(Sunday, September 25, 2011 at The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California) As a kid back in the '30s, the circus used to scare me. Those were days when they still had sawdusty circus tents, smelly animals, and sideshow freaks…and as a little kid hanging fearfully to an adult hand, my heart tremulously beating as I watched the no-net acrobats, I got the subliminal message that life was perilous, and if you tried a dangerous feat, you might fall. Now, almost…well you count the years later, I was taken by my grown kids to a more elegant cirque, Hollywood style by way of Montreal, and came away with a different message.
We began the evening in the obligatory black limo -- small placard in the window to show we were Cirque-related so that we quickly passed through the ordinaries to valet parking from where we ascended into the heart of the remarkable Kodak, with its levels and restaurants and crush of dreamers out for a couple of hours of fantasy, and if the daily papers claim these are hard times, here you would never guess it. The crowd was out for a big night.
The invitation had read: Dress - Cirque chic. I really don’t know what is considered “chic” for old ladies. I struggled to find anything chic in my closet. I settled for monotone with a colorful scarf, but once inside, I saw so much chic, my eyes were drunk with delight. Short dresses of interesting pattern or texture, uneven hemlines which are tres chic, long dresses with low fronts and low backs, shimmery surfaces, layered surfaces, bouffant and colorful: a parade of eye-teasing style full of fantasy and fun.
The lobby sold wine and elegant small sweets to titillate the palate. Oh, maybe I saw a packet of ordinary cookies, or maybe somebody brought those, and everywhere the colors were soft, and the polished woods and lush carpet gave a sense of elegance. We ascended the sloping pathway to the theater. Once inside…wow. I had to be safe in my seat before I dared to look around and up without getting dizzy! The Kodak seats more than 3,000; the shape is rather horseshoe, the seats are posh comfort, and once seated and anchored, you look up…and up…and up to the enormously high, decorated ceiling, and behind and around to the three tiers of balconies and many boxes. You feel as if you’re seated in a 19th century French opera house. Finally, the stage -- huge, with great open-mouthed clown faces on each side. Now circulating in the audience, two fantasy creatures: one lovely girl wearing a zoetrope -- a skirt-like spinning object which, as it spins, gives the illusion of moving figures -- early motion pictures; and a creature with a huge beehive hair-do who would enter the stage and be one of the clowns of the show.
Most of the audience, I’m sure, had seen a cirque before, but this was a Hollywood cirque with all the excitement of the movies, and indeed, the creation was film and cirque interwoven -- often both film and reality playing against each other so artfully and so quickly that it was a fast delight: it happened, it flashed, it went.
But to begin: Guy Laliberté himself (current CEO of Cirque du Soleil) -- in a tee-shirt and a French Canadian accent -- welcomed us for the troupe. And of course it was necessary to announce the no photos, turn-off-the-cells, there are the exits in case of emergencies so on. Out came a dapper red-headed gentleman who sang the instructions. Hey, I’ve heard that voice before -- a familiar voice, remembered as the voice of Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas! The turn-off-your-cell-phones man was Danny Elfman, composer of Iris and countless other big Hollywood film scores. Elfman and his musical announcement was followed by a guy playing a piano, flying over the piano, wildly swimming over the piano, and thus began the fast-paced “circus” performed against one of Elfman’s most creative scores, imaginative, funny, exciting, scary and, most especially, fresh and inventive -- as delightful to the ear as the production was to the eye.
What amazed my eyes and kept me edge-of-seat: The Atherton Twins -- two handsome mirror-same guys who slithered down a rope from the ceiling doing an incredible ballet in the air, swinging around, hand to hand, grace and beauty -- a duet in space. Incredible also... I use the same adjective, but how many words can describe the incredible Chinese troupe of acrobats who totally redefined what the body can actually do: bending, climbing, taking shapes, piling while I held my breath and prayed that nobody would falter. Not only defying what would twist and not break, but what could pile onto pile without missing a balance. These world-class athletes play just off the edge of reality and amaze the eye and defy the senses. And my absolute favorite: The Film Noir, a cops-and-robbers chase done between buildings and using a trampoline to run, fall, spring back up what seemed two stories, like a reel of film playing first forward and then replayed backward. This was a fast-moving chase of such delight, I kept thinking: how did they do it? Could anyone bounce that high? It was totally and absolutely amazing. I will return if only for that scene!
There was too much for the eye to take in. Oh, that finale, where the “film stage” was packed with fantasy characters running, leaping, flying, tumbling, and suddenly, from the ceiling, figures begin to descend, swinging like angels out of clouds.
The clowns pleased the audience, but where the major cirque acts are without parallel, champions of their own thing, no comparison. The clowns were funny and a bit risqué. Yes, they got a gut laugh, but their act was slightly derivative. But okay, they were clowns, they got a belly laugh. As to the rest, it was classic -- certainly will be prize-winning, and as to the red-headed guy who sang that in-case-of-emergencies-the-doors-were-here-and-there, he created a score of pure delight, fresh and dramatic and exciting. You’ll want to see the show for the music as well as the incredible acrobatics.
And that wasn’t the end of a fabulous evening. Hollywood Boulevard had been tented over and carpeted for a huge party. I, in my conservative tunic over-pants cum scarf, joined the chic and unique for refreshment. Food stations serve hoardes; tasties washed down with lots of liquor. The street was carpeted -- you had to watch your footing over curbs -- but you drank champagne, chomped barbecue, nibbled at tacos, and it was a great chance to meet other people connected with the acrobats, the writers, the lighters, the costumers that created and performed Iris, meaning iris of the eye or camera eye.
I felt that the difference between my childhood circus fears and this new cirque was the intention. In the old circus, fear of falling and death were cultivated, always on the periphery of imagination, just as “freaks” were subjects of amazement and amusement, not compassion. In Cirque du Soleil, you leave with the sense of the possible -- that man can cleverly twist and fly and climb…the sense that the impossible in life is amazingly doable. (And, of course, safer because somebody invented the bungee cord.)
Back to chic: perhaps the gowns weren’t Oscar created by major designers, but they were more fun, a treat to the eye, and I before I return to see my favorite gravity-defying “film noir” and the gorgeous Atherton Twins again, I will certainly research “senior chic,” or longer, uneven hemlines that don’t show varicose veins; sleek materials that won’t bulge over slack bellies…some way an old broad can be chic without shock.
Cirque du Soleil's 'Iris' is now playing at the Kodak Theater and will run there for the next ten years. Seriously. Ten years.
Picture credit: Matt Beard © 2011 Cirque du Soleil
Costume credit: Philippe Guillotel