Sunday, December 15, 2019

Cirque Stratosphere

Sal the Clown
Photo: Mark Turner

The Set Design
Photo: Frank McKone

Cirque Stratosphere.  Produced, choreographed and directed by Neil Dorward, Cirque du Soleil Entertainment. The Works Entertainment (Co producers Simon Painter and Tim Lawson) at Canberra Theatre Centre, December 11-21, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 11

The world of circus has changed dramatically since I first saw Coco the Clown (Michael Polakovs), baby elephants, bareback horse-riding and Pinito del Oro doing her headstands on a trapeze at Harringay Arena, London, around 1950.  Shows then were all about and only about the skills of the performers, our excitement at what they could do – and our fear that they might fail, with disastrous consequences (which sometimes happened, even to a lion-tamer as I recall).

Circus was simple then.

Cirque du Soleil was started in Montreal, Canada, by Guy Lalibert√© in 1984, but in Australia, Circus Oz had already been underway since 1978, an amalgamation of Soapbox Circus (Melbourne) and the New Circus (Adelaide). Social commentary began to turn circus into a new theatre genre.  “They wanted it to be funny, irreverent and spectacular, a celebration of the group as a bunch of multi-skilled individual men and women, rather than a hierarchy of stars.” And without animals to steal the scene.

Of course, I liked Circus Oz from the beginning – remember Roger, flying off the trapeze and being flattened against the wall; and women being caught up in washing machine action.  As time went along, Oz shows took on themes which were successfully dramatised, such as consumerism in But Wait…There’s More (reviewed here September 2015); and sometimes less effectively but still on the same kind of song sheet, such as last year’s Model Citizens attempt to unpack the “myths of Modern Australia”.

On the international scene (where Circus Oz plays its part magnificently), Cirque du Soleil was impressive in a different way from its beginning.  Also without animals, their shows became more choreographed movement, reminding me of the developments in modern abstract dance.  Where Circus Oz in, say, From the Ground Up (October 2012) has something like a story-line, Cirque du Soleil left you to interpret the flow of action in your own way. 

Until the rise of James Thieree, a descendant of Charlie Chaplin, with The June Bug Symphony (January 2003) and Bright Abyss (January 2006).  The latter is like a dance composition about human relationships, with imagery “often very funny to watch as well as exciting, sometimes frightening, sometimes touchingly sad” (to quote my review).

Variations of approaches are now common – see Urban by Circolombia (January 2013) and shows by Strut and Fret like Blanc de Blanc (April 2018).

So where does Cirque Stratosphere stand in this new tradition of ‘contemporary’ circus?  Now that Neil Dorward owns Cirque du Soleil and The Works Entertainment – the very successful management production team from Brisbane?

I have reviewed this director’s work before – The Dark Side of Cirque Le Noir – in May 2015.  “Pure seductive entertainment” was my description – “Just relax and ooh and aah as appropriate.”  But Cirque Stratosphere at least has a theme – going to the moon, as in 1969.

Felice Aguilar
Photo: Mark Turner
Oleg Spigin
Photo: Mark Turner

Evgenii Viktorovich and Natalia Viktorovich
Photo: Mark Turner

As in all circus, each of the performers is a specialist:  the clown TapeFace acts as host, so there is no old-fashioned ringmaster; the three Vanin Brothers do gymnastics on the Russian Bar; the balancing act called Hand to Hand by Dmitry Makrushin and Oleg Bespalov included an astounding standing somersault from the support man’s shoulders back to landing on those shoulders; Anne Lewandowska performed graceful acrobatic dance on a Sphere Wheel lit all round by LED lights.

The duo roller-skaters, Evgenii Viktorovich and Natalia Viktorovna, spun on a tiny circular raised platform for an extended display which I watched heart-in-mouth – if they fumbled or lost grip, Natalia would have been flung into space, facing serious injury.  Evgenii had to be stock still spinning in the centre, if you see what I mean.

Felice Aguilar was another Spinning Artist, less likely to come to grief.  While Pole Artist Polina Volchek seemed to be able to stick to her pole at very considerable heights with very little points of contact – and slide in free-fall to stop just before hitting the ground.  And Antonio Leyva Campos was equally impressive and scary on the Bungee Straps.  As were Dmitri Feliksovich, Denis and Nikolai Alexandrovich who bounced each other to horrifying heights on a specially engineered teeterboard; and Oleg Spigin ‘defying gravity’ balancing on his head on his trapeze (like Pinito del Oro!)

Finally it was the Hoop Diving Nicolas-Yang Wang and Shenpeng Nie that most engaged the audience with a great cheer when the somersault through the highest hoop at last succeeded.  This was the circus of old, for me.

Yet as ‘contemporary’ circus, although the costumes clearly represented astronauts in space, so that the idea of commemorating the first moon landing was obvious, with the story told in an American accented voice over, there was little sense of relationship between what was performed in each act and what the story was about.  What did, for example, the duo roller skaters’ spinning have to say about space travel?

In the end, in retrospect, I wondered if Neil Dorward had some conception of space being represented by the lifting and lowering of the main polished and gleaming scaffolding which was the main set design, and the action taking place in three-dimensional space.  Did he intend to have us see the circus, with its more romantic title ‘cirque’, as more meaningful than fantastic gymnastic action?

I came up with only this: that space is the universe of circus performance.  But this was surely far too arty and esoteric for a show which more or less continuously blasted us with tremendously high-volume music (from 2001 The Space Odyssey among many other film scores, for example) and often blinded us with massive lights from the cleverly designed central frame – which included the lights and sound operator, acting like an extreme night-club DJ, whose name I have not been able to discover (since the show did not offer patrons a program).

The nicest part of the show was the audience participation by Sal the clown – but there wasn’t much to do with landing on the moon in that.

So – very much a mixed night for me in the Stratosphere.  A bit too much of the ‘hierarchy of stars’ and not enough of a ‘symphony of the spheres’.

Photo: Mark Turner