Monday, November 7, 2011

Cirque du Soleil’s Iris: Starshine and Shadow Waltzes

It was inevitable. The Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based circus troupe that features theatrical magic instead of animal acts, now has a permanent Hollywood home base. This was hardly the Cirque’s first visit to the City of Angels. I remember taking my kids to see a performance in a huge tent erected on a vacant lot in Downtown L.A. They were mesmerized, and I was too. This was 1987, when the newly-launched troupe took a flyer, gambling that participation in the Los Angeles Arts Festival (a wonderful but now long-gone offshoot of L.A.’s Olympic Arts Festival) would earn enough money to get them all back home again. Los Angeles audiences, of course, took the mystic jugglers and acrobats to their hearts, and the rest is history.

Now the love affair with L.A. continues. After years of temporary stays on the sands of Santa Monica, the Cirque has created a show designed to inhabit Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre for many years to come. It’s no surprise that the world of movies has provided the inspiration for Iris, a show whose name conjures up the human eye as well as a key camera component. (It’s also an old film term for a particularly fancy transition, mostly seen in silent movies, from one scene to the next.) Iris is not so much interested in capturing the history of Hollywood. Instead, in its trademark ethereal fashion, it explores the allure of Hollywood, the ways that movies enter our dreams.

Back in the early days of movies, audiences couldn’t quite believe that what they saw before their eyes was not real. The last shot of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) was a desperado pointing his gun at the camera. When he pulled the trigger, viewers shrieked with alarm—but also, I suspect, with pleasure, as they realized they had been drawn into a harmless but exciting illusion. To this day, we still enjoy the frisson of feeling that we’re part of a movie. That’s why we flock to the Universal Studios tour, where we’re threatened by King Kong and feel the heat of the conflagration from Backdraft. There’s also something quite wonderful about the mix of live human beings and their cinematic doubles. When I worked at Osaka’s Expo 70, I loved to visit a Czech attraction, the Laterna Magika, in which a stageful of dancers seemed to move magically in and out of an unspooling movie.

The Cirque du Soleil specializes in magical feats. Without benefit of wirework or green-screen trickery, acrobats soar about your head, doing the seemingly impossible. If they miss a step and plummet downward, the audience knows there’s no chance of a re-take. This sense of performing without a net is one distinction between the stage and the movie screen. But Iris, though not much interested in the history of the motion picture industry, does aspire to capture movie stylistics. In its use of atmospheric projections, silhouettes, and breathtakingly symmetrical arrangements of young lovelies, I saw reminders of Busby Berkeley musical extravaganzas like “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933. A soundstage scene could rightly be called Felliniesque. A climactic roof-top brouhaha recalled the stylized action sequences of film noir. It was only in an extended comedy sequence, one combining speaking performers and audience participation in a grotesque parody of movieland awards shows, that Iris missed its mark. Cirque du Soleil is at its best, perhaps, when -- like the very first movies -- it’s both mysterious and silent.


  1. Wow. I have not been able to see a live Cirque du Soleil performance. Every single person who has tells me it is simply amazing. I hope I get to experience it one day!

    1. I don't know how you feel about Las Vegas, Craig, but there's probably nowhere you can go on the Strip without bumping into a Cirque du Soleil production. (The most spectacular has got to be "O," which turns the stage into a giant swimming pool.) But we in Santa Monica think of the Cirque as OUR troupe too. Quite frequently they pitch their big striped tent right on our beach, which they consider a second home. It's all that "soleil" here that draws them, I think!

  2. I got married in Las Vegas in the summer of 2000, so I have a great fondness for that city - but I'm not sure if the Cirque was there then - but we also only saw one standup comedy show at the Riviera. If I go back I will try to see at least one!

  3. I'm glad you are fond of Las Vegas because you got married there. Many people apparently like it because they got divorced there. (Did dancing Elvises perform your ceremony?)

  4. No, we checked into having Elvis perform the ceremony - and every place we checked, the moment the presiding official added sideburns and a spangly white jumpsuit the cost jumped by $600. (Dry cleaning those jumpsuits must be murder!) We instead had the Reverend Gary Shroyer at the Little Chapel of the Flowers. He was terrific, and we're coming up on our 12th anniversary this summer!