Cirque du Soleil: Kooza - review: The world-famous Québecois circus is spellbinding

Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

There is something to be said for going back to basics. Cirque du Soleil has been getting bigger, flashier and flabbier too in some theatrically over-poised, acrobatically underwhelming shows of late. So it is almost a surprise that Kooza doesn’t give us more of the same, but reclaims the world-famous Québecois circus from the garish lights of Las Vegas, to offer something smaller, sleeker and far, far sparkier.

There is a conscious attempt to take circus arts back to their beginning in its direction; Kooza “rekindles the memories and emotions associated with circuses of old, and brings together two century-old circus traditions” according to the programme. The show delivers and then exceeds the standards it sets for itself with two hours of edge-of-the-seat entertainment that had the audience, on several occasions, audibly gasping.

Opening with the swish of a small, red curtain, the ‘charivari’ scene – a French folk mock serenade – resembles The Nutcracker on Speed with its dainty, old-fashioned costumes and choreography. Acrobats dressed in traditional smock-frocks perform jumps on hand-held sheets and balance on poles for this back-to-basics starter, which is no less spectacular for its simple tools and tricks.

The stage is set for an intimate, carnivalesque show with touches of burlesque – a fabulous hoola hooping acrobat in a transparent, lace body-sock and feathered cape; a witty chorus of dancing skeletons in feather-tails and head-dresses and a spangled grim-reaper who resembles a cruise ship crooner. The show winds up its ‘wow’ factor gradually, charming us first with rustic theatricality and gentle comedy (the awkward ‘outsider’ clown is a running theme) before rachetting up the tension.

It is after the interval that the thrills really set in. If circus fans are drawn to high stakes danger, they find it here in a double tight-rope act in which four men walk, jump, skip, sword-fight and cycle high up with no net or safety ropes for part of the set. More dizzying is the ‘wheel of death’ act in which two super-athletic performers run, jump and somersault on giant, fast-moving wheels; it has to be seen to be believed and appears to be the closest thing to flying without wings, with an added element of danger given a serious accident on the same equipment at Cirque’s Zarkana show in 2013.

Or if fans are drawn to the wonder of it all, they find it here in spades: contortionists who appear to have a rib-free, catlike mutability (though one body spin comes disconcertingly close to the infamous scene from The Exorcist) and acrobats who defy gravity, particularly the human pyramids and the gymnast who balances with one hand, upside down, atop a column of eight stacked chairs. Or if its humour we’ve come for, it is here not just in its ostensible theme of the wandering clown, but across the performances. This is not the po-faced cirque that can sometimes emerge with its mumbling French clowns and awkward five-minutes of physical comedy at the start. The clowns here are warm, gentle and infectious and a mild anarchy intersperses the show, with two gigantic confetti canons blasting streams of colour into the audience and old-style policemen whistling and weaving amongst us. 

This is a show that blends, almost to perfection, its subcontinental sounds, its stunning lighting and costumes with theatrical ingenuity and acrobatic wonder. Nothing about it is big or flashy, yet it is Cirque, maybe even circus, at its most spellbinding.

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