Photographs by Jess Desaulniers-Lea.
Getting the opportunity to cover a Cirque Du Soleil is a no brainer normally, but given the fact that this was my first time seeing the legendary troupe perform I made sure to clear my schedule in order to get to it. The show Varekai, which opened on September 2nd, is actually a remounting of a decade old show. It was partly retooled, partly pared down and partly updated from what I can gather. The lines were long to get into the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, even though the venue was basically cut in half. Rushing to my seats just as the show was starting was my fault, but when I arrived at my ticketed destination I found another couple already sitting there. No problem, I will just ask them to move back to their original seats, no harm no foul as we have all been there before. Instead my friend and I found ourselves arguing with the other patrons and them demanding we take a seat elsewhere as we are blocking the view for other people. Since the show had already started and there were two empty seats in the same row we just took them so we can watch the show. Unfortunately being treated so rudely left me confused and frustrated for the first few minutes while sitting making me miss some important plot revelations.
The plot itself was actually quite difficult to follow. The actors spoke a weird gibberish mixed with some French, Italian and probably other languages I did not recognize. There was an Icarus-like character that fell from the sky and lost his wings in the process. After that he seemed to be tortured by some sort of evil doer, helped by some fairy woodland creatures and eventually married to some sort of nymph. It was really difficult to understand what was going on in the context of a story. Brief vignettes were easy to get, some minions do an evil worshipping dance, a Little Mermaid-like Under the Sea routine and the circus ringleader doing a magic show.
Oh yeah, in between some of the acts a ringleader type of performer would come out with his Miss Piggy-like assistant and perform some comedy bits for the crowd. If there was any hope as to following the plot it was all gone once these characters were. Not to mention that at first they seemed to be in their own world, by the Under the Sea bit, the assistant was on stage watching the performance while lounging in a beach chair sipping a drink from a coconut shell. The sooner you stop trying to understand the motivations and plotlines of the characters everything becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Now after getting those negatives out of the way, let’s talk about all the greatness this show had going for it. The reason people go to Cirque shows is because we get to see the epitome of the human form. It is like watching Michelangelo’s David come to life. The peak physical condition of these performers is breathtaking and their bodies become instruments that they perform. Seeing these specimens twist, twirl, heave and balance with exact precision is something that is impossible to get bored of. The fun doesn’t come from seeing them act, if I wanted to see a great theatre show I’d go to Factory or Passé Muraille, it stems from death defying stunts done to the beat of music.
The set was something to behold. It was a forest made of bamboo poles inspired by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While performers climbed up these ‘trees’, I half expected them to fly across them like the Kung Fu film that featured never before seen acrobatics on film. In the middle of the stage was a hole that was used to connect the heavens and earth and had characters hoisted down from them. Behind the forest was a full electric orchestra. It took a few numbers in to realize it was a full band playing actually as they sounded that great. Almost every song they played a different style with the standouts being the orchestral metal since they were so powerful and heart pounding played during the evildoer’s scenes. During most of the scenes the performers were accompanied by opera singers, one male and one female, sometimes both at the same time and sometimes solo but always adding an interesting elegant to the puzzle.
Some of the stunt highlights including the Icarus character after losing his wings did a silk ropes style routine but with a mesh net. Watching the first time as he unravelled out of the net like a cocoon from almost the ceiling caused my heart to drop, thinking he was going to fall out of the net and crash onto the floor. Other fun highlights include a Georgian dance off that ended with a sword fight that whenever the swords struck sparks flew in the air that reminded me of The Addams Family movie from back in the 90’s.
The humour was quite predictable like a moving spotlight when the ring linger was singing a ballad and the punch line visible from a mile away, but that doesn’t matter as the getting there is more enjoyable than the finale.
As a former actor who spent plenty of time on stages and even more working back stage I found it hypnotizing watching the scene changes, that if you blinked missed them, which made them feel magical. I found myself wanting to pay attention to the peripheral characters sometimes more often than the leads. I wanted to see the magic being made and nothing breaks the moment faster than someone not being convincing when they think no one is watching them. At times there was so much going on it was impossible to focus on any one thing. This made me want to re-watch the show instantly so I can focus on all the parts I missed.
As a former child dancer I know how much work and preparation it takes to make the most difficult moves seem simple and how hitting your spots is the most important job you have. When working in large groups synchronizing ones self is what makes a performance awe-inspiring. Whether there was two people in a scene or fifteen, everyone knew what the other person was doing showing off what a finely tuned machine the troupe was.
The only slip up I noticed came from a juggler who dropped a single ball out of the six he had going at one point. Since I can barely handle three balls for more than a few seconds I am in no position to complain that for the briefest of moments the show wasn’t 100% perfect.
With the Midsummer Night’s Dream world the play took place in; it was easy to get lost for two hours. Two hours that went by so fast I was confused when the lights went up both at intermission and at the end not believing that almost an hour had passed each time. While it was unfortunate that the plot made no sense and there were jerks sitting next to me, I had an amazing time. If you have never been to a Cirque Du Soleil show, you should check it out for sure. If you have either seen the previous incarnation of Varekai or want to see an original production I wouldn’t blame you for passing on it. I know the next time a Cirque show comes through town, I will be there for it. It suddenly makes sense why the Quebec based group has a cult like group of fans: it’s exhilarating.