Anyone who has seen the Cirque du Soleil seems to struggle with the same “superlative glut” when they try to describe the experience afterward. “It’s amazing, superb, out of this world, fantastic…” Their voices trail off, and finally they say something like, “You just have to see it for yourself.”
I’ve seen the Cirque du Soleil perform twice. The first time was a travelling performance in a tent big enough to hold a crowd of maybe 250 people. The show was “amazing, superb…” and so on. The intimacy of the space was used to full advantage. The second, just a few weeks ago, was a “resident show” in the enormous, brazenly luxurious space of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Again, superlatives fail me. All I can do is give some of my impressions to the best of my ability.
Entitled O for the sound and shape of the letter, for the exclamation, and for the French word for water (eau), the performance at the Bellagio takes place over, around and in water. The stage is a large, oval water tank with platforms that can be raised to the water’s surface or lowered to provide room for swimming and diving. Franco Dragone wrote and directs the show. He intends it to be a tribute to theatre itself, “for it is in the theatre where humanity tries to understand itself.”
Like all Cirque du Soleil performances, O is not merely a series of circus acts, but a sequence of linked scenes, intended to convey a story, an overall idea. In O, the story is about the water of life itself, how it bears us up, surrounds us as we live on dry ground, overwhelms us, sustains us, and finally drowns us. All of the acts, while astounding feats of human skill in and of themselves, serve to draw the story along. The fire-eater demonstrates the dynamism between fire and water; the two clowns, following the slow-paced mime tradition rather than conducting a relentless series of pratfalls, show humanity’s foolish attempts to deal with the awesome forces of water in storm and flood.
The costuming is evocative, archetypal, ribald, eerie, beautiful, and challenging. The acts shock–trapeze artists with no nets, contortionists, divers leaping off of Russian swings from opposite sides of the stage simultaneously and performing streams of twists and turns in the air before splitting the surface of the water. But the costuming seems to slip into that space in our minds that shock provides. Afterward, we remember being shocked, but what we take away is the image, the costuming, the overall pattern.
The choreography is all-encompassing. Yes, there are dancers, and all of the acrobatics, diving, and other feats are shaped as dances, but the stage is also choreographed, the platforms rising and falling, moving into one another to create visual and textural patterns. The curtains dance. The light dances. And the water itself dances.
The music is perhaps the heart of the whole thing. In a circus, musical numbers are written to give the performers cues, to let them time their acts so that they step on and off of the high wire at the right time, manage to catch one another’s wrists as they swing through the air, and so on. Cirque du Soleil’s music underpins its performers in this way, but it also supplies a supporting mood and furthurs the story. Written by Benoit Jutras and performed live for every performance on instruments as varied as shaum, cello, electric percussion, erhu, zhonghu, and saxaphone, O‘s music runs the full spectrum of “world music.” We hear in it at times African and Asian influences, but also running through it all are the traditional sounds of the circus: the merry accordion and the lilting, wistful calliope.
I left O feeling dazed, images, colors, sounds all tumbling around in my head. As I’ve reflected over time, some of those images have come loose and floated to the surface:
…a tall woman in a black court dress from the Elizabethan era, walking slowly around the circumference of the stage, playing a stately, melancholy tune on her cello, which she is pushing in front her on a small spoked wheel attached to the cello’s end pin…
…a group of sleek, immaculately periwigged cardinals, moving through the audience swinging a smoking censer at the start of the show–then revealing black thigh-high boots and briefs under their luscious red cassocks in an aerial acrobatic act…
…a hunch-backed old man sailing across the water in a huge inverted white umbrella…
“Our life is no dream, but it ought to become one, and perhaps will.” –Novalis
(Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, April 14, 2002)