By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A burnished antique music box opens, and suddenly, set in motion, is a trapeze act with no trapeze. A strong man plants his feet and flings a beautiful woman into the air again and again; she somersaults, ever more elaborately, before he catches her.
The Cirque du Soleil has always been drawn to frame its collection of improbable virtuosos in a theatre of surreal images and whimsical free-association. And you could say that of the 2014 show that’s now ensconced under the Cirque’s signature yellow and blue-striped grand chapiteau at Northlands. But you’d be missing something in your description. In the canon of Cirque shows (of which I have seen more than my share), there is nothing quite like Kurios and its wonder-full 2014 “cabinet of curiosities.”
By opening the cabinet of the Belle Epoque imagination, Kurios and its mad inventor/scientist/Seeker character (Anton Valen) lead us into the Victorian turning-point milieu of exploration, discovery, invention that joined art to science. The steam that powered the railway (and the original steampunk), the new glow of electric light, clockwork toys, wind-up gramophones, perpetual motion machines, mechanical oddities, the deep-sea bathosphere fantasies of Jules Verne, gravity-defying hot-air balloons — they’re the motifs of a carnival that, in every detail and prop, embraces that new turn-of-the-century sense of wonder at life’s infinite oddities.
It’s directed by Michel Laprise, new to Cirque creation, who has Madonna’s Super Bowl half-time show on his resumé. Stéphane Roy’s stunning design, with its glowing bell jars of strange light, is dominated by a cogged wrought-iron Gustav Eiffel-style arch through which a steam train emerges to disgorge a tumble of passengers, or a giant mechanical hand arrives, crawling with exquisitely contorting deep-sea creatures. And Philippe Guillotel’s fantastical costumes, bona fide works of art, create the Seeker’s inventions who emerge from his cabinet of curiosities and come to life before our very eyes.
Mr. Microcosmos (Karl L’Ecuyer) has a huge bathosphere belly, where a tiny exquisite women Mini Lili (Rima Hadchiti) lives in a perfect little apartment with a perfect little armchair. Nico the Accordion Man stretches and compresses his pleated form into any configuration or size.
The Victorian love of exotica, curios and miniatures is everywhere, and set in motion, in Kurios. There are gramophone/typewriters, holograms, wild percussionists who play furniture and suitcases, a Darwinian gaggle (a school?) of half-men half-fish, a juggler who tosses human hands in the air.
And speaking of hands, in a 46-member cast of circus virtuosos there’s a puppetry whiz (Nico Baxais) who creates whole scenes with just his supple hands (and great lighting). They’re reproduced, in magical fashion, in a giant hot-air balloon floating above.
The towering chair balancing circus act you’ll remember from other Cirque shows is reinvented by happening at a dinner party, duplicated in exact mirror detail and upside down, hanging from the top of the tent. That was the moment, on Thursday’s opening night, when Edmonton provided a dramatic summer tempest outside, with a percussion score of thunder and pelting rain, that actually stopped the show for a time. The Cirque’s sound whizzes (here, Raphaël Beau and Bob & Bill) would never settle for such a crude sound mix.
It is a measure of the eccentric originality of Kurios that one of its cleverest scenes is an “invisible circus” of traditional acts. You see the trapezes swing, the diving board bounce and the splash of the water in the bucket below. The spotlights move; the tiger roars. What you won’t see are the performers.
The Cirque is all about marrying circus acts with theatre. Rarely has this aesthetic been so fulsomely and joyously realized as in Kurios. Some of the Cirque’s signatures remain. In every scene, there’s an observer, or a gaggle of them, wonderstruck by the magic around them. And well they might be, by the show’s reinventions.
In one act, a cyclist on an old-fashioned bike pedals her way serenly into the air and accomplishes impossible acrobatic feats from the handlebars and wheels. The classic trampoline act explodes to a new level of thrill on a huge net; an ensemble of extremely athletic sea creatures propel their team-mates to the top of the tent, just by adjusting the angles of their bounces at the edges.
If you’ve found a certain Cirque fatigue setting in of late — making the impossible look easy in show after show flirts with the law of diminishing returns — your sense of wonder will be refreshed by a show that gives you your gasp! back (with exclamation point).
And, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll even fall in love with a clown again: Facundo Gimenez’s seduction scene is a comic gem.
Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities
Theatre: Cirque du Soleil
Directed by: Michel Laprise
Where: Grand Chapiteau, Northlands Park
Running: through Aug. 13
Tickets: 1-877-924-7783, cirquedusoleil.com