Those who know me know that I am a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian entertainment company with resident and touring shows all over the world. I’ve seen their shows over 200 times (and am still ready for more).
I discovered Cirque while channel surfing one Sunday morning in 1999, and happened across a showing of Saltimbanco on Bravo. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen! I came in as the fabulous René Bazinet was performing his shootout scene with an audience member, was enchanted by the duo trapeze, and impressed with the Lorador brothers’hand-to-hand. But what sealed it for me was the bungee ballet at the end – the uniqueness of the act combined with the experience of the lighting, the costumes, the music (OMG, the music!), I was haunted, and hooked! What is this magical performance full of life, full of darkness, full of emotion, skill and grace?!
I devoured everything I could find about this company, and next Sunday, I was prepared and watched the whole lineup of Cirque shows on Bravo: Le Cirque Réinventé and Nouvelle Expérience. Then came the show which changed everything for me, all over again:
Quidam was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. First, it had just come out on DVD (this is when DVDs were still a new thing); I purchased a copy of it – my very first DVD – and I didn’t even have a DVD player! I didn’t let that stop me – I goaded the manufacturer of my laptop to give me the hardware needed to play video DVDs on the included optical drive, plugged in my headphones, and devoured the crystal clear image on my laptop’s LCD screen (our TV was a standard definition 27″ tube).
I was drawn in from the start: the spooky sounds, the (parents) artists sitting in chairs, ignoring their daughter, Zoe, sitting on the ground trying to find something to keep her entertained. She sings – a crystal clear child’s voice – while drawing on an imaginary window fogged up from the storm outside. Then someone is at the door – she opens it and finds a tall, headless figure in a long trenchcoat, carrying a bowler hat – Quidam. He enters and opens up his umbrella. Zoe circles him as he walks to the center of the room. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls as he drops the bowler to the ground. He turns and walks out of the house while Zoe grabs the hat and tries to give it back to him – he doesn’t notice her. She turns around and walks back into the center of the room, examining the hat. Meanwhile a friendly-looking man in a purple suit (John) appears from behind the door and looks over the situation. Zoe raises the bowler hat over her head as John stands behind her; as she places the hat on her head, John motions and the room begins to change. Zoe’s parents are suddenly lifted up and away in their chairs, still not noticing anything. Other colorful and strange characters suddenly appear. Zoe is in a different world – one where she’s able to see and experience wonderful and amazing things. Among the first is a happy, long-haired man dressed in yellow, working with a German Wheel to perform unbelievable things – at times, seeming out of control and about to run off the stage, other times, defying gravity. And all of this happens in the first 10 minutes!
The next act is four children manipulating Chinese Yo-Yos (large wooden spools) with a string attached to two sticks – one in each hand. They make it look easy, when it’s quite difficult (I know, I’ve tried). But this is the way Cirque works – the acts are so beautiful, so skillfully performed that they seem effortless.
And then comes the Aerial Contortion in Silk. I’ve written about this act separately, since both the act and accompanying music have a special meaning with my gender experience.
Following that is a unique jumping rope act, where a jump-rope virtuoso shows off her skills, both individually and with members of the troupe, and the whole troupe gets involved, with up to six ropes being jumped simultaneously! An aerial hoops act comes next, with three women in white costumes with red gashes across their torsos swing, spin and take up positions requiring great skill and strength to achieve.
Olga Pikhienko performs a handbalancing act on canes where she pushes her body seemingly beyond the limits of human flexibility. Olga is a kind of Cirque royalty, having grown up in the company, and she still performs for Cirque (as I write this, she is wrapping up her long run with Zumanity in Las Vegas and will join the tent revival of Alegria, performing her hoops act which is also captured on the official video for that show).
We move into the latter part of the show with Spanish Web, where artists climb thick ropes suspended from the aerial track and wrap themselves up to tumble down, catching themselves just before slamming into the stage. John returns for a unique juggling act where he dances (and juggles) with a coat rack – inspired by Fred Astaire’s Hat Rack Dance from Royal Wedding (1951).
John’s speed and agility are then contrasted with the stillness and strength of the Statues act, a hand-to-hand act with a man and woman costumed to look like marble statues, where they slowly take positions with the man holding the woman (Carmita Lorador) in ways which seem to take impossible strength to reach and hold. Things speed up again with a Cloud Swing act, where a woman swings on a loop of suspended rope, in a cross between trapeze and Spanish Web.
The final act is Banquine, where porters launch flyers (artists) into the air, twisting, turning and flipping, to be caught again by the porters. It is all done through (super)human strength – no apparatus is used. The vaults get increasingly higher and more difficult, until finally they launch a flyer to land on the shoulders of a tower of three other porters stacked on top of each other’s shoulders!
Zoe moves in and out of these acts as they are performed, at times singing and paying close attention to the acts, at other times playing with other characters in this strange and exciting world. Quidam returns, bringing the fun and games to a close as he asks for his hat to be returned. Zoe gives it to him and he walks away, and she returns to the real world. But her friends have come with her and she reunites with her parents who now see her and pay attention to her. It turns out that the world of Quidam was around us all along, we have just become blind to the beauty and talent in the people around us – we get so caught up on our worlds that they become nameless and faceless. To live in the world of Quidam, we simply need to break out of our own shells and look around.
There is so much more imagery and symbolism in this show than I could ever capture in a blog post. Each time I watch it, I find something new that I’d never noticed before. For instance, When Zoe first enters Quidam’s world, the characters she meets are bright and colorful – lots of vibrant reds, yellows and blues – but by the end, she characters are mostly grey – the colors have faded, the real world is closing back in.
What about you? Have you ever seen a Cirque du Soleil show? Live or on video? In a permanent theater, a big top (my favorite way to experience their shows) or arena? Did you come away feeling amazed or disappointed? Did you feel a deeper connection with what you saw? Share your experiences in the comments. I love hearing about other people’s experiences with Cirque!
Until next time, just Let Me Fall,