There are two things that will survive the apocalypse: cockroaches and Cirque du Soleil. Such is its enduring legacy and its prevalence as a flagship for all things circus. The Grand Chapiteau is currently in Melbourne with Kooza, the company’s most recent work.
There’s no denying the skill and finesse of the performers from the mesmerising aerial hoop act to the terrifying high wire act, where four performers ride bicycles over a tightrope suspended eight metres in the air. Kooza presents us with a gripping spectacle of the human form defying its own limits. These performers are virtuosos of the art form and the whole experience is an expression of our glorious human potential.
But we expect this from Cirque du Soleil. And there is good reason for their reputation. They are an international institution that features performers from all over the world in a universal, global, multi-cultural, all-encompassing spectacle.
Which is why I wanted more.
Live performance is about risk and circus is no exception. There’s risk in each act, which is what makes them thrilling, but the catch-22 is they are professionals who tour the world with their specific set of skills. We know that they are masters of their craft who are almost too skilled to fail. The most thrilling moments, then, are the ones where a performer trips, nearly loses their balance or has to start their act again. But they are few, if at all. Even when they do ‘trip-up,’ we wonder if it was not all for show; was it ‘genuine? And we can see the safety mechanisms that act as theatrical devices and lead us to conclude that the circus must be extremely dangerous, after all.
That point above is a bit of a cop out. I mean, what kind of show am I dreaming of? Do I want to see the performers fall? Lose their lives for the sake of entertainment? Of course not. Perhaps that desire is a litmus test of our age, a marker of our desensitisation to violence and our indifference of real-world thrills. I want the circus more violent, more risky. But maybe that’s because I have been subjected to too many car-chase scenes in Hollywood films.
Then again, there is risk and there is risk. And I think what I really wanted was not riskier acts – I don’t know if they could be riskier – but a risker show. I wanted riskier ideas. I wanted the circus to mean something more than abstract universal calls of a ‘common humanity’ and the overused expression of the ‘potential for humans to overcome our bodily limitations’. In this age of anxiety, Trump, Brexit, mass-migration, drone killings, dispossession, and the First World collapsing and crumbling down into the Second and Third World, and taking everyone with it as it goes, I wanted something more from this circus of skilled professionals.
They already have us enthralled, so now what? Don’t show me another impressive feat; I want to think about something and call something into question while witnessing incredible skill.
Kooza’s writer and director, David Shiner, claims to examine the “human connection and the world of duality, good and bad.” What does that mean? How do I take that home? How is an exploration of dualities going to revitalise my mundane and tired existence? He claims that “the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s very much about ideas, too. As it evolves, we are exploring concepts such as fear, identity, recognition and power”.
There is nothing wrong with the fun and joy of circus for circus’s sake. But is a bizarre narrative about an innocent clown journeying into hell an exploration of “themes of identity, recognition and power” or a justification for the cool costumes? Clowns are not two-bit distractions between scenes. They can be used as instigators of reflection that offer profound insight – or at least be outrageously funny. Yet there are only so many times one clown can hit another in the testicles until even children see through the cheap trick and stop laughing. Why the confusion? Give us a showman, as in Circus 1903. Give us someone to leads us through the experience and explain to us what we’re about to see so we can appreciate it. It might seem like a tired and overused mechanism, but it works, and the nostalgia is palpable.
There’s something unsettling about Cirque du Soleil’s claims to universal egalitarianism and the belief in ‘global citizenship’. They say that no show is apolitical, so what is the overarching message of Kooza?
The aesthetic takes bits and pieces from every continent. Mexican Dia de los Muertos headgear, underscored by typical ‘African’ ‘tribal’ bongo, with dancers moving in a style reminiscent of the classic Indian dance-form Kathakali. It is a cannibalisation of cultures that takes elements of each to create a sort of Leviathan. This multicultural citizen-of-the-world view still stigmatises, promotes racial stereotypes and generally sucks the life from specific cultures, while covering up the real global relations between people. It puts a veil over our eyes, asking us to forget that our age is characterised by war, violent racial uprisings, religious extremism on all sides, right-wing populism and political tensions that may very soon lead to a violent global war.
By choosing to be apolitical, Kooza actually functions as an incredibly powerful and manipulative ideological machine that dismisses the walls that are going up, in order to express a global unity and pride in the feats and accomplishments of humankind. It will be difficult to keep doing that once the bombs start falling.
Who benefits from it? It’s nice to forget the worries of our age and sit together in a giant tent feeling cultural and watching people doing what they love. Or we’re indulging in the cultural superiority of watching the “foreignness” of the fancy French (even though we know it’s Canadian) company that has the best of the best from all around the world, and such lovely costumes.
Cirque du Soleil will survive our uncertain future. So go to the circus, and have a great time. I know everyone who was there did. It’s the circus and exists for entertainment and distraction. Still. I long for a day when they will use the resources at their disposal to re-invigorate the form and make us think about something more than this ‘everything’s going to be alright’ pseudo-egalitarianism.