>alegria by cirque du soleil

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 28 feb 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the grand chapiteau
>rating: *****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


I type with blistered fingers.

It is a sad paradox of a critic's existence that he longs to be uncritical, to embrace wholly and get lost in a work; even to adopt a work - to feel protective about it and rail against anyone with the temerity to doubt its brilliance. Of course, it never happens. There is always something to spoil the illusion - some perceived naïveté of conception or breakdown in execution - and the critic's true nature takes over and he picks and worries over the most trivial points, just because he can. But at the end of Cirque du Soleil's ALEGRIA, I applauded so hard my hands hurt, and anyone who wants to say a word against it has got to get past me first.

Apparently, there is some kind of story to the proceedings under the Grand Chapiteau. There is supposed to be a magical realm of human-like birds and a party sent by the king to conquer it - or something like that. My guess is that you will never notice. You will be too consumed by the liquid acrobatics, the primal sophistication of the all-pervading music and the intricate boldness of the costumes to pay much heed to anything resembling a plot.

And yet you will appreciate the linkage provided by the bird-like clowns and the grotesque ringmaster figure as they insinuate - but do not tell - their story. Their real job is to be images and echoes of Carnival, that ancient system of abandon based on the overturning of society's rules. It is a system that seems to speak in the language of dreams (or at least, if I have never had a dream like that, I always feel I should have) and its archetypes and symbols strike deep.

>>'At the end of Cirque do Soleil's ALEGRIA, I applauded so hard my hands hurt, and anyone who wants to say a word against it has got to get past me first.'

But back to the acrobatics: quite simply, it was all impossible. Obviously, cleverly hidden special effects were involved somehow, because there is no way to convince a rational mind that the human form is capable of doing ninety percent of the things the performers did. And that they managed to pull everything off with such apparent ease is very, very silly indeed.

Two teams of gymnasts tumbled along a transverse trampoline, missing each other by a hair's breadth; a group of men jumped, rolled and dived over and off scaffolding raised high in the air, only to be caught with perfect, death-defying timing by two other men swinging back and forth on a pendulum beneath them; two contortionist sisters proved they had been built without bones; a strongman lifted eight people on a cart… oh, look - I just haven't got enough words for all this and I'm making it sound dull, but trust me, it was quite the opposite - and there was much, much more of it.

It wasn't just the acrobatics, though, that gave ALEGRIA its impact. Indeed, I am not usually particularly impressed by such things. I was lucky enough to catch the Chinese State Circus on tour when I was a student back in England and actually, their characteristic brand of gymnastics was probably even more technically difficult and humanly impossible than that seen in ALEGRIA; but no matter how many hoops they jumped through (and I mean that quite literally) there was no more showmanship than you get at the Olympics - a hushed auditorium and the suspicion that somewhere there are judges with scorecards.

Nor, of course, was it showmanship alone that packed ALEGRIA's punch, for I also remember seeing 'Under the Last Dust', one of TNS' main season shows from 2000, where Jean Ng's majestic soundscapes and vistas magnified the action on stage, lending it a weight and meaning it otherwise would not have possessed. Still, there is a limit to which one can magnify something that isn't there in the first place.

Both of these shows were impressive but empty. The former had actual drama without its trappings and the latter had the trappings of drama without its actuality. ALEGRIA had both of these in spades, and the combination was awe-inspiring.

But for me the most affecting and breathtaking moment of the night was conjured not from the physical drama of the acrobatics, but from the more prosaic yet emotional skills of a simple clown (in a routine borrowed, I surmise, from 'Slava's Snow Show', which toured here in April last year).

The clown, all bagginess and tufted hair, lays a suitcase down on the stage. He opens it and two pink balloons fly upwards. For no reason I can discern, this is uproariously funny. He then takes out a hat and a coat and hangs them on one of the rope ladders at the side of the stage that the aerial acts have been using. We come to understand that the clown is at a railway station where he is forced to take leave of a loved one. The loved one in question is the hat and coat, subtly animated by the clown's hand through the left sleeve. The two cling together, each consoling the other over their inevitable mutual loss.

I have seen this kind of thing done once or twice before and each time I was astonished by the physical skill required to convince the audience that there was indeed a person where a person was not. Each time, I envied the performer his skills. This time, however, it was different: I didn't marvel that the clown was able to convince me that there was somebody in the hat and coat - I marvelled that there was somebody in the hat and coat.

Nor was it just the clown's dexterity that stunned me, but also, how he was able to make me feel simultaneously the familiar wrenching pain of someone being forced to leave his lover, and utter delight at the absurdity and panache of his performance.

Was there anything wrong with ALEGRIA, then? Anything at all? (Matthew's expression changes to one of defiance.) I would simply say that the lowlights of the show were strictly necessary, as they were the only times one remembered to breathe - and anyway, in most other shows, they would have been the highlights. Having said this, I can imagine that the second time one sees a Cirque du Soleil production, much of the magic would be lost and replaced by an urge to deconstruct the proceedings - to take it all apart and see how it works; although I'm sure that even this approach would not affect one's conviction of the quality of the product. But for me, a recently deflowered virgin, there is only the magic still coursing, and the damaged hands.