Cirque du Soleil never disappoints, but this year—the 30th anniversary of the Montreal-based circus— was absolutely magnificent.
The use of steampunk, neo-Victorian aesthetics, and re-imagined clockwork and steam-powered technology provided a context for a variety of performers to display mind-boggling acts. The live music, which ranged from eerily haunting melodies to cheerful jazz, to electro-swing inspired tunes, to energetic rock and roll complimented the eclectic atmosphere of a past-that-never-was.
The lights never once went down during Kurios. Unlike many theatre productions and other circus acts which rely on illusion to disguise scene changes on stage, set changes in Kurios happened right before our eyes. It was easy to forget that a trapeze was being set up or a set piece was being wheeled out while a performer held the audience mesmerized.
Many of these moments of transformation occurred as performers interacted with the audience, clowned around, or played music. There was a natural feel to the choreography of all of these delightful distractions. Each performer held our gaze while stagehands connected cables and unfolded set pieces. More than once I found myself watching a performer so intently that I was slightly startled when I looked away to find that the next set piece had arrived.
The element of illusion remained, in that the strange Kurios world engrossed the audience through a performer, while the bones of the circus were rearranged before our eyes.
Each of the set pieces played with various elements of the steampunk genre. The opening set was a fantastic laboratory containing gramophones, giant light bulbs (one of which could be powered by riding a vintage bicycle, and the other by an electric eel), and a device that balanced small balls by a force of air pressure.
This set was largely inhabited by pointy-headed professors in lab coats, who mingled with the audience and brought certain VIPs up to play with the set pieces. All very charming; if this was actually how science was done, I’d be a science major.
Circuses push our ideas of what is normal for a performance and challenge our understanding of what human beings are physically capable of. As we marvel at what would be impossible for most of us—acts of amazing balance or agility—we are not just spectators, but speculators.
We ask “how?”, and though it may be a rhetorical question, we are fascinated by the impossible becoming reality.
This element of speculation makes a circus show a thoroughly speculative performance. Kurios not only pays homage to steampunk, but also explores the positive effects of challenging reality. This thought dawned on me as I wondered how on earth the circus was creating a mirror image of the performers at centre stage (several clowns, characters, and a magnificently flexible balance artist) that appeared upside-down on the ceiling of the Big Top.
How on earth did they do that?!
The finale was a fantastic troupe of acrobats who danced and grooved to their act’s music in a way that made you want to jump up there and dance with them. The uncanny way that any one of them could—and did—jump backwards from the height of a human ladder of fellow acrobats, onto yet another, taller human ladder was near unbelievable.
The acts of Kurios must be seen to be believed.
Kurios has finished its run in Toronto and will be on tour. If you find yourself in the same city as this show, you simply must see it. In the meantime we can only speculate about what Cirque du Soleil will create next.
-contributed by Miranda Whittaker