By Anne Trominski:
I love a circus. The dazzling colors, bright lights, outrageous costumes, amazing feats of acrobatics, and over-the-top showmanship of the experience checks all my entertainment boxes. I have loved going to circuses ever since I was a kid begging my mom to take me to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily when they came to town. That giddy excitement has never left me, for it’s an experience that is truly for “children of all ages.”
That being said, as I grew up, the idea of a circus became more complex. I have yet to experience any circus story (whether in movies or novels) that was a happy one. The closest I can think of is Water for Elephants, and that plot still involves spousal abuse, animal abuse, and a murder. Hollywood loves to juxtapose the shiny joy of three-ring entertainment against whatever grim reality they are going for at that moment. Unfortunately, there is some legitimate grim reality to be had in circus history, not the least of which is the mistreatment of animals.
Just about the time my educated older thoughtfulness was ready to put the kibosh on my childhood love, Cirque du Soleil entered the picture to make circuses a delight again. Formed by a group of street performers out of Quebec in the 1980s, Cirque du Soleil seems to have successfully dropped everything that made circuses shady, including the animal acts. In addition, they not only kept the good stuff, they recreated it on a whole new level.
Cirque du Soleil costumes still feature lots of color and sequins like the circuses of yore, but they’re also structural and reminiscent of avant garde fashion. The clowns and acrobats still fascinate the audience with their physical antics, but now they also dance and act out subtle plot lines throughout the show. And forget calliope music, each Cirque du Soleil show has its own orchestrated soundtrack performed live by gifted musicians and singers. Cirque du Soleil is the circus elevated to an art form.
I first experienced Cirque du Soleil as most people do, in Las Vegas. The Cirque aesthetic is right at home in the too-muchness that is Las Vegas. I saw Mystere, the first show to come to Vegas, which is still playing at Treasure Island. I was hooked the moment the worldbeat music began and performers covered in feathers seemed to walk down the walls. There are so many Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas that fans often describe them by one distinguishing feature: Cirque with water (O); Cirque with the stage that moves (KÀ); Cirque with nudity (the now-closed burlesque Zumanity). The latest Cirque shows in Las Vegas combine the circus arts with pop music, including LOVE (which features Beatles music) and MJ One, a tribute to Michael Jackson (previously reviewed by Flapper Press).
In addition to its many Las Vegas versions, Cirque du Soleil still carries on the tradition of a travelling circus with multiple shows that tour the world. Like the Vegas versions, each travelling show has its own unique theme and story to distinguish it from the others, from the soft and romantic Corteo to Crystal—Cirque du Soleil meets ice capades. (No really.)
My husband and I recently saw Bazzar while it was here in San Antonio, Texas. Like most of the travelling Cirque shows, it was held in outdoor tents featuring the distinctive swirling striped pattern. They were set up not in a field but in the parking lot of our local minor league baseball team’s stadium (go Missions). The whole thing was huge, featuring one center tent with a one-ring stage and theater-in-the-round stadium seating, which was rather cozy but still comfortable. Outside that center tent was a ring featuring an extensive string of gift-shop kiosks and concessions. Staying true to their Vegas sensibility, the concessions featured a full bar with signature cocktail. We purchased a dry cabernet and a souvenir magnet for my collection and headed into the show.
A combination of heavy curtains at the entrances and dark-blue interior blocked out the sunlight that was shining during our matinee show and made it feel like we had slipped into another world. And in a way we had. The small stage made it a very intimate show, and the performers often interacted with the audience. As it started, the emcee coached us to say, “Wow” every time he said, “Cirque du Soleil,” and that was the nature of this little world inside the tent. We had come to be amazed, and the performers had come to do everything they could to make us say, “Wow.”
And we did. Repeatedly. I’d love to have the descriptive powers to describe the different acts in detail for you, but when things seem to defy the laws of physics, it’s hard to get them down on paper (the couple were both on roller skates on a small circular stage, and they were attached by a strap around their necks, and he was swinging her around while going in circles, and then she started to spin . . . ). Just imagine something that you think is utterly impossible for the human body to do—then set it to music and add dancing.
Cirque du Soleil has stuck close to its roots and still regularly recruits street performers to join their troupe. For instance, one performer we saw had clearly spent hours just figuring out what cool tricks he could do on his bike. But now he does them on a chrome bike while wearing a turquoise bowler hat as a saxophonist plays behind him. Other performers were more traditional circus acts, such as a man and woman on a trapeze; except, in the Cirque version, they performed as a couple having a lover’s spat jostling for position on the same swing.
Being so close to the acts made them more exciting, as you could clearly see just how perilous some of the acrobatics were. You could often hear the audience gasp and make exclamations, and more than once I saw someone grab the person next to them in excitement. Even spotting the mistakes of a live performance somehow made it more impressive. When the fire juggler dropped one of his spinning flaming batons, it occurred to me just how hard that must be to do and how many times he must have burned himself in learning the skill. Add to that the fact that this was just the afternoon show, and that the performers would be doing this all again that evening for a new audience—its kind of mind-boggling that they’re real human beings.
There was a short intermission in the middle but otherwise the acts flowed from one to another as a small band kept the jazzy music flowing and a remarkably talented singer switched between French and English lyrics. As more complicated staging was being set up, the emcee would interact with the audience and drop local cultural references, which for this crowd included barbacoa and Big Red, Buc-ee’s, and (the particularly deep cut) Texas Thrift. At one point, as he was cuing sections of the crowd to sing “ohhh” and raise their hands, he spun, pointed, and said, “Just that guy.” The spotlight lit up Spurs basketball legend David Robinson sitting in the crowd, who gamely lifted his arms and sang “ohhh” to everyone’s delight.
The local call-outs were just part of the many details that made this show fun—just truly and simply fun. That’s the thing, there are some very grim realities taking place out in the world right now (with or without Hollywood juxtaposition). It’s really nice to be able, from time to time, to disappear into the dark of a theater or a tent and feel like you are somewhere else entirely. It’s lovely to be in a world where everything is interesting to look at, the music is good, and the people are creative and spend their time honing a talent for no other reason than to make you say, “Wow.” Even if it’s just for one sunny afternoon in December, it’s fun to go to the circus.
Anne Trominski was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, but now resides in San Antonio. She graduated from Trinity University after majoring in English and Communication. She spends her dull working hours as an editor for a major publishing company, and her personal time as an oft-frustrated writer. She has written two yet-to-be published novels, countless reams of heartfelt poetry, and has tried her hand at blogging a few times. Anne is also a gastronomist and amateur chef who likes to obsessively read articles on health and wellness. She is a constant learner and explorer, and likes to drop knowledge on others like it’s hot. Most recently, she produces the podcast Civics on the Rocks.