In 1999, Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil first travelled to Australia with Saltimbanco. Ever since that time, local audiences have had many opportunities to attend the shows the company takes around the world, the most recent being the 2015/16 arena tour of Quidam.
Last Thursday at Sydney’s Moore Park, KOOZA had its Australian premiere, becoming the eighth big top Cirque du Soleil show to visit the country. Billed as a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil, KOOZA highlights two circus traditions – acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. First performed in Montreal in 2007, it’s visited 17 countries on four continents and been seen by a total audience of seven million people.
As is always the case with Cirque’s works, the acts in KOOZA are linked together by a narrative delivered largely via a group of colourful central characters. The Innocent (Vladislav Zolotarev), a naïve and childlike loner, is invited into the magical world of KOOZA by the Trickster (Joey Arrigo), who bursts onto the stage through a jack-in-the-box contraption. As the show progresses, the Innocent is introduced to an array of characters that includes an outlandish king (Gordon White) and his foolish clown sidekicks (Miguel Berlanga and Michael Garner). Alongside the visual splendour witnessed throughout the two-hour show, key messages lying at the heart of the work are themes of identity, recognition and power.
However, it would be unwise to attend any Cirque du Soleil show expecting to walk away absorbing any deep and profound ideas. The Cirque experience is all about bearing witness to the magnificent acts of acrobatic artistry of which athletes and gymnasts, in absolute peak condition, are capable. While, like all other Cirque shows that have come before, KOOZA’s acrobatic acts are presented in an extravagant, high budget production, the lasting impression of this piece is left by the artists and the truly impressive feats they accomplish. KOOZA is a testament to the fact that, despite continual advances in technology that constantly drive up the complexity and scale of live theatrical works, centuries-old performance traditions can still pack the greatest punch.
An early highlight of the show is the contortion act in which Mongolian artists Odgerel Byambadorj and Sunderiya Jargalsaikhan deliver a stunning display of flexibility and synchronisation. It’s no easy task in today’s performance landscape to impress with an act of contortion, but there’s such creativity in the shape-shifting here and wonderful body sculpting, enhanced by beautiful costuming, that this act is absolutely memorable.
Another highlight comes in the form of the high wire routine, performed by Spanish artists Vincente Quiros Dominguez and Roberto Quiros Dominguez, and Colombian artists Flouber Sanchez and Brayhan Sanchez Munoz. Again, high wire routines are a deeply entrenched circus tradition, but the act is so deftly performed that it’s unlikely you’ll leave the big top with a ‘seen it all before’ attitude. Here, one high wire is suspended 15 feet above the stage and a second at 25 feet. As the act progresses, and the artists continue to raise the stakes by adding weight to the load on each rope, one may find their heart creeping higher and higher up their throat.
But when it comes to acts likely to have the greatest success in leaving audiences on the edge of their seats, it’s near impossible to go past the Wheel of Death, fairly described as the ultimate occupational health and safety nightmare. Colombian artists Jimmy Ibarra and Ronald Solis create the movement for the 1,600-pound machinery and their display of acrobatic skill is astonishing. As they continue to up the ante with tricks that gradually increase in their level of danger, members of the audience cover their eyes such is the tension. But not a hint of fear or stress is discernible from either, and it’s perhaps remarkable in itself to witness the act performed with such utter confidence in a situation where lives genuinely are at stake.
Approximately 50 performers appear in KOOZA, drawn from all over world (including Australian Laura Kmetko). And in each show, six musicians perform Jean-François Côté’s score live each night. Those musicians include another two Australians: Ben Harrison (keyboard, saxophone and electric guitar player) and Ben Todd (on drums). Composer Côté has created a soundscape for KOOZA he says draws influence from pop music, 1970s funk, traditional Indian music and film scores of the 1940s and 50s. It’s an interesting and effective fusion of such contrasting styles.
And while the production design takes a back seat to the artistry of the acrobats, set designer Stéphane Roy succeeds in creating a visually enticing world for KOOZA, the centerpiece of which is the Bataclan, an opulent tower that moves up and down stage, providing an entrance and exit point for performers and also housing the band. Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt has designed over 175 costumes and 160 hats for KOOZA, taking inspiration from everything from graphic novels, to Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, to influences from India and Eastern Europe. Her superb and impeccably detailed costumes bring to life characters that feel quintessentially Cirque.
Perhaps the only time KOOZA falters is in its Clown Magic sequences, characterised by their use of slapstick humour. It’s certainly no reflection on White, Berlanga and Garner, each talented actor showing tremendous commitment to their characters. It’s simply that this type of comedy is somewhat an acquired taste, and won’t resonate with a section of the crowd. It’s added to by the incorporation of audience participation elements, which often end up being rather awkward for all concerned. But if the response of younger audience members on opening night is any indication, there’s certainly reason to expect that the larger than life comedic characters will continue to delight children throughout KOOZA’s Australian run.
Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA provides an exuberant and immensely entertaining night of circus-themed theatre that will find favour with Australian audience members of all ages.
KOOZA’s national tour continues in Sydney until 6 November, before moving on to Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. Tickets can be purchased online at www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza or by phone on toll free 1800 036 685