There's something about Cirque du Soleil shows that drives me crazy. I mean in a good way—at least kind of in a good way. I mean, I love its shows to pieces, don't get me wrong, but they also frustrate me, a lot. They obsess me, send my thoughts off in a thousand different directions at once. I leave Cirque du Soleil floating in a cloud of unknowing, bemused, silenced by a surfeit of images and feelings, with so many assorted pieces of the show floating around my head—costumes and performers and bits of music and overwhelming moments of aesthetic ecstasy—that when I try to put it all together and articulate what it all means . . . I just can't.
But that's the point, I think. I think the people behind Cirque du Soleil intentionally create shows that tease and tease and tease, leading us on, promising ever more, overwhelming us with sights, sounds, dancers, acrobats, and clowns until the rational brain gives up and we all become wide-eyed, slack-jawed children again. Then the lights come up and we go home, bereft.
This is especially true of Cirque du Soleil's latest show, Luzia, cowritten (with Julie Hamelin) and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, an exceptionally well-conceived and well-executed entertainment that at almost two and half hours, with a 25-minute intermission, still feels far too short. Subtitled "A Waking Dream of Mexico," it lives up to the oxymoron. From the opening moments, when the show's protagonist, a hapless clown (expertly played by Eric Fool Koller), free-falls into Cirque du Soleil's very whimsical version of our neighbor to the south, we find ourselves in a surreal place packed with all manner of dreamlike elements freely borrowed from Mexico's religious and cultural heritage. (There are sprinklings of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other visual artists throughout, and one of the circus acts, the Adagio, directly references the 1949 film Salon Mexico, about a taxi dancer in a sleazy nightclub who uses her earnings to put her daughter through a tony private school.)
The structure of the show is, at its root, that of a traditional circus, just as Cirque du Soleil's founders, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix—both former street performers in Montreal—and their original associates were steeped in circus traditions. But Cirque long ago transcended the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey paradigm, and in the end transformed it so much that even the Greatest Show on Earth (which shut down in May) discovered it was playing Sears to Amazon Prime.
In Luzia the circus acts are a canvas upon which the Cirque du Soleil team overlays costumes and music and light to create dazzling performance-art pieces. They're great in themselves, but they're also a springboard to something meaningful as opposed to mere eye-popping entertainment. At times they're more reminiscent of the circus imagery in paintings by Picasso and Chagall or poems by E.E. Cummings than of, well, circus acts.
This is especially true of a dreamlike sequence in which Angelica Bongiovonni spins around the stage in a Cyr wheel as Enya White soars above her on trapeze. What begins as a display of athletic skill and daring becomes an utterly transcendent scene whose gorgeous movement, music (written by Simon Carpentier), lighting (by Martin Labrecque), and stagecraft (water falls) prompt meditations on evanescence as well as memories of childhood. To be sure, even the more common circus acts—like a team of acrobats diving through rings from ever-higher heights—are top-of-the-line when reengineered by Cirque, to the point that they seem new. In fact, every moment of Luzia feels new and transformed—down to the very title, which reportedly combines the Spanish word for light (luz) with that for rain (lluvia) to create a new word for its new world.
And it's a creation of constant novelty; the show never stops changing as, over the course of the evening, we're tossed from desert to rainforest to seacoast. Luzia isn't just entertaining and enlightening but ultimately exhausting, a luminous journey from aesthetic revelation to speechless consternation. v