Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Cirque du Soleil has become the biggest brand in world circus. "Brand" is the word, because there's something very corporate about this Canadian company's approach to circus. The performers are spectacular: Varekai includes some astonishing feats, from intricate balancing acts to Russian swings. The framing show is blandly predictable.
Creators Guy Laliberté and Dominic Champagne give Varekai a vague narrative about Icarus falling from the sky, meeting and eventually marrying a contortionist bride. This isn't exactly a story. There's no fear in Icarus's fall, however elegantly Mark Halasi dives and swings in his net trapeze. None of these characters will ever get truly scared, or risky. It's all vague uplift.
Cirque du Soleil's trademark magical creatures waft about, expressing non-specific wonder and amazement. Eiko Ishioka's costumes and Nathalie Gagné's make-up designs are instantly recognisable as Cirque du Soleil style. There are lizard spines, frilly ruffs, all in shiny fabrics and contrasting colours. The make-up is laid on thick, with lurid colours. The performers are turned into types, with little space for individuality.
The clowns are predictable, too. Steven Bishop and Mooky Cornish keep popping up as incompetent ushers, an incompetent magic act, incompetent singers. Other clowns babble at the wonders of the sky, or mime elaborate routines to sound effects.
Even the circus acts can be muted by the prevailing waffle. Bombastic rock opera singing, vague gestures and heavy costuming take the edge off the slippery surface act. Varekai takes off only when it focuses on the basics of its circus routines, the wonders of balance and control.
Dergin Tokmak writhes and pounces across the stage on crutches, loping his way through twisting balances. Octavio Alegria juggles hats, throwing some in boomerang circles as he flips the others from hand to head. He even juggles with his mouth, spitting out ping-pong balls until he seems to be gargling them.
In the "Icarian Games", one performer lies with legs in the air. His partner starts out perched on his feet, then flips over and over, like a human Catherine wheel. Georgian dancers whirl on their knees, stomping and leaping. Irina Naumenko ties herself in impossible knots while balancing on canes.
Best of all is the finale, with acrobats leaping from big swings. The extra momentum sends them high into the air, flipping and turning before landing, rock solid, in the catchers' hands. The jumps and throws get bigger and wilder, men crossing in mid-air, landing in pyramid balances or diving down billowing nets to the ground.
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