrella and a bowler hat. Quidam is said to be the embodiment of both everyone and no one at the same time. According to Cirque du Soleil literature "Quidam: a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past. ... One who cries out, sings and dreams within us all."

I mean – that’s it. That’s really all there is.  There isn't even any magic in the show, nothing that really moves all this great circus stuff into the realm of the spiritual, or even the trippy -- just great, stunty, stylish acrobatics.  That's enough, it's terrific, but what's all this other mute carrying on?

Now maybe the costumes and the random entrances and exits of these various symbolic characters enhance your enjoyment of the acrobatics and clowning. Myself, I found some of the dancing and random movement at the margins of the stage distracting. I do confess to having enjoyed the music, and the lighting was effective – but regular old circuses have music and lights, too.

So I don’t want to be too snarky about something I did enjoy immensely. I’ll leave it at this: It was a great evening of entertainment, and I was entertained.   But not particularly enchanted by the vaporous story line and the oddly-clad guys who mainly just walked around.

Do go see it.  And tell the kids that the guy wrapping himself around the red sashes really does have something on.

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