Written by David Shiner and Serge Roy
Directed by David Shiner and choreographed by Clarence Ford
Produced by Cirque du Soleil
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Here’s an antidote for whatever troubles you: Kooza. Speak the title until it buzzes in your brain like a mantra. Kooza is a new way to look at life. And, with it, Cirque du Soleil has returned to its origins, a show founded in 1984 in Quebec by street performers. But that’s only the beginning of what makes this 19th version, called Kooza, unique.
As I approached the big, single, blue-and-yellow tent, the trademark Grand Chapiteau (Big Top), a stilt-walking, mildly intimidating, white-faced clown threw me a rubber ball. I tossed it back. The clown’s face lit into a wide, gleeful grin as we exchanged several more ball tosses. Immediately, as an individual audience member, I felt connection with a secret world that restores faith in people to make the impossible possible.
The Kooza experience is not just the risks these performers take on swinging trapezes, high-wires, it’s the improvisational banter and direct audience contact. It’s the implied message of empowering performers with space and freedom. But don’t look too closely at people sitting around you, I soon learned. You could be sitting next to a clown who wants you part of his anarchy. You, the individual, are part of this experience.
Kooza’s got a story, as most other Cirque shows do. Innocent, the clown, with pert little cherry-red nose, (Stephan Landry) tries to get his kite off the ground. The kite, like the loneliness of the little clown’s soul, flutters with fragility and can’t stay aloft. But behold, a clown called Trickster, (Justin Sullivan), sort of a prankster genie, leaps out of a shiny, red box, that when opened, releases the grand, spell-binding, eclectic world of the circus, that’s both illusion and reality. That’s what Kooza means in Sanskrit-“treasure” or “box.” But only Trickster, dressed in candy-striped suit of many colors (one of the dazzling costume designs by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt) possesses awesome, god-like powers that can release this Pandora-like box of magic.
Trickster teases the naïve Innocent by waving a wand that brings up rays of light, thunder, puffs of smoke, and casts red tints through the dark scaffolding. Trumpets blare, snare drums roll and out come clowns and acrobats, who cavort and fly into the air from three trampolines; build body pyramids, and play a traditional Inuit game, “Blanket Toss.” It’s exuberant chaos.
Now, Innocent wants so badly to belong to this amazing, new world, he’s trying to fit in. But he can’t even fly a kite. Thereafter, Trickster shows Innocent Kooza’s contents one act after another. It’s the panorama of a circus, revolving around the theme of what the performers can do. Maybe there’s a place for Innocent.
First and foremost, there’s clowning. There’s the King of Fools, (Gordon White) who enters on a chariot, searching for his lost crown, along with two clowns in his madcap court. There’s a flashing-eyed robot, named Heimloss, who pops up from the floor every now and then to remind us of important, backstage mechanics. In contrast, the Bataclan, the red-curtained pavilion center stage, serves as an entrance point and a bandstand for the orchestra, an organic part of this show. The Hindu filigree in its decoration recalls an exotic entertainment.
But what’s most surprising is the lyrical movement of individual performers, the true stars of this show. Some acts, like “Contortion,” featuring three of the younger performers, Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson, and Dasha Sovik, dressed in sequined costumes, splotched with red and yellow, are abstract art. The contortionists bend and flex their bodies, like rubber, in symbiotic movements that flow from one geometric pose to another. The illusion is one of fluid ease as their bodies conform to the design. Suddenly, it’s as if everything is under control again. It’s art; it’s liquid sculpture. Out of chaos, order emerges.
Some death-defying acts are reminiscent of traditional circus. One highpoint comes from acrobats running treadmills on the 1,600-pound Wheel of Death, set diagonally across the stage. Two wheels spin, like hamster wheels. One running acrobat inside a spinning wheel balances the other running acrobat inside the other wheel. Gasps from the audience can be heard when the acrobats (Jimmy Ibarra and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza) perform leaps inside the spin or jump rope on top.
But this is a child’s world too. Some heart-stopping acts may seem possible only in kids’ TV cartoons. Imagine a teeter-totter on a playground. A team of 12 make what seems impossible possible in The Teeterboard act. One acrobat jumps on one end of the see-saw and another acrobat turns quintuple somersaults in the air, but lands like a cat on his feet. Then the suspense mounts as other acrobats perform the same stunt with metal stilts strapped to their legs. One act outdoes the other, as the sense of risk crescendos with percussion and music.
Then again, there’s the fantastically beautiful, controlled concentration in Yao Deng Bo’s balancing act from a stack of eight chairs in Chinese Chairs. Throughout, a trumpet wails. It’s a lonely sound: Perfection means loneliness. There’s a price to be paid for being the world’s best, selected and well-rehearsed in Canada before touring. As Bo takes a bow at the end, the audience goes wild with applause and he finally cracks that meditative, hypnotic calm with a smile.
But always, comic relief is provided between acts in the lighthearted, slapstick routines. The King of Fools spreads disorder by joking with spectators, spraying popcorn or even pulling audience members on stage. Or a canon rolls in, fires and showers confetti. Illogic and madness reign. For that point alone, the Cirque creators, led by writer/director and clown David Shiner, seem to have borrowed from Keystone-cops-like chases in Chaplin and Harold Lloyd silent films to Laurel & Hardy talkies.
But perhaps what really makes Cirque shows special is the synchronizing of stage movement with music, composed by Jean-Francois Cote. In Kooza the musical accompaniment alternates between the sound of traditional Indian, and American rock, jazz and blues.
Finally, the story returns to Innocent, the little clown with the sad-eyed face, who seems to embody something within all of us. He may be left out but he prevails at the end. When he takes a bow, he gets a hand in spite of doing nothing. We identify. We can’t do those awesome feats those acrobats, unicyclists, and trapeze artists do, but we wish we could.
The technician sitting next to me told me these performers are from third generation families, the best in the world. All deserve recognition. But what’s not so well-known is a reminder in the lobby of the company’s community action. There’s a poster for Oxfam America for kids: “Working Together with Youth at Risk for a Better World.” Cirque du Soleil reaches out to 80 communities worldwide by sharing 1% of its annual revenues with outreach programs for needy kids.
The Cirque du Soleil is the greatest show on earth in Washington DC area as Kooza until December 14.th
Running Time: 2:40, including one 30 minute intermission
When: Performances take place until December 14, 2008. Tues. through Thurs. at 8:00 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. at 4 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sun. at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. No performances on Mondays.
Where: The Plateau at National Harbor, 201 Harborview Ave., National Harbor, MD 20745; under the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau (Big Top).
Driving Directions: From Washington DC: Take I-295 S; Exit 1B, follow signs to Harborview and Cirque du Soleil; from Maryland (I-495/I-95) Merge onto I-495/I-95 S toward Richmond, take exit 2B; from Virginia: Take I-495/I-95 North toward Baltimore, cross Woodrow Wilson Bridge, take exit 2A. Parking at the Plateau is $10. (more details, click here).
Alternate methods: If you visit the restaurants and shops of National Harbor before the performance, a free shuttle will take you to KOOZA. Just show your parking ticket. (more details here.) Many National Harbor stores offer day-of-performance discounts to KOOZA ticketholders.
Or arrive by water taxi – round trips from Washington and Alexandria to National Harbor. (more details here.)
Tickets: Adults, $55 to $125; Children (ages 2-12 years): $38.50 to $87.50. Students and Seniors: $49.50 to $112.50 (Tues.-Thurs. and Fri. 4 p.m.) Click here to purchase.