Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cirque Jerk: My love/hate relationship with Holidaze

Posted By on Wed, Nov 18, 2009 at 2:21 PM

Princess Mongo Halloran
  • Princess Mongo Halloran
I must confess I missed the opening moments of Cirque Dreams: Holidaze because I was staring in slackjawed wonder at Orpheum CEO Pat Halloran's program note.

"It is often said that people always resemble or look like their dogs," Halloran wrote in an off-topic and weirdly redundant intro to what was, ostensibly, an acknowledgement of his 29-years as President of the Memphis Development Foundation. "If that is the truth, then I must look like Princess Mongo," he concluded before bragging about the 150 Broadway shows, thousands of concerts, and countless other performances that have brought 10-million people through the Orpheum's doors. In the top right hand corner of the page there was a photo of a goggle-wearing pooch, presumably Princess Mongo standing in for her master. By the time I looked up there was already some guy on stage juggling devil sticks about as well as some of the red-eyed hippies I've seen in Overton Park on 4/20. I thought about staring at my program some more, then quickly put it away to avoid the temptation.

I have mixed emotions about the evolution of the modern circus. In theory I should like all the innovation that's taken place since the 1980's when a struggling Canadian company called Cirque du Soleil changed things forever.

Bringing character-driven performances and dramatic context to traditional circus

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acts was an idea whose time had certainly come. In some ways it was long overdue. In the 1920's and 30's Russia's great experimental director Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold had done just the opposite to tremendous success and acclaim. But Cirque Dreams: Holidaze, a show in which the glittering ornaments on a 20-foot Christmas tree spring to life to sing, dance, impersonate Elvis, and perform death-defying acts that tickle the imagination isn't really about character or dramatic context. It's about garish, glittering over the top spectacle for its own sake. Too often I missed some feat of magic or skill that made a great chunk of the audience ooh and aah because I was distracted by dancers in giant, shimmering cookie costumes, or because I was watching the clown's unremarkable head-bobbing when I should have been paying attention to incredible jugglers. It's not like a three ring circus where there's a marvel on every stage. At Cirque Dreams: Holidaze there's something incredible happening center stage and all the rest is set dressing.

I'm a grumpy old critic, of course, and a circus junkie who's been attending big shows, side shows, burlesque shows and freak shows for 30-years. My 7-year-old twins were hypnotized from the moment a pair of beautiful fliers (who they mistook for twins) climbed into a lira ring to perform modern dance in the sky. A burly, bearded man in his 50's shouted bravo at regular intervals and clapped loudly even when nobody else was. There were gasps, giggles, and periods of stunned silence. Cirque Dreams did exactly what it was supposed to do. It amazed.

Some of the acts in Cirque Dreams: Holidaze are more polished than others. Of particular interest are a group of jugglers and acrobatic cyclists trained at the Shen Yang and Beijing acrobatic Schools in China. Their use of the diabolo—a kind of free form yo-yo for jugglers— might have stolen the show if not for Igor Gavaa's innovative hand balancing and Anatoliy Yeniy and Vladimir Dovgan whose gravity defying antics would have been just as astonishing even if they hadn't been dressed like giant sparkling penguins.

As a giant juggling Transformer Dmitri Chernov reminded me of what it felt like to be a kid and to attend a circus for the very first time.

With its crazy costumes, overt nods to traditional British panto and a booming score that sounds like it could have been composed by Mannheim Steamroller, Cirque Dreams: Holidaze is an overstuffed Christmas stocking designed to overwhelm the senses. Being no great fan of gaudy excess I'd have preferred more focus and polish to all the brightly colored clutter. But based on the audience's response, I was in a rather slim minority.

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