The Cirque returns with a face of innocence and ‘a feeling of danger’

Cirque du Soleil is not just a show. It’s a global phenomenon with marketing savvy that’s unmatchable.

Right now there are 20 Cirque shows playing around the world including seven with resident status in Las Vegas, three in New York, and eight shows on tour, among them Kooza, touring in Australia until June 2017.

The co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, is no longer the majority shareholder in the Canadian company, but maintains a role as creative adviser and still owns a stake in the company.

Laliberté, once a busker, accordion player, stiltwalker and fire-eater, is now an international poker champion and owns an atoll in French Polynesia, a place, he says, that could be a shelter for his family and friends if there’s a global catastrophe.

Has anyone ever made a documentary or movie based on his life? If not, I think they should, if they could persuade him – but that seems unlikely. Laliberté is wealthy enough to chase away any potential director or author with an army of top-level lawyers.

The long-standing financial success of the Cirque brand is relevant to the current Australian tour.

A successful company that charges high ticket prices should aim to give each country the best it has to offer, presenting new acts, and a fresh way of appealing to audiences who have seen the Cirque before and no longer think it’s a novelty.

Kooza is now nine years old and includes some acts (hoops, contortionists, the teeterboard) that are familiar from either previous Cirque shows or other circus troupes such as Circa.

The last Cirque show performed in Australia was Totem, a production that premiered in 2010. Why is Australia now seeing an even older show? Of all the current Cirque shows playing worldwide, nine were created later than Kooza and four of the shows premiered either last year or this year.

The business brains behind Cirque would undoubtedly say that there is always a new audience for the shows, no matter how long ago they were first on stage.

In advance publicity the company stressed that Kooza was a nostalgic return to old school circuses, focusing on five clowns, and dressing the stage in retro style with a colour palate of deep blue, red and gold and a red curtain upstage.

That is one part of the show, and while the audiences might giggle with the clowns and the audience participation they are more likely to want dare devil acts that appear to be extremely risky.

Kooza delivers on that with the show built around two thrillers, a high wire act performed by two Spanish men and two from Columbia, and the Wheel of Death, again performed by two men from Columbia.

There seems to a network of artists from Columbia who specialise in dangerous circus acts. Earlier this year in Melbourne, the Columbian, Angelo Rodriguez, also performed in The Wheel of Death in a circus called Cirque Adrenaline.

He had previously performed the same act with Cirque du Soleil.

In Kooza’s Wheel of Death, Jimmy Ibarra and Ronald Solis walk, shuffle, run, jump and skip on the inside walk ways of two giant wheels and finally jump to the outside of the wheels where they fly through the air.

The act is impressive and the performers excel in their showmanship, balance and precise timing. But the use of the word ‘death’ is debatable signaling, as it does, that at any time, a performer might stumble and fall, with the audience witnessing a death.

The Cirque de Soleil has no compunction about ramping up the thrill factor.

Before the Kooza tour began in Australia, an article published in News Ltd newspapers quoted Geneviève Deslandes, the tour company manager, as saying “there is a very high risk element [in the show] and you’ll feel the danger”.

Taking the lead from the danger element, the headline for the article in various papers was: “Cirque Du Soleil returns to Australia with its most death-defying show yet – Kooza”.

Unlike Totem, there were no lyrical or subtle circus acts in Kooza, with the exception of Balancing on Chairs, in which the Chinese artist, Yao Deng Bo, created a tower of chairs, slowly, one at a time, with such calmness that he appeared to be meditating in a place inhabited by no one but himself.

The acrobatic acts are woven within Kooza’s narrative that revolves around the five clowns, The Innocent, The Trickster, The King and two Court Clowns.

The Innocent is an archetypical character, a dreamer, a romantic, and an easy target for mockery. He opens and closes the show holding a kite that ultimately floats away into the night sky.

In this role, the Russian actor, Vladislav Zolotarev, was a charming anchor for the narrative. Never too sweet or too silly, he watched the antics, the scares, the magical and mysterious with the naivety of a child.

As The Trickster, the Canadian, Joey Arrigo, was his opposite, a master manipulator who claimed the stage with the swagger of a rock star and the exactitude of a ballet dancer. Arrigo is, clearly, a trained dancer who is easily able to place his feet in a perfect fifth position and perform a bow that had all the elements of a courtier in Louis 14’s Versailles.

Kooza isn’t a show for children, or at least children under about 10 years old but, through its vivid costumes, makeup, lighting and music, it does have the power to let adults revert to their childhood days, eat popcorn, cheer the acts and laugh at the bumbling clowns.

Nothing wrong with that. I just wish there was more focus on bringing something innovative and surprising to Australian audiences.

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High Wire act, Kooza, photo: Matt Beard, Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, ©2012 Cirque du Soleil

The Trickster, Photo: Matt Beard Costumes, Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt © 2012 Cirque du Soleil

Chair Balancing Act, Photo: Matt Beard Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt © 2012 Cirque du Soleil

The Innocent, Photo: Matt Beard Costumes, Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt © 2012 Cirque du Soleil

The King and Court Clowns, Photo: Carlos MuAaller, Costumes, Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt © 2016 Cirque du Soleil

Wheel of Death act, Photo: Matt Beard Costumes, Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt © 2012 Cirque du Soleil