Again and again, Cirque du Soleil's Varekai puts you in that state of enjoyment where you're not even capable of thought; you're just watching, breath suspended, wanting what you're seeing to go on forever.
Everything one associates with Cirque du Soleil is here -- the artful settings and costumes, the pulse-quickening, evocative music, the sometimes half-baked mythologizing -- but the real point of Varekai is movement. The company routinely acquires the most gifted acrobats, circus performers, jugglers and contortionists in the world, and its acts are spectacular. But it isn't just the performers' daring and athleticism that astonishes; it's their perfectionism and artistry. They routinely do the physically unimaginable, and they do it with bodies beautifully placed, feet pointed or deliberately flexed, moving from position to position so gracefully and purposively that they seem to be dancing even the changes of posture. Look at the women's hands in "Body Skating," for example, and you'll see that every movement is carried through to the fingertips.
These days, Olympic-level gymnasts, who once strove for ethereal elegance, seem to have given up all interest in aesthetics. Women's exhibitions consist of stunted gnomes doing impossible -- and, after a few repetitions, impossibly boring -- feats. It's interesting that it took the circus, traditionally associated with green cotton candy and cheesy costumes, to remind us of the sheer wonder of the human body in flight.
At the beginning of Varekai, Icarus falls to the ground, accompanied by one poignant, floating feather. He lands in what seems to be a rainforest. It's constructed of bamboo stands; on the ground are a few steam-emitting geysers, through which people sometimes appear and sometimes vanish. Strange creatures populate this world. They look like beings we've encountered in dreams and include a kangaroo man leaping on spring-loaded stilts.
In the myth, Icarus flew too close to the sun. His wax wings melted, and he plunged into the sea and died. This Icarus, played by the delicate-featured Anton Chelnokov, is more fortunate, even though the woodland creatures confiscate his wings and trap him in a net. The net rises and falls, and Chelnokov moves with it in a kind of gymnastic dance, sometimes supported by the net, sometimes trampling it, holding still or slowly twirling, sad, calm and visually beautiful.
Icarus encounters a green caterpillar woman. As they gaze at each other, it's hard not to think of Prospero's enchanted island in The Tempest and Miranda's exclamation when she sees Ferdinand: "Oh, wonder, how many goodly creatures are there here.... Oh, brave new world, that has such creatures in it."
Sometimes the story lines of Cirque du Soleil productions seem confused, extraneous, even a little pretentious. But the Icarus myth is an inspired choice. Having lost his wings, Icarus/Chelnokov must find new ways of flying -- and flying is at the heart of the performance. Several acts also involve ingenious ways of extending human movement. A performer trundles across the stage within a pair of giant wheels. Gymnasts rise and fall on aerial straps or curve their bodies over, through and around a triple trapeze. Dergin Tokmak, whose legs were deformed by polio when he was a child, dances and sometimes flies using crutches, and the caterpillar girl, Irina Naumenko, performs her amazing contortions on low canes topped with wooden squares before transforming into a butterfly.
More than twenty years ago, figure skater John Curry explored the boundaries between skating and ballet, working with such choreographers as Kenneth Macmillan and Twyla Tharp. Ice amplifies dance steps, he observed: A single leap can take a skater across the entire surface of the rink. Varekai choreographer Michael Montanaro must have been having similar thoughts when he staged a segment on a slick, sliding surface. "Body Skating" is one of the most infectiously joyous events in the show.
Wearing black-feathered headdresses reminiscent of the helmets of Greek warriors, British twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton perform astonishing feats with aerial straps. There's something in their grace, which is both catlike and powerful, and in their grave concentration that's even more moving than their gymnastic prowess. The trapeze act, too, is as much about the beauty of moving human shapes in space as it is about sudden drops and heart-stopping catches. Though if it's those you're after, "Russian Swings" provides all the terror and excitement you could want.
Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish furnish a couple of clown acts. Carneiro, elastic-limbed and pseudo-smooth, impersonates an inept magician and also a nightclub singer faced with a spotlight that seems to have a malevolent mind of its own. It's a simple joke, but hilariously executed. In baby-blue socks, her ankles wavering over high-heeled baby-pink shoes, Cornish serves as the magician's assistant. At first glance, Carneiro and Cornish's antics seem to have little to do with the theme of flight, but Carneiro's haplessness and Cornish's dimpled thighs provide a welcome reminder that the human body comes in many forms and that -- despite the godlike soaring of the Cirque du Soleil acrobats -- it is essentially of the earth.
Varekai provides an almost overwhelming feast of music, dance, visual inventiveness, humor, physical daring and pure pleasure.
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