Stage Door Review

Kurios

Friday, April 15, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩

written and directed by Michel Laprise

Cirque du Soleil:

 • Grand Chapiteau, Port Lands, Toronto

August 28-October 26, 2014;

 • Grand Chapiteau, Ontario Place, Toronto

April 14-July 10, 2022;

 • Grand Chapiteau, Tysons II, Washington, DC

July 29-September 25, 2022

“What’s Old is New Again”

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cirque du Soleil’s latest show goes back to its origins. Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities is primarily a series of well-chosen circus acts, immaculately performed and all with some unique twist. The production is unified by an overarching concept that influences the design of sets, props and costumes, along with the music and the choreography. While recent Cirque shows have focussed on nature, Kurios is the first Cirque show to focus on machines. The show offers up a marvellous steampunk vision of the world that re-envisions older forms of entertainment for the 21st century.

When Cirque du Soleil began, its shows combined narrative and spectacle in equal measure. Gradually, a divergence occurred seeing some shows emphasize narrative and some spectacle. At present the pinnacles of both styles are represented in permanent shows in Las Vegas. In ‘O’ (1998) spectacle dominates every aspect of the production. In (2005) all the circus acts are subsumed in a dominant narrative. The first Cirque shows presented the world of the circus as a fantastic place that drew in ordinary people and left them changed by the experience.

One of the earliest Cirque shows, Le Cirque Réinventé (1987) had a group of characters representing the audience literally called “Ordinary People” who gradually got caught up in the action. Kurios flips this notion around. The world of the circus comes to the stage. The stage represents the Cabinet of Curiosities run by a white-coated inventor-cum-collector known as the Seeker (Anton Valen). It is clear through his miming that he is trying to communicate with people elsewhere, but only by reading the programme would you know that these people are supposed to be in another dimension. Eventually, he is successful and the others – the band and its lead singer (Eirini Tornesaki) plus assorted acrobats, jugglers and dancers – arrive by steam train through the audience while passing both planets and earthly landscapes.

Clad in both steampunk-influenced outfits or Belle Époque-inspired daywear, the extradimensional travellers disembark and the music begins with two travellers using drumsticks to play their suitcases like drums. This seemingly simple scene is in fact the key to the entire show and the key to why Kurios is so much like the earliest Cirque shows. It is through an act of imagination that we see how suitcases can also be drums. All through Kurios writer/director Michel Laprise forces us to see how familiar objects can be viewed in unfamiliar ways. The transformative power of playfulness imbues the entire show as the old is made new, the small made large and the ordinary extraordinary.

Unfortunately, Cirque du Soleil’s original description of the show on its website is confusing: “Step into the curio cabinet of an ambitious inventor who defies the laws of time, space and dimension in order to reinvent everything around him”. What actually happens is much simpler. The band that arrives by train animates through its music the Seeker’s collection of curios. That effect is quite believable since the style of music by “Bob and Bill” is a lively form of electro-swing, an appropriate style based on making the old new again.

The one flaw in the show is that Laprise as director does not make this introduction as clear as it should be. In terms of design it is also not clear that the band and their companions are from another dimension because they fit in so perfectly with the steampunk look of the Seeker’s chamber.

This style is nevertheless wonderfully imagined. Set and props designer Stéphane Roy creates a world on stage that looks like how Jules Verne might envision the year 1900. Collections of various incandescent bulbs under bell jars glide past around the outer ring of the playing area. The Seeker’s main communication device looks like a combination of typewriter, mantel clock and cylinder gramophone. No electric grid exists yet because the Seeker’s assistants have to recruit volunteers from the audience to ride a stationary bicycle to generate power.

Meanwhile costume designer Philippe Guillotel has let his imagination run wild. The Seeker’s laboratory is kept tidy by two robots, male and female, that look like upright crustaceans made up of spare parts, metal and leather. The Seeker’s handyman is Nico the Accordion Man (Nico Baixas), whose limbs, torso and hat seem to be made from accordion bellows. In contrast to his squareness is hoop-encircled Klara “the Telegraph of the Invisible” (Ekaterina Pirogovskaya), who wears a skirt of increasing large metal rings that apparently can receive radio waves. The most remarkable of the Seeker’s cohabitants is Mr Microcosmos (Karl L’Ecuyer), a being who looks like a cross between a man and a bathysphere.

The bathysphere itself is home to Mini Lili (Antanina Satsura), a real woman who is only one metre tall. The 60-year-old Belorussian Ms. Satsura refers to herself as a “proportionate dwarf”, which is the current medical term to describe a person of small stature whose body parts are in perfect proportion with each other. She looks exactly like a full-sized person, except tiny. As far as I know, this is the first Cirque show that has ever featured a person as an attraction solely because of her anomalous physical appearance. Unlike the sideshows of old, this show celebrates her and fully integrates her into the action of the Seeker’s cohorts. But then P.T. Barnum (1810-91) celebrated the most famous proportionate dwarf in history, General Tom Thumb (1838-83), and I doubt whether Cirque du Soleil really wants to associate itself with Barnum and the negative connotations his name carries with it. 

After the arrival of the extradimensional travellers, the role of the Seeker and his friends becomes that of an audience on stage witnessing the effect that the travellers have on the Seeker’s curios. The first of these sets the tone of all that follow. Frenchwoman Anne Weissbecker rides in on a bicycle that suddenly becomes airborne. Because of the unconventional ways she uses it, we realize that an ordinary bicycle can become a kind of trapeze, or its handle bars aerial hooks, or its wheels aerial rings. Weissbecker finishes by riding the bicycle upside down through the air, her act thus reinforcing the theme of playfulness and the transformative power of the imagination.

Another of the Seeker’s curios comes to life when a huge suitcase moves on stage. It opens up to reveal a male and female acrobat made up to look like figures in a life-sized music-box. The two perform an impressive routine of Russian Cradle, where the male doll (Roman Tereshchenkotrapeze, throws the female doll (Lena Tereshchenko), who executes increasingly complex twists and turns in mid-air before being caught again.

The following act relates to the previous one as it is also something small made large. The act called “Invisible Circus” is actually a gigantic flea circus where the artistes rather than being too small to see are simply invisible. This circus-within-a-circus, harking back to an older form of entertainment, has the Canadian David-Alexandre Després as ringmaster. Després is the comic relief of the show who, in a welcome change from too many Cirque shows, is extremely funny. His ability at mime, comic timing and deadpan delivery are hilarious as he comments on the invisible acts we can see only because the various apparatuses move or wobble when one of the invisible performers uses them.

Deprés’s act in the second half of the show is even more amusing. The set-up has been used before in Cirque shows – male clown invites female volunteer to have a “date” with him on stage. Deprés renews this old idea by his wonderful depiction of a nerdish male torn between shyness and lust. He gives the scenario a major twist when he as host leaves his guest alone leaving her to deal with him now playing the host’s cat. I can safely say that I have never seen a human being provide so keenly observed a reproduction of feline behaviour and temperament. Deprés has the audience in paroxysms of laughter not by going over the top but by the sheer accuracy of his portrayal.

Following the “Invisible Circus” we return to looking at another life-sized version of the curios. The Seeker’s laboratory has two aquariums built into two metallic radio towers on either side of the upstage entrance. In one are eels, in the other fish. The eels, represented by a Russian team of four contortionists, create a series of living pyramids and sculptures that require a literally unbelievable amount of flexibility. In keeping with the steampunk design, they perform on the back of a giant mechanical hand where the jewel on the ring on one finger is used as a rotatable grip. 

Act 1 concludes with two exciting acts back to back. The first of these opens with a scene of the Seeker and his friends including Mini Lili and a pair of (fake) Siamese twins sitting around a dinner table. A guest dressed as an old-style mentalist causes the chandelier over the table to rise high above it. One of the guests (Alexey Puzyryov from Kazakhstan), a dapper young man in a summer-weight frock coat, decides to retrieve chandelier by piling one chair on top of another to reach it, all the while pausing to do impressive one-armed hand-balancing poses along the way. The amazing twist to this otherwise standard chair-balancing act is that we gradually become aware of a mirror-world above the stage where a double of the young man is also balancing chairs downwards towards the same chandelier.

The first act closes with the arrival of an Aviator (James Gonzales of Columbia), whose aeroplane, inspired by Gustave Whitehead’s flying machine of 1899, glides in and lands on the stage. Once on the ground the dismantled aeroplane becomes the platform for Gonzales’ fantastic rola bola routine. A simple rola plank set on top of a cylinder. Gonzales takes this to the next level by balancing his plank on a sphere. As if that were not enough, Gonzales then builds what looks like a totally unstable structure of planks and cylinders, one cylinder at 90º to the other, and then proceeds to balance himself on that. When Gonzales then repeats this feat with his wobbling tower set atop a moving Washington trapeze, the act moves beyond incredible to mind-boggling.

Act 2 opens with a reimagining of ordinary equipment that in scale outdoes the aerial bicycle of Act 1. When you enter the central tent after intermission, you see that a huge net has been raised covering the entire stage. Your natural assumption is that this has been set up for a trapeze act of some sort. Even when some of the performers do gymnastic tumbling rolls across the net, you still don’t understand what has happened. Only once the performers gather in a circle vibrating the net and propel one of their number up to the uppermost point of the Big Top do you realize that that this is not a safety net but really a giant trampoline. This new invention, called an Acro Net, amplifies all the normal effects of a trampoline. The trampolinist performs a wide array of acrobatic moves while ascending and descending, but the Acro Net bounces trampolinists so high that at the very top they seem to be floating weightless in mid-air. The net also has a symbolic function since the performers represent in life-size the fish that are in the second of the Seeker’s two aquariums now floundering, albeit spectacularly, in a net.

The next act is another variation on the theme of transforming the past. In the background in Act 1, we have noticed two men acting as Siamese twins, a reference to the early circus’s sideshows. But like Mini Lili, Kurios foregrounds what was backgrounded in the past. The pair are not really Siamese twins joined at the hip nor are they the nerdish Tweedledee and Tweedledum they appear to be. When Roman and Vitali Tomonov separate and throw off their outer costumes, we see that they are two extremely muscular hunks who then launch into a beautifully choreographed aerial strap routine, soaring about the interior of the tent as we have previously seen done in different ways by the aerial bicyclist, the Aviator and the trampolinists.

The next act is another example of the small made large seen earlier in the “Music Box” of the Russian Cradle and Deprés’s “Invisible Circus”. Spanish artist Nico Baixas, who up to now has been known to us only as the Accordion Man, gives an extraordinarily clever demonstration of hand puppetry, meaning that his hand from the wrist down is the puppet with his fingers as its arms and legs. To show such a small-scale act to an entire tentful of people, live video of his hand and his miniature set are projected in triplicate onto the interior of a medium-sized replica of a hot-air balloon. As with the “Invisible Circus” the entire act appeals to the power of the imagination to transform the reality it sees.

The second last slot in the show is left open for a varying roster of performers. At present it is filled by Tomonari Ishiguro, a two-time world champion yoyoist known as BLACK, whose name does not appear in the programme. BLACK has taken the yoyo to such a high level it resembles nothing you have ever seen before. When he is flinging his two flashing yoyos about with both hands, it looks as if he were some kind of superhero casting bolts of energy from his hands and willing them to take on every more complex trajectories.

Kurios ends with a lively banquine routine involving thirteen international artists. In banquine the performers are divided into bases and flyers. The bases, singly or in twos, hands interlocked, propel a flyer to another location or set of bases. It is common in such routine to build to a climax of forming a standing column of acrobats. The team in Kurios creates a column four men high. Besides this, the act has two features not seen in previous banquine exhibitions. One is to place a series of bases around the stage and have a flyer leap one-footed from one to the other, thus creating the wonderful impression that the flyer is actually walking on air. The second is to have bases go out into the audience and propel flyers onto the stage, an unusually exciting sight if you happen to be near the centre aisle.

Kurios is like the early Cirque shows in creating a delightfully warm mood. Several recent Cirque shows in seeking to be bigger and more elaborate have tended to leave one feeling exhausted rather than elated. Here the sequence of acts moves toward a peak at the end of Act 1 and recaptures that peak at the start of Act 2, then moving on to lower-key or smaller-scale performances. The final banquine feels more like a celebration of what has gone before rather than an attempt to blow our minds yet again. The old Cirque theme of celebrating the power of the imagination still resonates and the steampunk setting and costumes create an atmosphere that mixes the thrill of the new with nostalgia for the past. This is a very solid, endearing show that will remind you why Cirque du Soleil’s reinvention of the circus experience as theatre became so popular in the first place. Even at intermission, audience members were lining up at the box office to buy tickets to another performance. Kurios is clearly on its way to becoming a classic.

Christopher Hoile

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission.

Note: Personnel and acts may have changed between 2014 and 2022.

Photos: Anton Valen as The Seeker, © 2014 Dario Ayala. “Eels”, ©2014 Richard Mercier. “Upside Down World” ©2014 Martin Girard. James Gonzales on his rola bola. © 2014 Dario Ayala. David-Alexandre Després, © 2014 Richard Mercier.

For tickets, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.