Stage Door Review

Alegría: In a New Light

Monday, September 30, 2019

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created by Franco Dragone, revised by Daniel Ross, directed by Jean-Guy Legault

• Cirque du Soleil, Grand Chapiteau, Ontario Place, Toronto

September 18-November 24, 2019;

• Big Top, next to Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FL

December 13, 2019-January 26, 2020

“Back to Basics”

In 1994 Alegría directed by Franco Dragone became Cirque du Soleil’s breakthrough to a larger audience. It was performed over 5000 times and seen by over 14 millions people in 255 cities around the world. In 2009 it was converted from its original big top format to an arena format and it finished it 19-year tour in Antwerp in 2013. The score by Robbi Finkel and René Dupéré became Cirque du Soleil’s best-selling album ever.

Now Cirque du Soleil has revived Alegría under the name of Alegría: In a New Light revised by Daniel Ross, directed by Jean-Guy Legault. The show keeps the famous original score although it has been re-arranged by Jean-Phi Goncalves. Key features such as the Act 1 and Act 2 finales have been retained as well a selection of other routines. The press materials claim that the overall themes of the show have been retained but those themes are not at all clear.

I have noted on previous occasions that Cirque du Soleil’s shows tend either to be organized primarily as stories or primarily according to theme. playing in Las Vegas since 2004 is the purest example of circus arts used for storytelling while ‘O’ in Las Vegas since 1998 is the finest example of a show dominated by single theme. 

Alegría: In a New Light is torn between telling a story and promoting a theme and winds up not really doing either successfully. The official Show Overview states that the original show’s power struggle between old and new has been re-interpreted through today’s lens: “Carried by an intangible wind of change, an emerging movement strives to shake the established order, instilling hope and renewal to bring light and harmony to their world”. 

As you enter the big top you see a crooked golden sceptre standing upright in the centre of the circular thrust stage with a flame-shaped crystal at it upper end aglow. The background of the wedge-shaped stage that abuts the circular stage looks like a giant menacing crown arching over a large empty throne made of bands of steel. This setting is meant to tell us that the king of the realm is dead and that no one has yet arrived to fill this power vacuum. In fact, since we have had no glimpse of the previous king, we can’t place such an interpretation of the stage image as the reviser Ross thinks we can.

We see a parade of the Aristocrats, the members of the old order, looking like a troupe of clowns clad in greens by designer Dominique Lemieux in an exaggeration of the style of the American Gilded Age in New York with men in fraying frock coats with top hats or bowlers and women with accentuated busts and behinds, all sporting fantastic curly grey wigs relating more to the 18th century than the 19th. 

Of this group the three most important characters are the three main clowns of the show. One is the malevolent red-clad Mr. Fleur (American Eric Davis), whose marotte with his own face carved on it signals that he was once the court jester of the late king. The other two are the Small Clown (Spaniard Pablo Gomis Lopez) and the Tall Clown (Spaniard Pablo Bermejo Medina). Since these three are busy entertaining the audience before the show begins, we really have no idea that, unlike most CdS shows that they will become the prime movers of the show’s very thin plot. 

Once the show begins a pantomime ensues wherein Mr. Fleur tries to ward off characters from getting near the glowing sceptre. This becomes more imperative once a new group of characters enter called the Bronx (a name we would know only by reading the official programme notes). Unlike the Aristocrats, the Bronx are clad in brown midriff-baring outfits imprinted with a net motif. This initially suggests they are fishermen, but that notion is never expanded. 

Director Jean-Guy Legault has the two groups face off against each other and Mr. Fleur brazenly steals the sceptre. We might assume this action would provoke an uprising. But instead, a series of circus acts ensues. The first of these is the Acro Pole, so named after the flexible poles, like those used in pole vaulting, that are the main apparatus. The troupe of performers are clad like Aristocrats and their initial parade holding the pole upright reminds one of Mr. Fleur holding up the twisted sceptre. 

This act is an excitingly choreographed routine that emphasizes notions of power and hierarchy and is eminently suitable as a reflection of the old guard’s attempt to reassert its power after the sceptre is stolen. The poles are used horizontally held at each end by burly performers who act as bases would in banquine. The lighter-built fliers not only have to be able to balance on the pole but be able to use the propulsion generated by the bases to do flips and turns in the air before landing on a given target. This target is usually the shoulders of another base. The climax of this routine is when a flyer lands on the shoulders of a flyer who has already landed on a base. The three-man pyramid, besides being an exciting achievement, is an ideal symbol of a hierarchical society. 

The following act is a fine depiction of the freedom and non-conformity that the Bronx are meant to represent. Canadian Jonathan Morin, dressed as a Bronx, performs on an apparatus of his own invention, the crossed wheel, which is made up of two Cyr wheels intersecting at right angles. While the apparatus prevent the signature Cyr wheel showpiece of coining, it allows Morin to perform an array of gymnastic feats using the four curved sections of the crossed wheel while the wheel is rolling or spinning. Morin premiered the crossed wheel in CdS’s Dralion in 1999 and any other artist who wishes to perform with this apparatus needs to do so with his express permission. It a great invention and with its spherical shape and air of freedom presents a fine contrast to the rectangularity and strictness of the Acro Pole routine.

Were the show to pit performances of the Aristocrats versus the Bronx in this way throughout the action, the show might have stronger narrative cohesiveness. The story, however, introduces new characters in the next act which only serves to confuse things. These are the Angels clad in white with a sun symbol displayed on their solar plexus. Without reading the show’s background material, an audience member would have no idea who they are or what they represent. According to the background material, “the Angels embody the intangible wind of change, the inner transformations propelled by the desire for a better world. Imbued with humanity, these beings from the afterlife carry on their bodies the scars of their earthly life”. How beings from the afterlife represent change in the future is a question not really worth figuring out. 

The first Angels we meet are the synchronized trapeze duo of Roxane Gilliand from Switzerland and Nicolai Kuntz of Germany. Synchronized trapeze was the first act of the original Alegría but has now received a technical update. The trapezes can be raised and lowered mechanically while the performers are swinging and the axis of the swinging can also be altered mechanically so that the duo sometime swing at a 90º angle towards each other. Gilliand and Kuntz perform an exciting well-choreographed routine in perfect synch with each other. Their most amazing ability is to pump the trapezes while hanging from them by the tops of their feet. 

Since the circus acts themselves lose their narrative force, that function falls to the interaction of the clowns even though all three are Aristocrats. The characters of the clowns have been completely re-imagined from the original Alegría. Instead of Tamir and Little Tamir, the new Alegría focusses on the relation of the Small Clown and the Tall Clown. after a silly dispute over a torn piece of paper, they set out to fight a duel with blunderbuss pistols. As they count off their paces before they turn to fire, their fear of the situation and their underlying friendship comically take over and they make up. Later, when the Small Clown is expelled for unclear reasons from the group, the Tall Clown goes looking for him and finds him in the raging snowstorm, much like that in Slava’s Snowshow (1993), that concludes Act 1. This is no accident since Slava Polunin himself is the designer of the snow storm. 

If we have suspected that perhaps the two are more than over-emotional clownlike friends, the show treads new ground when the two choose a male audience member to dance with. After the audience member returns to his seat, both the clown propose marriage to him. Socially, this is the most advanced aspect of the the show and the first time I recall of CdS portraying gay clowns without having their gayness portrayed in a mocking manner.

Much as the show suggests that the action will depict a battle between the Aristocrats and the Bronx, the resolution of the story comes about a completely different way. Mr. Fleur finds that the crystal-shaped flame at the end of the sceptre is dying out. Yet, when either the Short Clown or the Tall Clown hold it, it lights up again. What do the two clowns have that Mr. Fleur does not? One easy answer, demonstrated by their dedication to each other, is love. Finally, when Mr. Fleur wrests the sceptre from one of the clowns, the crystal flame falls off entirely and his rein is ended. Mr. Fleur is defeated by his own inadequacy, not by any outside power. 

Since the circus acts do not carry the narrative forward, it is best to regard them as simply a very well chosen collection of contrasting large- and small-scale routines whose perfection we can admire without the need to fit them into a story. 

Several of the acts that made up the original Alegría are given new life by their new performers. Chief among these is the fantastic Fire Knife Dance performed by Hawaiian Lisiate Tovo. Fire knives are basically batons with one blade-shaped end and one knobbed end. Both ends are lit on fire and Tovo twirls, throws and catches two of them just like a baton-twirlers, except with the added danger. Tovo, much to the surprise of the audience, is able to lick one of the flaming ends with his mouth and two support a fire knife by placing both flaming ends on his bare feet.

Two group routines revived in the new Alegría are the Powertrack and the Aerial High bars, both in Act 2. As in the original Alegría, the Powertrack consists of two trampoline-like runways that form a large X in the circular stage. This allows two acrobats to do tumbling runs simultaneously, crossing in the middle and sticking their landings right at the edge of the stage by the audience. The elasticity of the Powertracks lends extra height to all the gymnastic flips and twists making them more spectacular.

The Aerial High Bar consists of a platform high above the stage where flyers clad as Angels gather. From this platform hangs a tandem swing suspended by steel bars and manned by two catchers (Ukrainians Oleksii Koltakov and Oleksiy Kononov). The amazement in this act derives from the precise nature of the timing needed for the fliers to dive with flips and turns from the upper platform and arrive in exactly the right spot in space to be caught by the hands of one of the catchers. The catchers then swing them back up to their position on the platform. The thrilling finale is simply the flyers hurling themselves downwards to the huge net below, each landing in a completely different way.

An act new to the show is Elena Lev’s combination of contortion and keeping multiple hula hoops swirling about her body. At one point she is covered from neck to knees in hula hoops and still manages to keep them all in motion.

Much of the credit for the success of the new Alegría should go to acrobatic performance designer and choreographer Emilie Therrien, who has perfectly designed each act so it it naturally grows in difficulty and reaches a conclusion with a twist to make it different from any other version of the acts you may have seen.

Those who look to CdS shows for narrative interest will find the story far too confusing. This is partially because the show begins with the concept of two struggling for power but ends with the two cooperating peacefully. The White Singer (Irene Ruiz Martin) and the Black Singer (Virginia Garcia Alves), who were enemies in the original, here emerge as comrades by the end. Think of the show simply as a sequence of high-calibre circus acts exquisitely performed and you will find you need no story or theme to enjoy the it. The new Alegría is ideal for newcomers to Cirque du Soleil or to those who have followed them over the years and are happy to see the company get back to basics in top form.   

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Jonathan Morin on the crossed wheel; Eric Davis as Mr. Fleur; Powertrack routine; Pablo Bermejo Medina as the Tall Clown and Pablo Gomis Lopez as the Small Clown; Lisiate Tovo doing the Fire Knife Dance . © 2019 M-A Lemire.

For tickets, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.