Cirque de Soleil
Royal Albert Hall, London
17 February 2011
The Royal Albert Hall conjures up past musical glories; Bob Dylan and The Band in 1966 (even if the famous “Royal Albert Hall” concert was actually Manchester Free trade Hall). Then there was Frank Zappa announcing that Ian Underwood would play the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ, then launching into Louie Louie. So here was a Canadian company doing a show with what appeared to be a Native American theme, but unfortunately it wasn’t Robbie Robertson.
The Cirque du Soleil are an unmissable event, if like me, you are fascinated by the mechanics of lighting and stage production. They are the cutting edge, and every time seem to have honed that edge more. I’ve seen their big Las Vegas shows, Ka and O (“eau”) in the purpose built theatres, designed around the shows. O is simply the greatest theatrical experience I’ve ever had, and it was as good a year later, the second time around. Touring productions have fifty artists instead of 120 or more, and brilliant as the mechanical contrivances are, they can’t match the stage switching between a swimming pool and a stage in O, or the stage which could go to 45° and 90° in Ka.
The Albert Hall’s shape is right for the show, and the sound bafflers installed a few years ago have improved the acoustics. Another Cirque du Soleil positive is a live band of musicians. We saw their Dralion touring production at the same venue a few years back.
Set and production values of the highest quality
Where Totem excels is in the use of film projection downwards onto the two raised stages. Water flows across beaches, projected swimmers cross the stage and real ones emerge at the side (in O it was all real). A Native American picks his way across projected rocks by a waterfall. People wade across the projected water and projected ripples swell out from their feet. I could just sit and study the projections as cinema.
Where it fails to excel is the theme, which is tenuous at best. What 21st century beach bums and performers dressed as chimpanzees have to do with totems escapes me. If you want a Native American theme, there are rich myths. If you’re going to have acrobats form a column, it could be as mythical Native American animals forming a totem pole. But here it’s just acrobats forming a column. There are about five or six points of Native American reference, that’s all, and precious little that’s “totemic” from other cultures either.
As a result, in spite of the fabulous production, music and costumes, a lot is just circus. In the case of the roller skaters spinning on a small raised circle, dressed as Native Americans, pretty much average everyday circus too. The hoop spinners were the stuff you should get at the side of a circus ring as background, not centre stage.
The Chinese acrobats
The nine Chinese acrobats at the end were outstanding doing somersaults on poles held by two people, and I was knocked out, but but my son has been in China around the Shaolin monks for years, says he’s seen it done on thinner poles and even on metal pipes, and done just as well (though certainly not “better”.) It’s brilliant, highly skilled, and the costumes are superb, but it’s not unique, as parts of the Las Vegas shows are.
The trapeze artists: my favourite section
Two bits were well above average circus. The male and female trapeze artist were a completely different and innovative trapeze act, writhing rather than jumping, and their choreography was as outstanding as their skill. It had nothing to do with totems, and given the music, they could have done it on any circus show, and probably have. The guy with lighted balls inside an inverted plastic cone was visually great too.
What it lacked was theme, and those huge Las Vegas scenes with the entire cast in action simultaneously. It also lacked the purpose built theatre obviously. At the end, it was extremely well-presented circus. lots of cirque, rather less soleil.