There’s certainly no Soleil in this latest production from Cirque. The dark side of the moon, perhaps, but if you were expecting nightmarish doom and gloom, you won’t get that either. There’s plenty of colour along with the movement, featuring white morphing into red in the first half, with the scarier and more dangerous acts in the black act after interval. Scratching my head, as usual, to find deep symbolic structural meaning in the colour sequence, I first thought heaven, hell and limbo, but nothing in the acts themselves supported that, and though the program notes suggest that the colours represented the diverse range of our personalities, I couldn’t find that either. So eventually I decided that it was just a chance for designer Angela Aaron to show off progressively skimpier costumes for the showgirls, most of whom had nothing to do but pose and vamp and reveal the thongs that made up the lower half of their risqué corsets and suspenders. Be aware that this is no family-friendly show suitable for little children – here the erotic borders on pornography as the girls flaunt their reveal-all bustiers, and although the elderly gentlemen sitting on stage only metres from the circular performance area were getting quite excited, for serious circus buffs this was more of a distraction than value-adding. But then I’m only a woman, and straight at that…
Most of the performers have had experience with Cirque before, although there are some Australians new to the troupe. In one of the acts that made me glad I was sitting in the stalls rather than on stage, Queenslander Jessica Ritchie spun at breath-taking speed on roller skates with her partner Jeronimo Garcia in a ring only two metres in diameter, seemingly coming close to flying into the audience. There were a number of heart-stopping acts like this, such as the Aerial Cradle, like a flying trapeze without the trapeze, where the man’s arms take the place of the swinging bar, and toss the girl into the air while she somersaults and then returns to grip his wrists. For a brief moment she uses a blindfold, and it’s heart-in-the-mouth time – is she going to miss him and fly straight into the audience?
Much of the action, like the Cyr Wheel, a metal ring 1.5 metres in diameter, which is spun on the floor by a man in an angel suit, has been seen before in every circus you’ve ever been to; and personally I’m over silk rope acts, even when done as well as this as a love duet. Some of the contortionists make your bones ache just by looking at them – Sabrina on the Aerial Hoop is like the Karma Sutra come to life in mid-air – and Christine and Yuri’s Pas de Deux give us a sublime combination of acrobatics and classical ballet. But as the show moves along, the acts get darker and more dangerous, and I began to see the meaning of the progressive changes of colour, which matched the fear and tension in the acts. The Strong Men, in the Rouge section, bring a new dimension to the power of the usual balancing act, because these two guys are built like wharfies, and it’s raw male strength at its best. They must weigh about 130kg each, and when one balances himself upside down by the neck on the neck of the other, you see what the human body is capable of.
By the Noir half of the show, it was seriously scary. The final act, the Wheel of Death, is the ultimate show-stopper, and even the over-the-top son-et-luminiere that backgrounded the other acts was stilled, so that Angelo and Carlos perform their running, jumping and never standing still tricks in complete silence, and the only noises were those of jaws dropping to the floor and gasps of terror. Imagine two human-sized spinning wheels joined by what looks like a car chassis, with the antics of Angelo and Carlos causing them to spin, loop-the-loop and altogether make any of the rides at Dreamworld seem like child’s play. They run forwards and backwards, inside and outside their respective wheels and even, at one point and thankfully very briefly, blindfolded. High above the stage with no safety net, this is the ultimate in dangerous circus stunts.
Every circus needs a clown, and Noir’s Em-Cee (shades of Cabaret – where’s Joel Grey when you really need him?) is a bumbling fool with a fake French accent, as unfunny a clown as I’ve ever seen. He brings hapless and helpless audience members up on stage to mime band instruments unsuccessfully; in a distressing fat suit tries to seduce a woman audience member in a version of Picnic in the Park; and only managed to make me laugh was when he disappeared bodily into a huge balloon, inside which he performed quite eerily, and where I wish he’d stayed.
Since Cirque du Soleil first brought us narrative circus with all the trimmings, simple circus skills are no longer enough, it seems and, like Gypsy-Rose Lee, you’ve gotta have a gimmick. I’m not denigrating the skills of the performers, but some of the acts are not as good as you’ll see in troupes like the Chinese State Circus, and they need the back-up of creative producer Simon Painter’s (remember The Illusionists?) stunning lighting and sound design to lift them out of the ordinary. For some in the audience, i.e. me, the sound was overpowering, and the lighting, inventive as it was, counter-productive in that there were too many glaring white spots shining directly into the faces of the audience, blinding their vision, but subtlety is no longer the name of the game in stage design, and older people just have to get used to it.
Overall, this production was like the curate’s egg, good in patches. The erotic, almost pornographic set pieces didn’t do it for me, I’m afraid, although they did for the young man next to me in the stalls, as was apparent from his raucous laughter and occasional heavy breathing, but there was some truly stunning stuff that displayed the hypnotic, dark and beautiful side of what the best circus can do. Just don’t take your pubescent sons or nephews, or you’ll never be able to control them.