Du Soleil: Aiming Too High?
By POLLY SHULMAN*
have a straightforward goal: to dazzle, tickle
and terrify the crowd as they strive to present
the greatest show on Earth. But nothing so modest
could satisfy Cirque du Soleil, whose 13th live
show, "Varekai" (pronounced vair-eh-KAI),
opened here last week in a blue-and-yellow tent
on Randalls Island. The 19-year-old Montreal-based
circus aims higher — it has its eye on
Art. Cirque's director, designers, engineers
and performers toss around the term constantly,
and critics catch the ball and call it art.
So successful has Cirque du
Soleil been at elevating the circus above its
populist roots that it even has its own scholarly
gadfly. In 1998, Ame Wilson, now head of theater
history, criticism and dramaturgy at the Ohio
University School of Theater in Athens, had
just completed her master's thesis — "Artaudian
and Brechtian Theatrical Techniques in the Works
of Peter Brook" — and was all set
to continue the theme in a doctoral dissertation.
Then her sister gave her tickets to "O,"
Cirque du Soleil's aquatic show at the Bellagio
in Las Vegas.
"It was the most beautiful thing
I'd ever seen," Dr. Wilson said recently. "I
started to cry, and I sobbed the whole night. I knew
that was what I had to study."
Ame (pronounced aim) Wilson, then
in her late 20's, was impressed most of all by the
meaning behind the stagecraft. "I'd been a student
of narrative theater, studying play scripts for two
decades at that point — I started when I was
kid. Now, here was something that didn't use recognizable
language, but nevertheless told me a story, and did
it through amazing spectacle."
When she told Cirque about her plans
to study them, however, "they flatly denied me
access," Dr. Wilson said.
"They were pretty rude about
it," she added. So she went undercover, getting
a job in the box office of "Saltimbanco,"
which was finishing up the stateside portion of its
Asia-Pacific tour in Portland, Ore.
From April until July 2000, Dr. Wilson
answered telephones and questions, sold tickets —
and gossiped with her co-workers. "On my breaks,"
she said, "I would go tearing around taking pictures
and asking questions. I was a big old snoop. I would
eat with the performers in the cafeteria tent, find
out where they were going drinking that evening, then
tag along and dance with the clowns."
Dr. Wilson focused her snooping on
Cirque du Soleil's creative process. She learned that
the Cirque team sometimes wrote the music first, then
based the show around it. Much of the content came
from the performers, not the directors. For example,
the character of the sleeper in "Saltimbanco"
was the creation of Guennadi Tchijov, the clown who
played him. The dialogue may sound like French, Spanish,
Italian, Portuguese — whatever Romance language
you happen not to know — but the performers
are actually speaking a form of nonsense that they
Mr. Tchijov, Dr. Wilson learned, would
go onstage and practice his gibberish for an hour
before each show. And the flavor of Cirquish changed
from act to act. In the pseudo-ballad "Kumbalawé,"
the first song in "Saltimbanco," the audience
expects to hear a real foreign language, so that's
what it sounds like. (The first line is: "Kumbalawé,
kumbalawé mana.") "Kaze," another
"Saltimbanco" song, is based on a scale
associated with Chinese music, so its Cirquish lyrics
When the Portland run ended, Dr. Wilson
said, her supervisor — who happened to be Mr.
Tchijov's wife — invited her to stay on with
the group as they toured. Dr. Wilson declined, revealing
her secret identity, to the delight of her co-workers.
(She never did tell management.)
five traveling productions on two
continents, a permanent show at Walt Disney World in
Florida and two more in Las Vegas, with another —
an erotic show called "Zumanity" — to
open there in July.
that arose from the experience, "Cirque
du Soleil Reimagines the Circus: The Evolution
of an Aesthetic," examines Cirque's distinctive
narrative structure — the wordless creation
of story through spectacle that had so enchanted
Dr. Wilson when she saw "O."
When she isn't teaching or working
as a dramaturge, Dr. Wilson is busy expanding
her dissertation into a book. One new question
she plans to address is how success has affected
"I worry about what's happening
to Cirque," she said. "By making themselves
so accessible on television, and by making tickets
so expensive" — prices can reach
three figures — "have they priced
themselves out of continued growth? Will their
popularity level off now that their style has
entered our culture as a language of performance,
with the element of surprise that's so important
to them removed?"
While Cirque du Soleil may talk
about art, it never loses sight of money. What
began as a troupe of street performers —
fire-eaters and stilt-walkers performing for
loose change — has grown into a billion-dollar
business, with a $40 million headquarters in
When the Arts & Leisure section invited Dr. Wilson
to come to New York and accompany me to "Varekai,"
she had the opportunity to compare the new show to
the older ones. Dr. Wilson turned out to be a leggy
beauty with a cloud of blond hair and a brand-new
belly-button piercing ("My students double-dog
dared me"). She tempers her king-size enthusiasm
and hunger for sensation (asking the waiter for the
hottest dish on the menu at the southern Indian restaurant
where we ate dinner, for example) with a strong analytical
streak. And when her booming laugh rings out —
which it does readily — as likely as not, she's
laughing at herself.
We made our way to Randalls Island
by ferry, where Cirque's enormous striped tent danced
over the East River.
"Varekai" opens with the
usual enchantment: a crowd of brightly costumed creatures
mill around acrobatically in a clearing surrounded
by bamboolike poles (for climbing on). As if to make
up for the lack of circus animals, Cirque transforms
the performers into beasts, adding feathers or spines,
hoofs or snail shells. The air is filled with hoots,
bird calls, bells and chuckles reminiscent of a rainforest
— or a college production of "The Tempest."
The individual acts are as impressive
as ever. Young men in flame-colored suits lie on their
backs and fling one another into the air, spinning
their partners with their feet and catching them the
same way. A trio of tiny Chinese boys twirl metal
cups at the ends of ropes, trading places and props
with breathtaking grace. Four spiderlike young women
writhe and intertwine on a triple trapeze, holding
one another by an ankle or a shoulder in patterns
of kaleidoscopic symmetry.
But what does it all mean? The message
often seems obscure to the point of incoherence. The
plot of "Varekai," such as it is, revisits
the myth of Icarus, a Greek boy whose father built
wings of wax and feathers. The original myth is about
the danger of ambition: when Icarus flies too close
to the sun, his wings melt and he falls to his death.
In "Varekai," the sun is
friend, not foe (Cirque du Soleil is French for Circus
of the Sun). A winged boy called Icare falls to earth,
landing among ethereal characters. Of course, he survives.
But his story — a love affair with a girl in
a green insect suit, who may or may not be the same
character as the creature in white spangles whom he
marries at the end — is very hard to follow.
"This is the scariest, most chaotic,
least polished Cirque show I've seen," Dr. Wilson
raged during intermission. "It's punk Cirque
on acid. It's like the apocalypse has come to New
York City. The music is circus-y, not Cirque-y. They're
even using English and French!"
Icare, played by the elegant Anton
Chelnokov, makes his first appearance as he falls
slowly from the sky. The creatures gather around while
the Skywatcher, a master-of-ceremonies figure played
by Gordon White, strips off his wings — huge
single feathers, somewhat the worse for wear. The
Skywatcher surrenders them to a terrifying creature,
a black-clad character with a light bulb on his head,
who tries to fly with them but fails. (Played by Rodrigue
Proteau, he is called the Guide in the program, but
Dr. Wilson and I both thought of him as Lightbulb
Death.) The two bind Icare in a net suspended from
What follows is one of the show's most symbolically
successful scenes, as Icare dances with his net in
midair to slow, ethereal music. Technically, it's
a variation on a trapeze act, with the usual flips
and splits. But Mr. Chelnokov transforms it into a
meditation on flight and, by extension, creative activity.
The net becomes by turns an entanglement, a place
of safety, a cocoon, a pair of wings; Icare slowly
morphs from earthbound captive to soaring spirit.
Cirque's more tightly constructed
shows, where each act clearly moves the story forward,
where we can watch it and understand it without trouble."
Dr. Wilson saw
Icare as the typical Cirque protagonist: an
outsider who stumbles into an environment in
which he can no longer function the way he did
at home. The narrative tells the story of how
he gets to know his new companions and joins
Another success comes in the
second act, when Vladimir Ignatenkov performs
a dance choreographed by Brooklyn's own Bill
Shannon, who uses crutches to walk —and
to dance. Onstage, the crutches become at once
wings and their opposite, connecting the dancer
to the earth, while freeing him from it.
These and a few other soulful
numbers add depth to the story. (Dr. Wilson
and I both fell for "Aerial Straps,"
a twin-brother act full of love and longing.)
Dr. Wilson saw a parallel with "A Midsummer
Night's Dream," with the clowns playing
the Rude Mechanicals and Icare and his bride
standing in for Oberon and Titania.
"In that sense, `Varekai'
has a more traditional theatrical structure
than appears on the surface," she said.
"Nevertheless, I prefer
I agreed. Too often, I felt, the arc
of the show seemed confused and self-indulgent. It's
brave of Cirque du Soleil to take on the Icarus myth,
especially in a circus, where the performers risk
sharing the hero's downfall. The show's creators may
have meant to transform the myth into an affirmation;
instead, "Varekai" stands as a warning of
what happens when you reach high — but not quite
*Polly Shulman is a freelance
writer in New York.
The New York Times