Stage Door Review


Monday, May 13, 2024


written and directed by Mukhtar Omar Sharif Mukhtar

Cirque du Soleil, Big Top at Lake Shore Blvd. and Park Lawn Rd., Toronto

May 9-August 4, 2024

Antoni Gaudí: “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature”

Cirque du Soleil has opened Echo in Toronto, the first stop on a cross-Canada tour. Echo is the company’s first new Big Top creation since the devastation of the pandemic and the company’s ensuing bankruptcy. Contrary to previous CdS shows, the look of the show is not wildly imaginative and it does not have an understandable story or a coherent theme. If CdS shows like Koozå (2007) or Kurios (2014) were your favourites, you are likely to find that Echo pales in comparison. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see Cirque du Soleil back in business and the new show features what is most important – an exciting series of incredible circus acts from around the world.

As I have noted before, CdS shows tends to fall into two categories. One group are the shows where the circus acts are linked by a story. The ultimate example of this is  (2004), still playing in Las Vegas, where the circus acts actually move the plot of the story forward. The other group are shows where the circus acts are linked primarily by theme. The ultimate example of this is ‘O’ (1998), also still playing in Las Vegas, where all the acts have something to do with water.

Echo, written and directed by former CdS performer Mukhtar Omar Sharif Mukhtar, tries to unite the acts by both story and theme, but succeeds in neither. The story is so weak that you can only discover what it is meant to be by reading the programme, not by watching the show. According to the programme, “When FUTURE (the protagonist) and her best friend EWAI stumble upon an enigmatic CUBE, they set in motion a journey of life, discovery, hope, and empathy, quickly learning how their actions have the power to shape this world”. This story would be fine if we saw anything like it on stage, but we don’t.

Future (Louana Seclet-Monchot) and Ewai (Philippe Dupuis) do find a gigantic Cube, the central symbol of the show. Like many monoliths in science fiction, it does respond to her touch with Serge Côté’s projections on the Cube’s surface of ripples of water. From behind the Cube, “animals” appear. Costume designer Nicolas Vaudelet has dressed them all in three-piece white suits and have full-face animal head masks that look like they’ve been cut from pieces of white paper. They contrast with Future and Ewai whose costumes are sky blue dotted with white clouds. The Cube moves downstage, projections cover it with various scenes of nature and the “animals” now hooked to wires perform the “Acro-Dance of the Animals”, in which they are hoisted upwards and downwards while bouncing off the sides of the Cube. This is the least impressive of the circus acts since the performers are merely raised and lowered by winches. This dance is meant to represent the harmony of nature, but the acrobatic choreographer John Cartin ends the dance with the limp, seemingly dead bodies of some animals being lowered into the arms of others.

This dance is followed by a more exciting routine by a character named the Cartographer (Alexandre Humbert), holding rolled-up plans, rulers and compasses, who is present at the very beginning and very end of the show as if he, not Future and Ewai, were in charge of the action. The character emerges from the Cube during projections of ice crystals and wears a cap in the shape of an iceberg. The programme claims that he “introduces FUTURE to the concept of science”, but he mimes nothing even remotely like that. Instead, Humbert performs a lively routine on the bungee straps with multiple somersaults and poses, finally rolling himself up in them to fall in a so-called “death roll”.

Reading the programme it is a surprise to find that after all this science and peace and harmony among the animals, the show depicts the Industrial Revolution. It is hard to recognize this because it is depicted by two of the most appealing acts in the show – the clown duo known as Double Trouble (Clement Malin and Caio Sorana) and the Ethiopian duo (Robel Mezgebe Weldemikael and Meareg Hishe Mehari) who perform Icarian Games. The Cube may be the central symbol of the show, but what it contains, as pictured by various projections, are boxes that move about and regroup themselves. Double Trouble are associated with boxes from the crowd warmup before the show when they toss and balance white moving boxes on their heads. Supposedly they extract these boxes from the Cube. On stage, they enter from either side of the Cube carrying boxes or boxes are shoved over to them from the wings. The idea that Double Trouble are depleting the Cube of its boxes is never clear, especially since Future is the first character to extract a small cube from the large Cube.

As it happens the Ethiopians’ routine is the most exciting version of Icarian Games I’ve seen at Cirque du Soleil. We have all seen a performer, the “pusher”, on his back manipulate objects such as cylinders or small carpets, with his feet in an act called antipodism or foot juggling. In Icarian Games, the pusher juggles another person, the “flyer”. Here, the pusher flips the flyer about with unbelievable rapidity, even using only one foot. The pusher also propels the flyer high enough into the air that he can perform twists and somersaults before the pusher catches him.

One of the best aspects of Echo is that the clowns and the characters actor are not merely spectators or used for transition. Instead, they also perform circus acts. Except for their habit of trying to boost applause, the clown duo is very funny. Their act is an extension of their warm-up routine and involves carrying about stacks of white moving boxes. One carries seven boxes and the other eight. Of course, typical clown jealousy ensues with the back-and-forth stealing of the extra box. Eventually, this evolves into a test to see how many boxes one of them can carry. Fifteen boxes are already a dizzying amount, but at the show I attended the amount increased to an amazing 25 boxes.

Future and Ewai, who we thought were simply going to be the typical Cirque innocents wandering through a strange landscape, turn out to have unexpected talents. Canadian Philippe Dupuis (i.e., Ewai) is a fantastic juggler, manipulating up to seven balls high into the air. French artist Louana Seclet-Monchot (i.e., Future) is an expert on the Washington trapeze, which is a swinging bar not used as a trapeze but for balancing. Seclet-Monchot’s specialty is balancing solely on her head while high above the floor and taking on various poses.

While all the acts in Echo range from at least interesting to thrilling, there were two that I found just too unpleasant to watch. The first, in Act 1, was a double hair suspension performed by Charlotte O’Sullivan of Canada and Penelope Elena Scheidler of Austria, made up so well they looked like identical twins. To perform this act the artists have to weave a metal ring into an elaborately knotted bun so that their head of hair can support their weight. O’Sullivan and Scheidler mirror each other’s shows of flexibility, but no matter how graceful the performers may be, hair suspension is still a painful process.

Even more difficult to watch is Briton Shakirudeen Alade’s demonstration of contortion and dislocation. Male contortionists are rare, but Alade goes way beyond anything you’ve seen female contortionists do in a CdS show. He seems able to bend any joint on a direction contrary to its normal movement. So elbows, shoulders, knees and hips allow limbs to bend and meet anywhere on his body. His act involves wrapping his shirtless body into all sorts of unlikely compact packages that I found simply too disturbing to watch.

On the other hand, Echo features variations on traditional circus acts that are major delights. Act 1 features eleven artists from Ethiopia performing banquine and human cradle. In banquine two people join hands to create a platform that will then propel a flyer into the air to perform a variety of jumps and twists before landing or being caught. In a typical “cradle” there is a large frame from which the caster hangs who then swings the flyer into the air. The thrilling act in Echo, the caster does not use a frame but stands with his feet on the shoulders of two men and casts the flyers about while maintaining his own stability. The beauty of the Ethiopian act is that there is no physical apparatus involved. The entire spectacle is a display of human power, ingenuity and grace. The intricate choreography of flyers launched by the banquine team and the flyers swung from the human cradle forming stacks three people tall made this my favourite act of the show.

Echo ends with an exciting triple teeterboard act, in which, of course, unlike the banquine and human cradle, apparatus is necessary. The pleasure here in watching the thirteen artists from six countries is the great number of variations possible with three teeterboards. The act begins with simultaneous flying from the boards, to sequential flying, finally graduating to flyers from one board landing on an adjacent boards and becoming pushers for other flyers. The entire act was beautifully arranged combining precision with individualized poses. A false landing on opening night caused the finely honed routine to come to a halt, but the team quickly recovered and won applause from an audience who saw directly just how difficult the routine really was.

Echo contains two CdS firsts. One is the use of indoor drones. When dinner-plate-sized objects looking like fireflies buzzed about inside the tent I couldn’t believe my eyes until the answer came to me. The other is the use of a gigantic puppet at least three storeys tall that somehow emerges from the hollowed-out Cube. Typical of the way in which Mustafa as director and writer has no control over his imagery, the puppet requiring five manipulators is meant to represent the nefarious triumph of industrialism over nature. The figure, however, look just like one of the two clowns wearing a trenchcoated and derby and looks far more comical and benign than insidious.

The best way to approach Echo is simply to forget, if you can, that the show is trying to tell a story. This is difficult since the characters actors keep making would-be significant gestures and the show ends with an air of triumph surrounding Future, Ewai and the Cartographer, although it is impossible, without reading the online programme, to know what it was that they did.

The show is definitely not the colourful extravaganza we have come to expect from CdS. The “animals” characters in three-piece suits are all white and the “animal” musicians hidden far upstage are all in black. The human characters are all in white with the top third of their outfits dyed in various colours. The main impression, though, is white. And the Cube, the main symbol in the show, is also white. Projections on the cube are generally grey, verging into light blue and light green, but are surprisingly drab as depictions of the natural world.

If the Cube represents the earth or nature, it is a very odd choice, since, as famed architect Antoni Gaudí noted, “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature”. The Cube is designed by Es Devlin, who has rather specialized in rotating cubes. This is the third of hers I’ve seen after Machinal in 2014 and Don Giovanni this year. It is also the least interesting. Devlin was meant also to direct the show that is Echo before the pandemic shut it down and the directorial reins were handed to Mukhtar. Mukhtar doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Only two acts employ the Cube – the “Acro-Dance of the Animals” on its outside walls and Double Slackwire on the inside of the hollowed-out Cube. On opening night the Double Slackwire was a Single Slackwire with only Ukrainian Taras Hoi performing an inventive routine. Otherwise, the Cube is just an enormous, meaningless sugar cube that takes up space in its main home upstage centre where it forces performers to enter on either side of it instead of directly from the centre as they do in most CdS shows.

It's rather a shame that Cirque du Soleil now allows people to take photos with phones during the show. They are not allowed to use flash, which most people followed, and are supposed to dim their screens, which most people did not follow. This means that there is constant visual distraction because of the phones throughout the show. It is also depressing to see how many people watch the show primarily via the lens in their phone rather than simply appreciate it with their own two eyes.

The Big Top for Echo is located at Lake Shore Boulevard West and Park Lawn Road in Etobicoke. Evening shows start at 7:30 which means that people from downtown Toronto have to travel during rush hour. It took me an hour and 45 minutes to travel from Bloor and Yonge to the venue at a time when I would never normally drive out of the city. The message is that to be in time for an evening show, you must leave early, probably like me an hour earlier than you think is necessary. With only two acts that I was especially happy to see, both acts coincidentally performed by Ethiopians, it is difficult to say whether the show as a whole is actually worth the trouble of travelling to the venue.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: The Cube, © 2023. Jean-François Savaria; Louana Seclet-Monchot as Future and Philippe Dupuis as Ewai, © 2023; Caio Sorana and Clement Malin as Double Trouble, © 2023. Jean-François Savaria; Banquine and Human Cradle© 2023. Jean-François Savaria; Philippe Dupuis as Ewai with Animals, © 2023. Jean-François Savaria.

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