In the darkness, a disembodied voice tells us we are embarking on a journey and instructs us to ready ourselves for take off and to put our cell phones to airplane mode. Then so many thousands of miles up, it is announced we are to be jettisoned out of the aircraft. A goofy lovable Everyman, the Dutch clown Eric Fool Koller, suddenly sky dives, madly backstroking, Superman planing, and pulling on his parachute strings, all to no avail. Finally, he pulls out a parasol that mysteriously breaks his fall, and he floats down to an imaginary landscape – a bright field of marigolds, as far as the eye can see. Through our Fool, we discover a waking dream of Mexico, a world as magical as any in Alice in Wonderland.
Thus begins Luzia, the 38th production since Cirque du Soleil first exploded onto our cultural landscape in a bid to recreate the meaning of circus. Indeed, over the years they have invented a performance genre of their own.
Luzia takes its cue from what you might call a visual translation of magical realism for its dream of Mexico. It’s a world filled with animalitos and fantastical incarnations of emblematic figures, such as a woman dressed like the paintings of Frieda Kahlo, who herself seemed always to be inventing a kind of iconic Mexican woman. Majo Cornejo is the real thing, a beautiful singer from Mexico, who wanders through the scenes singing in a throaty Spanish.
The first character our clown meets is a gorgeous monarch butterfly, embodied by a striking athletic woman, Shelli Epstein, running on a giant treadmill, with wings manipulated by long poles that span the entire width of the playing space. Our Fool is enchanted and pursues her, but just as he is about to ‘capture’ her, the great wings detach and float away.
Soon other animals fill the landscape. They alternately charm and frighten our Fool. There are beautiful purple-and-magenta-winged hummingbirds. A woman wears an iguana as if a stole around her body. A man is encircled by a giant anaconda. Two what appear to be narwhals (except that would present geographic issues) parade arm-in-arm. An armadillo curls and uncurls while dancing salsa. Most especially there are giant there-person puppets creating the mechanical movements of a horse (think of the massive creation on stage in Warhorse) and the most fabled of Mexican beasts – the jaguar. What a beauty he is!
In one of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes, a young man with long ringlets and Mayan tattoos, spins and soars with the aid of long straps as if in a jungle canopy then plunges into a pool, flinging waterdrops through the space whenever he emerges. I had seen such an act with straps before both in another Cirque du Soleil and in Edinburgh’s famed mirrored-hall risqué cabaret for adults. But this was where acrobatics and story fused so that it became pure dramatic enchantment. The audience invests visually and emotionally. The man becomes an ancient god, perhaps the god of water. He is bathing or engaging in some private ritual. All the while the jaguar watches. The creature contains such focus and tension he seems to come to life. At one point, he softens and gently laps at the water with his pink tongue. We want to gasp. Finally, the heads of god and beast bend toward each other and touch as rainforest creatures becomes divine union.
Rain indeed is a featured element in its own right that is thoroughly, fantastically explored. There is an act involving Cyr Wheel and Trapeze. The act might have been a meditation on beauty with three maidens (Rosa Tyyska, Nora Zoller and Enya White,) but when you put water in the mix it becomes its own kind of ecstatic event.
Later, our Fool is featured in a marvelous skit trying to fill his water canteen, and the water keeps shutting off then popping up. He has the audience warning him then howling with laughter as the clown gets doused.
There is a climactic moment with water that is its own event, a technological marvel in itself. Water seems programmed molecularly to create not just patterns of waves but actual images. It is quite mind blowing.
Cirque du Soleil always gets raves with its keen incorporation of child-friendly acts. In this show, there’s a tribute to what might be stereotypical but nonetheless street-scene wise: fútbol. Young performers dressed like urban kids gather in the streets with soccer balls. The skill drills that Laura Biondo and Abou Traoré display get the crowd rocking with joy and shouting appreciation.
In between scenes that build a world reality are always topnotch human circus acts. Watching the acrobatic acts featured in this show and from the vantage of the first row, I could not help but muse on the meaning of “death defying.” Not even a month ago a veteran of fifteen years with Cirque du Soleil, Yann Arnaud, plunged to his death during a performance.
Luzia’s artistic director guides us through her show
Was it my imagination or did the ensemble study every swing, flip and twirl more intently? From such a close vantage, at moments it felt exhilarating in its immersion. At others, it was a little bit like being at ground zero, making one poised, tense even at times for a “hit.” I loved seeing the detail of make-up and gorgeous embroidery in the traditional costumes but lost the very satisfying depth and careful focus of stage pictures that is so much of the Cirque du Soleil experience. Being so close one can get lost in the details and miss some magic.
Take the Russian contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko. It was beyond awe to creepiness to see his lithe body move snakelike around itself. It seemed there were no ligaments that bound his joints to balance strength with flexibility. It was fitting that he created a persona that was only half human.
closes June 17, 2018
Details and tickets
I was indeed gasping at Krzysztof Holowenko swinging in 360-degree rotations because I could see just how flimsy the portable swing-set was. Those poor pole dancers – it just looked and sounded painful as skin made squeaking friction with metal.
The Frenchman Ugo Laffolay succeeded in wooing me (and everyone else in the audience) with his old world Strong Man, who with wild rippling eyebrows and mustache dared flirtations across theatrical space as remarkable as his rippling biceps worked to achieve balancing strength inversions on poles. Those poles kept getting added to and forced him to repeat one arm balances and the like twenty feet in the air.
By the time we got to the acrobatic Swing to Swing act I was somewhat distracted and more than a little exhausted working so hard to keep these performers “safe” with my intention.
At times, Director Tracie Valdez hasn’t found enough story-line connection for the ensemble performers as they parade on and off in various costumes. Passing flirtations become somewhat stale. As mentioned before, I sometimes missed some fabulous turn for distracting business elsewhere. An example of this was a an Adagio featuring the gorgeous dancing of Kelly Macdonald and three strapping gent partners (Anton Glaskov, Grzegorz Piotr Ros, and the formerly mentioned contortionist Holowenko.) This is the kind of act that makes my heart sing, but I missed some key acrobatic flips.
Similarly, Cylios Pytlak, a marvelous juggler, doesn’t get the right focus or placement his act deserves.
But bandleader Sebastien Laurendeau and his band bring it all back for a big-number “fiesta” finale. All is happy, all is fine. The message is “unity, family, fiesta.” Another grand day under the yellow and blue tent.
If you want to run away to the circus, get thee to Cirque du Soleil. They’ve added three weeks to their season at Tyson’s – by popular demand.
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Luzia . Written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca . Music by Simon Carpentier . Produced by Cirque du Soleil . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.