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The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) continues its remarkable rookie season with Cirque Dreams Illumination, probably its largest and most complex presentation. Durham also has the distinction of hosting the world premiere of this complete production, although subsets and smaller versions have been on the road for several years. This is a frenetic and frantic spectacular that combines the European style of the original Cirque du Soleil company with Broadway theatrics, vaudeville, and a decidedly Vegas and cruise-line sensibility. Depending on your taste, that can be either the positive or negative aspect of this colorful, attention-grabbing show.
Based on the reputation of previous Cirque productions it is fair to say that most people came to this show expecting to see feats of acrobatic and athletic prowess that you could not experience elsewhere, and no one was disappointed in that regard. The problem with the majority of the show is that the eight or ten major stunts (not meant as a derogatory term), which were quite amazing, were accompanied by a mélange of extraneous fluff and shtick.
The setting was ostensibly a New York subway station, and there was a quasi background story of a newswoman chasing down stories while singing a narrative of the action. Janine Romano has a powerful Broadway-style voice, but the Jill Winters/David Scott formulaic songs became merely an intrusion as they took up more than half of the show.
Well, let’s get to the meat of Cirque and its real raison d’être: the stunning acrobatic events. The show started with a slack tightrope display that set the tone for the evening; the performers’ startling grace, ease, and showmanship while doing feats caused us mortals to marvel that we are of the same species. A quartet of contortionists/aerialists from Mongolia were suspended in cubes high above the stage and twisted and turned like those old Gumby toys. There was a young man who balanced on an ever-increasing tower of chairs that looked as if just stacking the chairs themselves would be challenge enough. He also would balance on one hand and twist his body in such a manner that made Olympic gymnasts seem like uncoordinated couch potatoes.
Other highlights included a duo that had one person lying on a bench while he “juggled” the other with his legs in rapid somersaults, and finally, the woman sitting above a high perch that was balanced on the very hard head of a very powerful man. Now these were all quite tremendous acts of athleticism requiring thousand of hours of practice, but none of them were original. If you are old enough to remember The Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows of that era, all of these stunts were being done back then, usually by eastern European acrobats performing to an endless loop of “Saber Dance” from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane.
A pre-picked audience participation skit that involved a silent movie director armed with just a whistle setting up a scene for a movie was quite funny and a nice break from the relentless whirligig of activity, although after 20 minutes it eventually wore out its welcome. A recurring figure throughout the evening was a young man who specialized in robotic movements and apparent voluntary dislocations of his limbs that drew shrieks and groans from the audience.
This was a very entertaining evening out, but it is definitely a show that is built with the concept of displaying as much as possible at one time – like a busy web page or a TV news show with several crawls and other information displayed in every blank space.
At times it seemed almost corporate in its design, and in fact it was developed, at least partially, with the purpose of presenting it at trade shows and corporate events. That’s art by committee. What happened to the magic, wonder and innovation of the original Cirque concept?
Note: This production runs through September 20. For details, see our calendar.