Royal Albert Hall; 11th January 2015
A clean round stage waits beneath the sophistry and glamour of red velvet seating and elegant columns reaching up in four circular tiers. The ring doors are draped with elaborately strung curtains, and a dreamy tropical sound of ukeleles and bursting bubbles pipes into the arena.
As if in a parallel universe, where popular circus has remained at the top of the cultural pecking order, we find Kooza sitting in state at the Royal Albert Hall. Cirque Du Soleil created this homage to their ringland roots in 2007, and this is the second time the production, directed by David Shiner, has cavorted into the opulent auditorium, appearing here previously in 2013.
In the journey of The Innocent (Stephan Landry) that loosely ties the gilded acts together, I see a sweetly simple allegory of finding personal strength and the wisdom to control it, as the character becomes a stripy onesie-wearing Alice in Wonderland. After the initial clowning and comically delivered pre-show announcements, the tale begins: inside a special bicycle delivery package (what a coup for sponsors DHL!) lurks the incarnation of The Innocent’s subconscious desires – the quick-change jack-in-the-box Trickster (Cedric Belisle). With a wand that, secretly, contains no more power than the one who wields it, the pair conjure a world of fantastic inhabitants who present their specialisms in celebratory welcome.
An Atlantean band-stand pushes forward, housing a band whose notes contain jazz, rock and Indian influences, and an ensemble company in costumes of red and gold (incorporating circus outfitting traditions of both military and orientalist styles) who perform energetic pyramids and perch acts and with a handheld trampoline called, I learn from the programme, a nalukataq.
A trio of contortionists are up next in a sinuous and mesmerising chroeography of postures and acrobalancing (Ninjin Altankhuhyag, Odgerel Byambadorj, Sunderiya Jargaisaikhan). One lady performs the infamous Exorcist spider spinning move while her partners rest on each other’s twisted hips.
It should almost go without saying that the cast are all performers at the top of their game, given the intense global competition to work under the CDS brand. Nevertheless, slip-ups can happen and, without watching for a second time it’s impossible for me to tell whether Yulia Korosteleva’s dance trapeze was cut short for dramatic effect or other reasons. I do know that the moment didn’t seem to fit the general gloss of the show.
A duo unicycling acrobalance routine from Yuri Shavro and Olga Tutynina is given an injection of Latin passion by the superb band, which Shavro is able to echo in his performance. The finale trick is an excellent rapid sequence of spins, seeing Tutynina thrown around and around Shavro’s neck as he pedals them both around the ring.
The gangling King of Fools (Gordon White) and his two clown compatriots (Colin Heath and Amo Gulinello) perform an entrée with a magic throne (with design based on illusionist Buatier de Kolta’s original – another nice nod to the circus lineage). The gags are good – some excellent – and the characters are strong, so I find it hard to work out why the act grates on me. Is it the fake voices? The genuine American accents? The concealed microphones? Perhaps it’s the sense that everything is pushed to 110%. Which I know doesn’t exist. Whatever it is, by the second half of the show I have warmed to them. Perhaps I just needed time to readjust to speaking voices after the mime of all the others onstage.
The first half ends with a high wire display from Angel, Vincente, and Roberto Quiros Dominguez and Brayan Sanchez, according to the cast list I’m given. I wonder if a substitution has been made unannounced, as one member seems decidedly off his game with the footwork as they dance, two a-piece, on two wires strung directly above one another across the ring. Their white costumes, with a red feather atop each turban, are highlit against the coloured backdrop, and a net is raised as they all gather on the top rope for a display of fencing and further balance on bicycles. As the top-balancer sends his chair tumbling into the net from the beam balanced between the two bikes, we are reminded of the real drop beneath them and gravity’s effects.
After the interval, the story finds The Innocent unable to control his powers, and the creation he manifests is a darkly glinting Mardi Gras, a voodoo carnival of dancing skeletons that slides into a white-knuckle Wheel Of Death. The vibrant colour palette of turquoise and red has been subverted now to form a sinister forest and the demonic styling of Jimmy Ibarra and Roland Solis. In an act that begins with a supernatural calm, weight and force hidden by distance and a percussive accompaniment, the pace and the tension mount until the two acrobats power themselves onto the tops of their whirling wheels, skipping with ropes and creating daring leaps at precarious looking angles that stop my breath time and again.
Drummer Andrea Vadrucci is bought to the fore in a sparkling solo as Solis and Ibarra exit with the flourish common to all tonight’s acts, and the heavy kit is vanished to make room for Irina Akimova in a purple feathered showgirl cape.
The cape is quickly shed, to allow a series of silver hula hoops to be manipulated up and down Akimova’s fishnet clad body. There are some striking visuals – notably a sequence of walkovers whilst two hoops are spun from an unmoving hand – however I prefer a hoop act with a more distinct personality.
The clown trio return to complete the transition back to a lighter place, performing a ‘Let’s Dance’ routine with an audience volunteer, and then Yao Deng Bo presents a chair balance number under a sea of greens and golds. Clipping on a harness as the stack reaches six chairs high upon their pedestal, Deng Bo adds a further two until he appears to swim from the top of the column, supported in a horizontal balance by just one arm. The act is accompanied by the gorgeous tones of Vedra Chandler, whose rich soulful voice has added depth to much of tonight’s adventure.
It seems The Innocent has succeeded in taming The Trickster, whose shifting colours have been returned to those of the protagonist. In a hope and joy filled teeterboard finale our naive hero is allowed the chance to join the antics of the Kooza universe, who know how to live life to the full. Acrobats are flung individually and on wooden stilts to perfect landings, before a touching end scene.
There is probably a very interesting study to be held into why audiences visit circus shows, and where these expectations cross, diverge and mingle with those of theatre or dance audiences… Anyone up for the task?