Flying high, but not quite buzzing

by Lindsay Nelson

I have vivid childhood memories of two circuses: Ringling Brothers and Shrine. The latter was a delightfully shabby affair held in an old auditorium where audiences sat on concrete bleachers that were occasionally adorned with tacky plastic chairs. There were lots of animals, and the holding areas outside had a strong smell. Inside, rough-looking men hawked huge rubber balls, finger puppets and technicolor cotton candy. I was usually allowed one purchase, and for some reason I always chose the finger puppets.

I remember the year that Ringling Brothers, which performed at the much classier Erwin Center in my hometown of Austin, Texas, brought a “real live unicorn” to its show. It was a goat that emerged for a few minutes at the end — complete with a transplanted horn — though it was barely visible from my seat way up in the arena.

Cirque du Soleil feels about as far away from those shows as a high school play from Broadway. There are no animals, to the relief of many circus enthusiasts long disgusted by reports of mistreatment. Though the shows are typically staged in a circus-style “big top” flying brightly colored flags, it’s a slick and clean and temperature-controlled affair. No one is hawking finger puppets or cotton candy, though there’s a plethora of Cirque merchandise in the entryway.

Founded in 1984 in Montreal by former street perfomers Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste.-Croix, Cirque is now a global theatrical behemoth, with annual revenues of nearly $1 billion and more than 5,000 people on the payroll. There are nine separate Cirque du Soleil shows touring around the world — with another seven now being staged in Las Vegas and one in Orlando, Florida.

For years it seemed Cirque’s popularity and dominance would continue unabated. But things got shaky in 2008 when it began a rapid expansion, trying to create more permanent and touring shows every year. “Banana Shpeel,” billed as a “new twist on vaudeville,” opened to scathing reviews in 2009 and closed after less than a year. In January 2013, the company announced it was laying off 400 workers and closing four of its shows — a move attributed to high production costs. Later that same year, longtime performer Sarah Guyard-Guillot was killed when she fell 28 meters during a performance of the Las Vegas show “Ka.” It was the first reported performer death in the company’s 30-year history.

Authorities found both the venue (the MGM Grand) and Cirque du Soleil liable and ordered them to pay $25,000 in fines (both parties are appealing the ruling). In early 2013, the national, Toronto-based Globe and Mail ran a story headlined, “Has Cirque du Soleil lost its way?”

Concerns about Cirque’s future, however, don’t seem to have reached Tokyo, where ticket sales are healthy for a three-month run of “Ovo” that opened on Feb. 12. This show, which debuted in 2009, is billed as “an immersion into the teeming and energetic world of insects” — a natural theme for a show that focuses on contortionists and acrobats.

It’s the first Cirque show to be created by a woman — the celebrated Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker. And, with ovo meaning “egg” in Portuguese, we find its narrative through-line involves a mysterious creature that shows up carrying a massive egg on its back.

I’ve now seen three Cirque shows — “Alegria,” “Kooza” and this one — and they’ve followed a fairly standard format. There’s live music with singing, this time with a bossa nova feel. There are two or three “clowns,” usually older and portlier performers who harangue the others and generally engage in slapstick banter between the acts. (Like more than a few others, I find the clowns annoying; Cirque never quite seems to decide why they’re there, and they always feel like filler.) And then the finale usually involves trampolines.

Along the way there are contortionists, jugglers, trapeze artists and acrobats. Everyone wears brightly colored, skintight costumes and elaborate makeup that can make the whole experience a bit trippy (as hilariously portrayed in Judd Apatow’s 2007 film “Knocked Up,” when two characters get high in Las Vegas and go to a Cirque show).

Rather than simply moving from act to act with introductions by a ringmaster, Cirque’s acts are linked with a narrative — the “human zoo” of Las Vegas’ “Zumanity,” a child’s dark odyssey through dreamland in “Quidam” — and this time, a world of insects that’s invaded by a mysterious visitor.

There’s an interesting blend of playfulness and menace in a lot of Cirque shows, which may have begun with 1994′s “Alegria,” when creators purposefully designed sets with sharper angles and harsher lighting that created an oppressive atmosphere. Still, the shows are billed as family entertainment — apart from “Zumanity,” that is, with its copious nudity and burlesque-style acts.

The insect theme of “Ovo” works well, allowing for some creative costume design (one “insect” appeared to be covered with rubber balls and plastic piping). It is, too, a natural context for contortionists (spiders and dragonflies), aerial silks (butterflies) and gymnasts (ants) who lift and flip oversized objects painted to look like fruit.

Meanwhile, insect noises are piped throughout the auditorium, and the show opens with performers in “beekeeper” costumes floating large butterflies over the heads of the audience.

It’s a cool concept, but I was left wanting more immersion —maybe huge trees and leaves, smells … or the feeling I really was a tiny being in the middle of a jungle. Instead, I couldn’t really forget I was in a carefully constructed performance space with booths selling souvenirs and churros just meters away.

Nonetheless, I’ve found the shows work best when they take the familiar and twist it into something unexpected — or when they manage to wow with a simple feat of human strength or bodily artistry. This time around, I was delighted by a pair of aerial performers who twisted into creative shapes while swirling on ropes high above the crowd, flapping their diaphanous “wings” like butterflies. There was the “slackwire” walker who seemed to truly defy the laws of physics, performing handstands and bouncing around on a thin, flimsy-looking strand that swung back and forth without ever flipping him off.

One of the less life-threatening acts featured a performer encased in a costume that looked like a collection of giant Slinkies — those springy, coiled-wire toys — who held me rapt as he rolled and unrolled his gangly arms and legs. Then there was a giant flower that opened and closed very, very slowly in the background.

All this was actually more entertaining than the show’s signature acrobats, jugglers and trampoliners who, while fun to watch, didn’t really do anything most of those present wouldn’t have seen before.

This is perhaps Cirque du Soleil’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s set such a high standard for circus-style performance that it’s getting harder and harder for the company to top itself — and given that more than 100 million people worldwide have seen a Cirque show (15 million in 2013 alone), plenty of audience members are likely to be repeat customers.

It’s ironic, then, that a typical trapeze act might amaze audiences at a lesser circus, but at a Cirque show there has to be something more going on (this time there wasn’t, and the trapeze act felt lackluster as a result).

As a near-$1 billion-brand, of course, Cirque has to stick with what works, which means lots of traditional and familiar circus fare — even if they aren’t as surprising or interesting as the Slinky-man.

However, Tokyo Cirque fans, and fans of spectacle-filled entertainment, will probably love “Ovo.” It’s beautiful to look at, and there are enough eye-popping acts to make up for the ones that don’t exactly dazzle. I certainly enjoyed myself, and there were a few moments of real awe and beauty.

Ultimately, though, I wanted something artistically riskier and rougher; I wanted to be surprised more often. If there’s any objectivity to that subjective view, and Cirque has indeed lost its way a bit, maybe this is the time to experiment with a completely new and jarring format. Not all risky endeavors need be such slip-ups as “Banana Shpeel.”

Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo” plays at the Daiba Big Top in Tokyo through May 11. For tickets, priced ¥12,500-¥5,500, go to fujitvdirect.jp/pc/sp/ovo-cirquefc.jsp. For more details and to book tickets visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.