Have you ever felt as if you were living in a dream?
Often, that experience is frustrating, even frightening. But can it be freeing? After attending my first Cirque du Soleil show this past weekend, my answer is yes! Over 90 million people worldwide seem to agree. That’s how many have seen one or more of their shows–an audience which is spread across every continent except Antarctica. From its genesis in Canada in 1984, the circus has grown from one modest performing troupe to a company with over 5,000 employees. They have created 37 shows, 18 of which are currently active (that is, still being performed). What makes people keep going back?
Innovation Is the Key
Every show brings something we’ve never seen before, and certainly won’t see elsewhere. The performance I attended is entitled Crystal, which premiered in October 2017 and continues to tour, showcased this quality in countless ways. Here, I’ll tell you about just a few of the amazing sights and sounds to behold at one of these shows.
Crystal is performed entirely on ice. Ten minutes prior to the scheduled start time, I was surprised to see performers already trickling onto the rink. For instance, there was a scarf-clad couple skating around it hand-in-hand; there were two friends warming their fingers over a fire pit at one corner; and of course, there was the circus clown. In Cirque lingo, he is simply called “Comic Character.”
There’s at least one comic character in all the shows. In Crystal, he is nameless and seemingly graceless, which puts him in a tough spot right from the get-go. He comes staggering onto the slippery stage, loses his footing more than once, and has the audience laughing before the circus has even begun. But this is not the only way he engages us.
After the comic character has somehow gotten his head stuck in a bucket, the other cast members sneak off the ice, silently handing snowballs to the spectators. Every last person seated in the front row of the stadium gets a chance to throw one at him. Some miss, some don’t, but his delayed reaction to each toss of a snowball is impeccably timed. This well foreshadows the role he’s about to play in the coming performance.
Focus Begins To Sharpen
The show opens with a peek into the mind of its main character, Crystal. Scenes from her daily life are projected onto an enormous stage prop at the far end of the rink–a block of ice with three ramps jutting out of it, which I am eager to see utilized throughout the show. As the ice lights up with silhouettes of figures standing in a kitchen here, sitting in a classroom there, we pick up snippets of conversations centered around Crystal. Parents, teachers, classmates, and others try to engage her. Crystal responds only by sharing unconnected bits of stories she’s been imagining.
As this goes on, the clips grow shorter and shorter, and Crystal’s emotional isolation from everyone in her life is sensed with growing intensity until they all voice the same complaint: “She never listens!”
Crystal has heard enough. From a tunnel at the bottom of the iceberg, Crystal comes sprinting onto the rink–wearing figure skates. This is the simplest stunt in the show, yet it sends my mind reeling.
Crystal Is Heard
My brain’s emotional side is running right alongside her. But its logical side can only stare at her strides and wonder, How has she not slipped and fallen? It isn’t until my ears register the sound of blades clacking against the ice that I realize those aren’t just shoes on her feet. Then, once I’ve identified them, I have to marvel at the precision it must take to touch down so firmly with every step, preventing herself from sliding forward.
By the time I’ve caught up to what’s happening, she is almost across the rink and has broken into her first skating routine. All the while, Crystal expresses, in voice-over, her fervent desire to get away from the real world. She skates with fury, unaware that the ice beneath her is cracking with every motion. Similar to the silhouettes at the beginning, these cracks are images projected onto the rink from above, and they expand in perfect coordination with the figure skater’s movements.
Meanwhile, suspended from the ceiling at the other end of the auditorium, the faint outline of an aerialist can be seen in the shadows. As she slowly descends toward Crystal, those of us who have spotted the dark figure can guess what’s coming next–and we are ready for it.
Anticipation: One Of Cirque’s Most Effective Tools
By having more than one act in progress at any given moment–sometimes three, four, or more–they don’t just keep us from getting bored. They draw our eyes to the right place at the right time, thus diverting our attention from certain necessary (but less-entertaining) business. When the ice finally breaks under Crystal, for example, we’re not watching the skater’s anticlimactic collapse onto the floor beneath her.
We’re watching the person who’s falling from the ceiling.
That ceiling, by the way, is now lit up to look like the underside of a sheet of ice. This scene introduces the second of four athletes who play the role of Crystal, whether in skates, swinging on a trapeze, hanging from aerial silks, or a combination of these. With just a rope and a harness, she is made to appear to be underwater. In the most Alice-In-Wonderland-like fashion, she sinks below the surface of a frozen pond, into a land of her own imagination.
Then, The Real Show Begins
White-clad skaters rush onto the rink, surrounding Crystal and subjecting her to a dizzying flurry of movements, which resemble those of snowflakes. Some of these “Shadows” (as the program calls them) speed past her at a frenzied pace, making it all the more astonishing to see the others maintain focus on the banquine feats they perform almost in slow motion.
As if with one mind, they move in flawless unison, their decided non-interaction with Crystal making them eerily inhuman. This living, breathing snowstorm—compounded by abrupt shifts in scenery–helps to establish the phantasmagorical essence of her world.
What strikes me as unique about Cirque is that, unlike other live shows, it does not employ stagehands. Rather, all the props for the next scene are pushed into position by the performers–which contributes to the feeling that Crystal has no control over what happens here. These impersonal creatures, these projections of her subconscious (to borrow a phrase from Inception), are continuously modifying the maze in which she has found herself, making it impossible to escape.
For example, a living room now appears in the middle of the rink, with figures seated on the couch who resemble Crystal’s parents and brother. With glazed-over eyes, they stare at a 1950’s-era television set, utterly unresponsive to her. She gives up on getting their attention and moves on to the other sets nearby.
More Wonders To See
A creepy classroom and spooky schoolyard await Crystal. No, nothing sinister is going on there; it’s just the Borg-like oneness of all the characters present that makes these places seem threatening. Dancers behind school desks are arranged in perfect lines as if before a teacher, but there is none. They recite a rap with a pounding beat and unintelligible lyrics. Crystal again tries in vain to engage any of them.
Crystal then runs to a playground on which no sane parent would dream of letting their kids play. Acrobats are practicing their flips and jumps, throwing each other off the swing-set and taking turns falling with style. Crystal realizes this is no place for her either, so her mind ushers in a new epoch in her life.
School’s Out, and Work Is In
Now comes most horrifying of all her horrors: an army of briefcase-bearing business people, girded in suits, ties, and thick-rimmed glasses. And like an army, they march as one–but with the most peculiar poise in their strides. There is no visible bending of the knees as they glide forward, all maintaining the distinct rhythm created by the sound of sixteen blades hitting the ice at once. Their elbows too are locked, and the synchronized swinging of so many straightened arms reminds me of the oars on a racing shell. Indeed, the way these athletes float across the ice, it’s easy to imagine them as a team of rowers on a very still lake.
The stoic beings disappear almost as quickly as they appeared. Crystal, now is alone. She is left more disoriented than ever. As she glides around the ice, wondering where to go next, another aerialist is descending toward her. Suspended upside-down above her, the figure plays Crystal’s reflection in the water’s icy surface–mirroring, in mid-air, the skater’s every move. Picturing an older version of the young girl, she is tall, alluring, confident… and a little overbearing.
Without a word of introduction, this “Reflection” lands beside Crystal on the rink and hands her an icicle-shaped pen–a subtle form of encouragement to start creating her future self. Subtlety is abandoned, however, when the two embark on their first ice dance as a duo. Crystal tries to keep up with her Reflection, but the latter literally skates circles around her–shoving her, dragging her, pulling and twisting her in every direction.
The Reflection’s aggression points to the root of Crystal’s main problem. She is too insecure, too susceptible to defeat by the hurtful remarks of others. Crystal needs to take control of her inner world and make it a place where she can live happily–not in childish dreams, but in reality, where her happiness can be real.
From this point forward, we sense a shift in power. Crystal is no longer trapped in a strange nightmare. No longer surrounded by impassive beings who wreak havoc on her existence. With a few strokes of her pen, she realizes, she can be the one making things happen. So, what happens next?
Crystal’s Next Steps
First, Crystal gives herself a second chance. The events that follow Crystal’s escape from the nightmare are, essentially, a do-over of the preceding ones. Likewise, they occur in a sequence that reflects some major stages of life: Home, Play, and Work.
Before entering this new life, though, Crystal takes some time for world-building–as any author would do. Her silhouette is projected onto the iceberg again, and we see her standing above the rink, watching over the activities taking place there. As if the ice were her personal sketchpad, new designs are projected onto it in harmony with the movements of her pen. Characters emerge, doing whatever Crystal wills them to do.
Strike Up the Band and Send In the Clown
When musical notes appear from Crystal’s imagination, musicians arrive to play them for her. A fedora-topped fiddler and an accordion-armed newsboy take their places in doorways cut out of the iceberg. Meanwhile, an oboist plants his skates on the stage below. To the pounding beat of their klezmer-style music, a party of Shadows comes down the staircase. They are led by a man with a handlebar mustache. He begins an impressive juggling routine, which the comic character attempts to replicate using snowballs. You can likely guess how that ends.
The comic’s next skit, on the other hand, brings more surprises. The cart which he has been intermittently driving around the rink now crashes against one of its walls. The cart topples over, spilling him out of the driver’s seat, and he stumbles to his feet looking startled. After an unsuccessful attempt to reconstruct his vehicle, the comic settles on constructing something new from its scattered pieces.
The comic then set out to build, according to blueprints drawn by Crystal, an unlikely companion for himself. When he’s finished, he performs an ice dance with her–that is, with a spare wheel, a tie rod, and a headlight for the head. Their performance is full of both side-splitting gags (for example, the headlight breaking off and rolling away) and spine-chilling grace. Such is the stamp of authenticity that marks it as a Cirque creation.
The comic relief is put on hold when the comic exits the stage. Then it’s time for Crystal to confront her psychological struggles. A small structure resembling a house is brought onto the ice, her family sitting beneath it, still glued to their TV. Around them, the surface of the rink changes designs again, now appearing as an aerial view of her neighborhood. The fiddler takes his place, and Crystal takes hers–on a trapeze that’s about to lift her high above the town.
Then, we hear Sia’s “Chandelier” booming from the loudspeakers–and Crystal is ready to swing from it. I’ve heard this song a few times before, but not until that moment have I appreciated the power behind its lyrics. A sense of vulnerability, of being threatened is what comes across to me. Like an animal trapped in a cage. Eventually, fear will turn to rage, and it will find the strength to break free.
That’s what Crystal is trying to do. The song’s tempo is perfect, not only for her acrobatic routine but also for the figure skating that Crystal’s Reflection is performing on the rink below her–mirroring her movements, as always. Although Cirque du Soleil typically opts to enhance their shows with an original score, in this case, modern pop was the right choice.
Figure Skating Meets X-Games
After that brief respite, the excitement of live music returns. Our fiddler is now joined by a guitarist–an ideal pairing to produce the Celtic rock that screams through the auditorium. Ramps and a hockey net are rolled onto the rink. Skaters armed with sticks and helmets come out, and the next phase of life–Play–has officially begun.
Crystal gets to play Referee in the most epic game of her life, set on a giant frozen playground. She signals one skater after another to go flying across the ice, executing back-flips and other stunts off the ramps, tossing a ball to each other in mid-air.
Minutes pass in this exhilarating fashion before our comic re-enters the scene–dressed as a pinball. Appropriately, Crystal and the other skaters shove him around a bit, ultimately succeeding in tossing him into the net. Score!
Into The Working World
Crystal can’t stay on the playground forever, though, and soon it transforms into a city. The Borg-like office workers march onto the rink, pushing transparent panels that remind us of skyscrapers. Crystal gets trapped between them, and through the looking glass, she glimpses her Reflection. Crystal chases her around the maze, never quite catching up, and the pursuit is halted by the following act.
On the shoulders of briefcase-bearing skaters, thirty-foot poles are carried in. Eight workers, clad in vests and pinstripe pants, hook the poles to the ceiling and begin to climb them freehand. All reaching the same height, they begin to swing.
Crystal’s face betrays the same awe the audience feels as all four poles maintain an identical speed and angle for the entire routine. Its finale? Each climber leaps off his pole and into the arms of a group of skaters.
With everyone back on level ground, they flock to a set of chairs arranged classroom-style at one end of the rink. The clacking of typewriters echoes through the stadium as the band of cubicle-dwellers begin to type, hitting imaginary keys in chorus. One chair is left empty for Crystal, and she takes her seat at the head of them all. In this phase, she gets down to business, working through the problems in her life.
The typists follow Crystal’s lead as she thinks up the next act. At her bidding, one of them pushes his chair center-stage and sets it atop a table. He stands on it and waits for more chairs to be brought to him, setting each one on top of the last and continuing to climb. With no less than ten chairs under him, he poses upside-down on this unsteady tower. His movements as sure as if he had both feet on the ground. My eyes are fixed on him. But my brain can’t make sense of the way he stands on the chairs and stacks them simultaneously. Other athletes are balancing on each other’s shoulders to hand him more, but his almost-superhuman steadiness makes that task look easy.
His aerial view of the rink also marks a shift in Crystal’s viewpoint. All the characters she’s invented so far have been emotionally removed from her, but now she starts thinking on a more personal level.
After Work, another phase emerges: Romance. Couples glide hand-in-hand across the stage, performing graceful duets. In voice-over, Crystal asks herself: “If I am somewhere, some-when else, then who is the someone I can share my now with?”
The answer drops in, hanging from aerial straps.
Crystal follows him on her skates, and a multi-sport pas de deux set to Beyoncé’s “Halo” ensues. Time and again, Crystal travels from the ice to the air and back again. The routine is lovely but short-lived, and at its conclusion, her partner disappears. This proof of the transitory nature of her world jerks her to her senses.
Sink or Swim
Crystal’s Reflection shows up once more, this time accompanied by two duplicates. These four unified, but distinct, manifestations of Crystal perform one last ice dance together. At this point, the spotlights are angled in such a way that their shadows cluster into a huge snowflake on the ice. Aided by this introspective ballet, Crystal realizes she can’t stay in this place. Her reality is above the surface, with the people who really know her. To get back, she must break through her fears–the sheet of ice beneath which she has fallen.
“Fight for air,” she tells herself.
Then, projected onto the iceberg is an image of her swimming upwards. She must leave behind the dreams that have been choking her, even when she thought they were all she had. The music reaches a crescendo as she slams her hand against the underside of the ice. Though the audience is watching from above, as if standing on the surface of the pond, we all hold our breath until the ice begins to crack. As she pounds on it with increasing urgency, steam rushes out of the structure from one place after another.
She breaks through. A cloud of vapor totally enveloped the iceberg; we applaud at her triumph. Skaters emerge from the cloud, shouting and cheering, and finally, we see Crystal reunited with her family. They are not at all as they appeared in her imagination; rather, they welcome her with warm hugs and expressions of love.
A Happy Return
By building a world devoid of family, Crystal actually convinced herself that she needed them. This heartwarming conclusion to her story carries a powerful lesson. Sometimes the thing we’re trying to escape from is the most important thing in our life. Therefore, the path to happiness is not to invent a different life, but to embrace the one we have.
So, as much as I enjoyed being swept away in the dreamlike quality of this spectacular Cirque du Soleil show, the best part came after the ending, when I looked at the two people sitting next to me. Together we gave a standing ovation, then we made our way up the stairs of the auditorium. Arm-in-arm with my parents, I stepped out of the Cirque du Soleil and into the real sun–returning to my own beloved reality.