Thursday, September 23, 2010

A blow-by-blow account of last night's Alegria premiere

Posted on Thu, Sep 23, 2010 at 1:18 PM

6:47 pm at the Spokane Arena, Wednesday night We're in our seats WAY early, but then my daughter and I have a lot of junk food to get through here: hot dogs, root beer, pretzels, nachos, ice cream bar, cotton candy, granola bar. She gets the granola bar; I get the rest.

7:25 -- A big guy in black shirt and tech gear is climbing the ladder up into the rafters -- must be a spotlight person -- so I'm thinking it's time to get this circus on the road, er, show on the ... it must be time to start.

7:26 -- The clowns are blowing confetti right in the crowd's faces. The lower level of half the Arena (the Star Theatre) is mostly sold for opening night; nobody at all up in the 200 level, which was blocked off. But lots of floor-level seats, too.

7:27 -- The hunchbacked major domo in red is slowly making his way onstage. A white sprite does a stylized scamper around the stage.

7:28 -- A foghorn blows, signaling the clowns and musicians (all in white, with Pinocchio noses) parading through the audience: sax, accordion, triangle, the cutest little snare drum with mini-cymbals, etc. A woman is brought up to waltz with a musician -- not the last instance of audience participation in this show. (If you're in the $90 seats, be ready to cavort and be made fun of.)

7:30 -- The Nostalgic Old Birds, symbols of the Establishment, are acting drunk. Being wobbly means you have hardening of your political arteries; being limber means you stand for youth and energy. The White Queen, singing the title song, is practically growling "Alegria" at us.

7:32 -- One of the little white munchkins, in her squeaky Quebecois accent, is announcing the arrival of Cirque du Soleil "een SPOKE-anne." The White Queen processes on with her two feather girls.

So far, this is just a soft-rock show with lots of feathers.

We get a sneak peek at the rhythmic gymnastics ribbon lady and the fire dancers.

The Old Birds carry around empty mirrors. I'm pretty sure this is a comment on excessive vanity. Two diminutive ballet dancers promenade on to make their appearance. They do some ballet. There's the tinkling of chimes and the boulevard rumbles of the accordion. Lots of ritual here. Oh, these two are getting lifted into a trapeze act. A man and a woman. As they swing back and forth, so nonchalant, just 30 feet or so up in the air, no net, he makes goo-goo eyes at her. Hold me closer, Tiny Dancer.

She's hanging by the crook of her knee, upside down. It's a death-wish. On the upswing, they're practically in the arena's rafters.

There's no net, and she's rising as she swings, does a 360 and lets go, catches herself by her knees, slides farther down, flips and lets go and twists and careens, and I'm pretty sure that was my jaw that just dropped. I mean, seriously, I just felt my jaw involuntarily go slack. My heart is racing. There's a lull. Now can feel it pounding again.

(I've had my ticker looked at this year, and this is not good, because you just can't look on passively when two people on oversize playground swings are swaying up near the roofline and thumbing their noses at mortality. What if one of them plunges? I almost cover my eyes.)

These trapeze lovers, they maintain eye contact. They're seated on their trapezes, then lunge up, synchronized (I think, but my eyes on the woman, she's the more, um, supple and lithe one of the two, my regard for her is completely artistic, there's nothing sensual about it, not at all, and then OMG, SHE JUST DID A 360 DEATH FLIP and she's swirling and the trapeze is swinging and this is not good for my heart. ---

And the dismount comes in a very unexpected way.

And they stick the landing! and bow their way offstage. And that was only the first segment of this show.

A clown inside a horse (like one of those swimming-pool inflatable equestrians) does a comic bit that involves "jumping" over a tiny railing. (Don't want to give away the clowning surprises. But you could hear little kids giggling. It only makes you more aware of the fact that you're giggling right along with them.)

7:48 -- Power Track: teams of acrobats do tumbling runs (as at the start of floor exercises in gymnastics), only on very bouncy lanes of trampolines -- two of them. And the lanes intersect, forming an X. And the tumblers time their runs so it's almost, almost, like a flipping/tumbling human demolition derby: One guy is ending his flip over the intersection of the two lanes just as another, competing guy is beginning his.

I love how these characters (the Bronx) do baseball slides to the edge of the trampolines, then bounce in unison onto the mat and start their tumbling runs in opposite directions. With the pounding music, this may be my favorite part of the show. (YouTube provides a sense of it, but every performance is distinct, and you have to see it live to feel the visceral fear: What if that crazy-legs guy tumbles right off the edge of the stage?)

7:49 -- Bounce, bounce, bounce. A couple of guys slip at the end of their double-back-somersault-with-two-twists-and-a-squeeze-of-lemon, impossible flips. Just shows how hard they're working. You can see that they're trying to stick their landings on the white X at the end of each black-rubber runway. A big clown in a white bowler hat edges out noncommitally, but soon it's clear that he's there as emergency back-up, for when they unleash their most amazing, highest-altitude, split-legs-at-the-apex tumbling runs.

This show is like ballet on steroids. I love synchronized trampoline moves -- like flying with your friends.

7:53 -- The Black Queen is onstage alone with a bird attendant. Or something. Sometimes Cirque throws images at you just for the hell of it.

7:54 -- Clown bit with motorcycle and paper airplanes. Again, don't want to ruin the comic surprises -- but it's nearly all done in a made-up language, with great self-generated sound effects, and if you've ever had a sibling and engaged in some rivalry ... well, the paper-airplane bit encapsulates the kind of big brother/little brother squabbling that translates across cultural barriers.

7:58 -- Cheers for the kid in the front row who successfully flew the paper airplane right back at the two clowns. But some of the clown schtick overstays its welcome.

8:02 -- They're bringing a giant silver button onstage, and the platform is dappled with light, and the clowns are gathering, and it's the Canes man -- a guy who balances vertically on progressively higher canes.

He does the Iron Cross on them, tilts his pelvis so that his legs are all akimbo way off to one side and how can he possibly maintain his balance?!

He does a one-armed handstand; then switches from cane to cane; then hops on two arms and on one arm across the stage. He swivels on each cane. He splits his legs into a T shape while doing a precarious handstand.

Lots of smooth jazz as the Canes guy tilts his body, the Old Birds lounging on the floor behind him, mimicking his leaning moves.

Such a show-off, this one. You'd think he considered himself, like, at this point, the focus of the entire show.

8:08 -- Suddenly we're in the Tiki Lounge at Disneyland -- it's time for the Polynesian baton-twirling act. And those torches are hot, baby! Maybe it's the sugar rush from all the cotton candy I've ingested, but I could have sworn that the floor was on fire there for a minute as these two hot Hawaiian hurlers whooped and swooped their flaming sticks around. They hold fire in their toes, they hold fire in the crooks of their knees -- they are the fire gods. Or maybe all the amplified pounding drums have boggled my mind.

8:11 -- They exchange double flaming torches. Any moment now, I expect them to incinerate the dress of some front-row matron.

8:13 -- A clown mocks the fire-dancers with a Bic lighter.

8:15 -- Rhythmic Gymnastics Lady. She twirls ribbons while one of her legs shoots straight up in the air. She puts a reverse spin on a hoop, catches it on its return.

I can't even get a hula hoop started. She can pick up six of them. With her toes. And make them all rotate simultaneously. And then fling them, with accuracy, to helpers all across the stage. This woman is a Hula Hoop Goddess -- and as she undulates her lithe, alluring, supple, sinuous body, it's not the hula hoops that I'm watching.

She has such long legs and ... OMG, that catsuit leaves NOTHING to the imagination. The pole dancers at the Deja Vu should be taking notes here. And this woman works without a pole, baby.

8:19 -- She has so many hoops spinning at once, they look like opalescent bubbles. Amazing.

8:21 -- The clowns do a bit that involves hugging a suit of clothes in a closet, and a torn-up letter, and a locomotive chugging off into the distance, and I have no idea what is going on or why. The torn-up pieces of paper merge beautifully into a snowstorm, and it's a lovely stage trick that's absolutely out of character with what has gone before. An anticlimactic moment -- you're not quite sure if that was the end of Act One or not. Lights come up to the scratching of heads.

8:32 -- Intermission. We make another junk-food run. As we're returning to our seats, some guy nearby has gotten down on one knee and asked his girlfriend to marry him. Lots of people in surrounding seats took notice. The pressure was on; she said yes. Hundreds applauded. Judging from her wild gesticulations, she kind of liked the ring. A few moments later, Mom returned to her seat with popcorn, had no idea. Hugging ensued.

8:54 -- Musicians return. Large menacing mechanical bird gets lowered from the rafters. Giant lantern swings wildly. Smaller lanterns are carried on. Something entrancing about humans conveying light in darkness. Foghorn again. White Queen parades on. Running white Munchkins swirl onstage again. Wintry sounds.

9:02 -- The Flying Man appears, and his bungee-cord appearance is SPECTACULAR. He lunges, he leans; the Old Birds parallel his moves. He's on enormous rubber bands that lift and twirl him. Arms together, one-armed death spiral, cavorting and hopping in a giant circle around the stage. Just beautiful: You want to BE him. My dreams of flying ... Freud ... I think I'm having impure thoughts. Yes, I'm pretty sure I'm having impure thoughts.

To soar like that: To act like a god.

The Flying Man is the Spinning Top of Humanity, doing pirouettes like no ballet master's business.

9:08 -- The lady next to us, who arrived 15 minutes late, is on her third glass of wine. Apparently the latest text from her friend is SO much more entertaining than anything the Cirque artists could ever be capable of.

Big circus acts, small minds.

9:09 -- Big guys in white, long poles, tiki heads atop them, White Queen singing, Munchkin acrobats assembling. It's like Tron brought to life.

Nearly everybody in this show wears de-individualizing wigs. Robotic movements.

Oh, they're assembling themselves into the Russian Bars act: Two linebackers put bendy bars on their shoulders, and jockeys do backflips high above until, at the last moment, they sight the bendy bars and make a landing. Smooth jazz playing, too loud. But the jockeys' faces are impassive: See what I can do? There is no strain on my face at all.

And what they can do involves launching off one bendy bar and then having that disappear and another move into place just before they stick the landing.

A couple of show girls stroll on as momentary diversions. Lots of feathers on them, too. This show really likes feathers.

The jockeys get launched skyward, do bicycle kicks in the air, flip double somersaults, sight a different bar from the one they took off on, then land and balance, stick out pointy hands like wings and assert their general high-flying awesomeness.

Two clowns bring a guy out of the audience to mock the Russian Bars act: They stretch elaborately, place his feet on a bendy pole, pull mightily upwards -- and the guy stays right where he is. He's a performer, though, and the audience is delighted to see one of its own clowning around.

9:23 -- More swinging lanterns. The White Queen sings. Two tiny Mongolian women saunter on -- naturally, they're wearing feathery capes. A raised and revolving circular platform emerges, all the better for these two contortionists to be seen.

Too much reverb on the electric guitar.

So imagine yourself watching TV, slouching in your favorite comfy chair, your feet flat on the ground, your legs spread wide. Now put your head on the ground, between your feet -- and facing forward.

That's what one of these contortionist ladies just did. Her pelvis is, like, at 90 degrees to her back. (Do the chiropractors in the audience smile or cringe while watching this?)

It's like watching a woman in a gynecologist's chair, only her face just emerged where her crotch is supposed to be.

As for my body parts: My jaw is hanging slack again.

The accordion player strolls on, apparently the cue for Human Pretzel No. 1 to turn herself into a belly-up U-shape, with both feet and hands flat on the ground, and for Pretzel No. 2 to straddle her partner and use her like a pommel horse in gymnastics.

9:30 -- The menacing mechanical bird is glowering at us again. The Munchkin acrobats reappear and start hooking up what appears to be a gigantic parachute; it turns out to be the safety net for the Aerial High Bars. Very ritualistic on the climbing of rope ladders. Imagine six guys clambering all over a jungle gym, which is like every other jungle gym you've seen on a children's playground except for the fact that it's four stories up. Two guys on a swing hang upside down, then catch death-defying spinning men before they drop. The finale involves all of them, in sequence, doing triple-reverse-somersault-with-double-Salchow flips and plunging deep into the netting 40 feet below before bouncing up and assuming an assertive Power Ranger stance. Their faces betray no emotion; just another day at the office involving four-story dives.

9:41 -- The White Queen winds up into the finale: the title song. The music doesn't go on for as long or as impressively as on the CD. The Old Birds hold up their empty mirrors. Multiple curtain calls, with the obligatory Spokane standing ovation -- in this case, well deserved. Despite some meh clown sequences, there were several astounding moments. My jaw went slack again, and I'm going to manually push up my chin, just as soon as I wipe all this cotton-candy residue off it.

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