Cirque du Soleil's latest residency at the Royal Albert Hall, titled Kooza, opened to press this week (8 January 2013).
The show, which premiered in April 2007, is billed as "a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil, combining two circus traditions - acrobatic performance and the art of clowning".
Among the showpiece acts is an "unprecedented approach" to the High Wire and the "breathtaking" Wheel of Death – an act that Cirque du Soleil has never before presented under the big top.
Cirque du Soleil have dropped the hippie-drippy nonsense about the meaning of life and the soul of the universe and gone back to what they know best: fantastic circus acts, colourful vaudevillian costumes, raucous town square music and a tremendous finale of back-flipping, somersaulting gymnasts, some of them on stilts… the simple setting of a carnivalesque carousel-cum-pavilion, with a band of wheezy jazz and rock musicians and a couple of mellifluous girl singers, creates the right circus atmosphere for a succession of world class turns where the Big Top holds sway over alternative cabaret, despite the lack of live animals… what a string of treats on route in David Shiner’s production, designed by Stéphane Rog, with costumes by Marie-Chantale Vuillancourt and choreography by Clarence Ford.
A lengthy session of desperately unfunny clowning sets alarm bells ringing at the beginning of this... The clowns reappear with the frequency of a recurrent nightmare, which means that the gaps between the spectacular bits are far too long... we want to watch highly skilled performers do the sort of things that are scarcely possible, and in this respect Kooza is a triumph. There’s the unicyclist who goes around with, of course, a woman balanced on his head. Then there’s the four-person high-wire act complete with bicycles, chairs and sword fights. As if this weren’t enough, there’s the circus stunt to end them all, a Wheel of Death so visceral that it gave me motion sickness. I hardly dared to watch when the two performers ran round the outside rim of their wheels. As Stephen Sondheim so nearly put it, Send off the Clowns.
…there is a great deal of footling clowning and it proves every bit as grim as usual. Nevertheless there are many moments in Kooza of thrilling wonder and delight and several of the acts are among the most sensational I have seen… The staging is less hippy-dippy than usual with a cracking band and a strong female singer, and there is an exiguous narrative about a young boy being introduced to the wonders and terrors of the circus by a Harlequin figure. But what really matters are the performers who range from the excellent to the downright incredible… The piece de resistance however is the Wheel of Death… You watch with your heart in your mouth because there isn’t a safety wire in sight and the act sets the whole house on a roar of delicious excitement and dread. At moments like this it is easy to forgive Cirque du Soleil its cheesier excesses.
There are lots of costumes in easy-on-the-eye autumn hues, which make the performers look like indistinguishable aliens on their way to a Venice carnival. There's an abundance of shopping centre-style muzak. There's a great deal of symmetrical choreography, which lends the whole thing the air of a May Day parade in a minor authoritarian state, and the show is padded out to last three hours with clowns so deeply irritating that they are no laughing matter. Strip away all the bombast and soft-focus window dressing, though, and you'll find some truly remarkable circus acts on display… It makes for an evening that is impressive, but almost entirely soulless.
There are moments of amazement in this, the twentieth show by Cirque du Soleil - but, oh boy, they don’t half make you wait for them. The world-conquering French-Canadian circus troupe has crammed an hour of top-notch spectacle into a three-hour show, including interval, organised around “the spirit of the clown”. Which means, alas, a lot of wallying about from the often obnoxious Cirque clowns…And then, in a sharper second half, we get the night’s gravity-defying, death-defying highlight. Two men walk inside 10ft-high cylinders on opposite ends of a huge axis revolving around a central spindle… It’s jaw-droppingly brilliant. And if nothing else matches that, the quality stays high… Wee Willie Winkie returns to the real world after three hours, by which time you’ll be ready for it. You’ll have seen some grandiose guff, and you’ll have seen some wonders of the world. Not such a bad deal.