Balancing Acts: Two Cirques Play with the Form, with Mixed Results

The gymnast who can stand her whole body on one hand for minutes on end never lost her balance. The tumblers who spin and dance atop upturned partners' feet made no missteps. The acrobat who summits a pole as easily as if he were skipping up a flight of stairs before plunging back down stopped himself inches above the ground.

But if the strength and technique of performers in Amaluna are as superlative, and the designs that support them as lavish, as in pretty much every Cirque de Soleil show, this latest from the 29-year-old international circus juggernaut suffers from a lack of focus. Ironically, that's precisely what, in addition to its eschewing of live animals, is supposed to distinguish Cirque de Soleil from other circuses: narratives and themes to make the show a coherent and meaningful piece of quasi-theater instead of a mere variety show.

Amaluna was written and directed by the Broadway director Diane Paulus, who was supposedly inspired by moon goddesses from different cultures (making it girl-power-friendly) and Shakespeare's The Tempest. The latter isn't exactly a feminist text, which may explain why Paulus, after devising a world-rending storm, focuses on the story's love plot and the monster (rendered here as a dinosaur-like creature who, in an ingenious feat of costuming, can control the wag of his tail) who's protective of the girl. Further, only one or two characters have clear connections to the moon; most groups of characters serve no other narrative purpose than to introduce a new color scheme.

These problems would be more forgivable if Paulus hadn't front-loaded the most exciting acts and padded the rest with juvenile and overlong clown sequences. After beginning with near sensory overload, much of the show's second half is tiny and practically still. One of these scenes features “balance goddess” Lara Jacobs Rigolo building a room-sized tree out of 13 palm leaf ribs, all of which she supports on one point of her arm. The act tries to make a precarious moment in a game of Jenga last for about 15 minutes, which might have been fine in another show but was a letdown here after the pyrotechnics of the first act, and a disservice to the talent of the performer.

Tourettes Without Regrets, the long-running Oakland-based monthly variety show, also consists (in part) of the kinds of acts you might see in a circus. November's show, for example, features the dance-trapeze artist Shannon Gray. At the completion of her act, which in another context might have looked artsy and delicate, she was given no awestruck circus audience's applause, but a rock star's wild fanfare.

The genius of Tourettes Without Regrets is the way it mixes the rarified — aerial work, an indie rock concert, a 1930s chorus line, a poetry slam — with the downmarket: stand-up comedy, dirty haiku battles, and raw-meat-toss contests. All of these art forms, the show suggest, are equally worthy of our esteem.

It's not a particularly novel notion — postmodernist art has been asserting the same for decades — but Tourettes Without Regrets does the impossible with it: getting legions of young people to watch live performing arts. Its success derives partly from affordable ticket prices, but also largely from the event's structure, which is more like a concert than, say, a piece of theater: There is freedom to walk around, talk, drink, and go outside as the show is going on.

Yet Tourettes Without Regrets is not as cool as it could be, largely because of the persona adopted by host Jamie DeWolf. Introducing each act or staging contests among audience members, he acts like a second-rate comedy club or game-show host, making perfunctory sex and race jokes, cramming “fuck” into each phrase. This is as he promotes other shows and congratulates the audience for not sitting at home and watching TV.

The problem is not that Tourettes Without Regrets requires a classier host — far from it — but rather that the mode DeWolf adopted was so obviously fake and pandering to an audience the company has underestimated. The acts are so good on their own (even the poetry slamming), and so excellent in combination, that they don't need a cartoon jumping up and down telling us how great they are, and how great we are for watching them. There, perhaps, lies the variety show's next challenge: to come up with a frame for the show that's as radical and vital as the show itself.

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