Balancing Act: Exploring the Fear and Wonder of Technology with Superhuman Flexibility, Juggling

Cirque Du Soleil prides itself on being “nouveau cirque,” or a contemporary circus. Forgoing the idea of a freakshow with bearded ladies and carnival barkers, and choosing not to use animals, the company's approach sounds like a softer, more humanized take on a traditional circus. But its newest show Kurios, Cabinet of Curiosities, now making its U.S. premiere under the Big Top at AT&T Park, seems to be anything but. If fact, last Friday's opening night of Kurios seemed to be a trap for the poor audience. Because only a monster could watch a man balancing on one hand atop a teetering stack of chairs, dozens of feet in the air, without feeling the sharp pangs of anxiety coming on.

Audience cruelty aside, our Canadian neighbors at Cirque have come up with a solid formula for entertaining audiences for the past 30 years. It seems to be equal parts over-the-top design, stable storylines, creepy music, and, of course, an enormously talented cast of performers. This isn't to say that the show is predictable. The show's director and writer, Michel Laprise, has made sure that it's quite the opposite. The circus traffics in surprise. And in a time when many think that they've seen it all, any troupe that can still take a simple juggling act and mold it into a thrilling experience should be commended.

As with most shows in the Cirque Du Soleil repertoire, Kurios is a plot-driven performance. In this case, the audience is led by the curious “Seeker,” a slight man with the intelligence of a great inventor and the imagination of an overactive child. Following him into his Cabinet of Curiosities is like entering a new world. Various objects from his worldly (and otherworldly) travels spring to life; a simple bicycle becomes a gravity-defying wonder, and a giant drop of mercury becomes a platform for a metallic strongman's aerial act.

Each one of these vignettes is loosely set in an early-19th century steam-punk wonderland, where the innovative technology of the day is seen as unknown and extraordinary. Film, airships, steam engines, and typewriters are depicted as marvelous new inventions through the fresh eyes of the Cirque characters. In one act, a character seems genuinely confused by a series of sounds coming from a phonograph. After trying — and failing — to communicate with the phonograph as if it were a human, the fed-up performer chases the machine offstage, barking like a crazy dog. It's sweet, really. Almost like watching a grandparent try to operate a smartphone.

And this idea of new technology being new and wondrous, yet also somewhat overpowering and spooky, is a great concept to poke fun at. By giving us a look into the exaggerated and somewhat fictional past, Cirque takes the contemporary concern with screen addiction and shows us the humor of it — which is much needed. Particularly for San Franciscans with a perpetually complicated relationship to its technology.

So while the plot and concepts might be new, Kurios still contains many of Cirque Du Soleil's go-to acts. The Acro Net (aka a really, really big trampoline to those of us who don't speak Circus) makes an appearance. A couple use each other to perform air-bound somersaults. There is the previously mentioned juggling act. Even still, it's surprising how the company manages to keep its tried-and-true acts fresh. Although patrons walk into the Big Top with a clear understanding of what a circus is, the gasps and cheers throughout the evening were proof of hundreds of minds being blown. Why? Because the cast seems truly superhuman at times: There's a group of four contortionists who may or may not have sold their joints to the devil in exchange for their insane flexibility, and a strange balancing act that's much too surprising to go into detail about.

After two hours of magical performances like these, the occasional flub — a dropped drumstick, or a less-than-convincing acrobat used to bulk up a large group dance number — are easily forgiven. Even the audience member who was dragged onstage and made to suffer what can only be described as a bad first date with a heartbreakingly persistent clown seemed to leave the show very, very happy.

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