Review by Daniel MacKay
Opening night of Alegria in Halifax, May 27, 2009, was as spectacular as I'd hoped.
Since my first Cirque shows — O and Mystère in Vegas a decade ago, a couple of questions have been running around in my head like trapped squirrels. Why was the show so nutty? Why did some things make sense, and some things not?
Like any circus show, Cirque has the most physically beautiful people on the planet — from an eerily slender woman who can bend over backwards to form an arch while another balances on her stomach, to massive men with slabs of muscle for pecs and sixpacks that you could break kitchen chairs on. And yet half of the time, half of the performers are dressed in grotesque or androgynous costumes. Half the time the performers are telling some kind of story; half the time they're obviously not; the other half of the time it seems like you could figure out what the story is, if you were just a little smarter or paying attention a little more.
When I saw Saltimbanco at the Halifax Metro Centre in August 2007 it all clicked into place. The whole show is a balancing act. Half of the time, Cirque contrasts the classic performance art dimensions — fair & ugly, clumsy & graceful, male & female, the other half the time you are simply being entertained by magic and muscle, inertia and gravity. The third half of the time you can't tell whether they're telling a story or not, you can't tell if the costume indicates male or female. So the core of the fun of Cirque, is your mind scanning for coherence, sometimes catching on it briefly, and sometimes giving up and just enjoying the physicality and the music. Cirque's magic is that it creates conflict between the intellectual and physical parts of your own mind. The core is you asking "What am I supposed to be seeing here?" and you answering, "You can't tell."
In Alegria the stage is novel as always; the Metro Centre is set up in Half Bowl configuration, and your first impression of the set is of an Italian coliseum or plaza which receeds off into the distance, perhaps a half kilometer away. As you try to make sense of that, you see incongruous and huge rock band instruments against a faraway viaduct. No - they're normal sized musical instruments and the stage designers have tricked you - the first trick of the evening. The costumed musicians, as critical a part of any circus as performers or lights — play Moody Blues style rock on guitar, drumset, and lots of synth for every minute of the show.
Somewhere during the first act most of the stage floor disappeared — I couldn't tell where it went — leaving a huge X shape trampoline and lean, musclled performers flew high into the air, almost colliding with each other. Most of them male, I think. You can't tell.
The highlight of the first act is a story of a hobo. Well, maybe he's a steam engine with the hobo aboard. You can't tell. Well, maybe it's a story and maybe it's just a collection of spectacular stunts and stage magic. You can't tell.
But, the biggest surprise of the evening is the last act — so simple, so traditional, so natural, and yet the audience was gasping, screaming, and applauding more for that, than all of the other magic, gymnastic pyrotechnics we'd seen for the previous two hours.
Cirque runs at the Metro Centre until June 7th.
Daniel MacKay is publisher of and occasional writer for Wayves Magazine.