ZED, Again!

Fascination! Guest Submission
By: Steve Long – West Hartford, Connecticut (USA)

My annual trip to Japan this past May was a little different. In the previous two years I’d taken time to scout out the Tokyo Disneyland Resort and Cirque Theater Tokyo area as part of preparations for CirqueCon 2008: Tokyo, held last November. With that wonderful event in the past I was taking time this trip to once again see ZED, Cirque du Soleil’s Tokyo resident show. Besides the performance attended by all CirqueCon members during that special November 2008 trip I took in two more viewings, and during this recent trip I saw ZED three more times.

When I first saw ZED I came away with the feeling that this was the most “human” of the Cirque du Soleil shows that I had ever seen. By “human” I’m not referring to the theme, “A living poem at the heart of human adventure” but rather to the kinds of acts chosen for the show.

When I saw the touring show, Kooza, there was a high wire act with a staged mishap. One artist leaps over another, misses the landing, catches himself but his cap falls to the stage. You wouldn’t know it’s staged on the first viewing, it’s only evident when you see the show a second time. It takes a great deal of skill to be able to stage that sort of mishap and not get yourself killed. I admire the artist for that skill but when I realized that it was a staged incident the show lost some of its magic as far as I was concerned.

In contrast, during the high wire act in ZED there is a point where an artist attempts a back flip on the high wire. I’ve seen the show six times now, sometimes the artist sticks the landing on the first try, sometimes he misses the landing and catches himself, succeeding on the second try. The artist’s obvious intent is that he land it the first time and the audience is with him in the hope that he succeeds.

It is not just the high wire act that is displaying difficult moves, the ZED trapeze act has all sorts of twists and turns and somersaults between release and catch and there are some amazing things done in the Banquine performance. The combination of trampoline and Chinese Poles is unique and, because of the small size of the trampoline, calls for great precision when people bounce flat out on that surface. The lasso and juggling acts aren’t as physically dangerous but the ropes and Indian Clubs can sometimes have a mind of their own so the artists have to be able to adjust in a split second.

With these acts I see ZED as walking the thin line between what is humanly possible and what it not, the thin line between success and failure for an act. The humans in the audience are drawn into what the humans are doing on-stage, hoping for the artists success and in that process creating an experience unique to that particular performance. When I saw ZED for the fifth time it suddenly struck me, every time the artists appear on stage they create magic for the audience. You can see the show two times in two days, or you can see ZED twice in one day and still be drawn into what has been created because there is something truly unique to that performance happening on stage.

When a person has a favorite show it’s because they are drawn into the magic of that show every time they see it. For me ZED is one of those shows, KA and MYSTERE being two others.

With ZED one can describe the show but, as some Japanese guests have commented, one really needs to experience the show to really understand what it’s all about. So I encourage people to travel to Japan (as someone who has lived there for years I think it’s a wonderful country to visit) and while there take the time to see at least one performance. There is a link on the main Cirque du Soleil web site or you can go directly to < http://www.zed.co.jp/home_en.php >. There you can learn how to get tickets and how to access the theater. As with most resident shows there are no bad seats in the house, each section and seat gives you a unique view of what’s happening on stage. (I just recently learned that H.I.S. Japan Travel is also selling tickets for ZED, their English language web site can be found at < http://nippon.his.co.jp/entertainment/zed/top_en.htm >.)

As with touring shows there is food and a Boutique offering a wide selection of merchandise. The English language side of the ZED web site, under “About the Theater” offers you a glimpse of the Boutique and its offerings. I’ll only note here that the ZED Boutique, like its touring brethren, benefits from the Japanese notion of “omiyage,” souvenirs that you bring back to those who weren’t fortunate enough to travel with you. I’ve taken up the tradition myself finding that Cirque Tokyo chocolates and Mille-Feuille pastries are popular at work.

The souvenir program, like the programs for the touring shows in Japan, offers more than photos and intros to the key players in the creation of ZED. There are interviews and a great deal of background information on the creation of the show and on the history of Cirque du Soleil itself.

While checking out the Japanese side of the ZED web site early on I came across something likely unique to ZED, an electronic bulletin board to which guests post comments about the show they’ve seen or about their hopes for the show they are about to see. There’s no reply capability as in a forum, people simply post their comments. (This section was recently revised from a chronological listing of posts to a series of Shockwave animated ZED tarot cards, each displaying a single guest comment.) As usual for Japan there is a section for celebrity comments about the show. These celebrity comments are translated for the English language side of the web site but the non-celebrity guest comments are found only on the Japanese side. They offer a fascinating look into the Japanese audience for ZED. Here are some samples that I’ve translated.

Hamakko / Male / Age 26
To put this in one word… would be greatly troublesome. There is no single word for the impressions made. Words cannot express the intensity of the imagination, the joy. You can only know what it is to be immersed in this by seeing it live. There is merit to seeing it many times.

Nicomama / Female / Age 23
I saw ZED 10 days before my baby was born! Those DOKIDOKI (heart pounding excitement) and WAKUWAKU (joyful excitement) feelings were conveyed to the baby as well, I think. In a little while when the baby is bigger I want our family of three to go again!

Yukkii / Female / Age 24
I was moved in a way beyond what I imagined, thank you so very much!! There were goose bumps that kept appearing. I called out “WAA!” (a sound of excitement). Without thinking I said “KYAA!” (a sound of sudden surprise). In those two hours I forgot to blink, what with all that I was seeing! In an instant I became a great fan. I will definitely be coming back to see you again!

Miya / Male / Age 24
Going to see the show on February 23! My girlfriend said that she wants to see ZED so I’m planning to surprise her for her birthday!I’m looking forward to the day!!

Hide / Male / Age 33
Went with my six year-old child. At first I was worried that the child would lose interest, at the end I was sitting next to a child slightly moved to tears. It was the absolute best.

HOPON / Female / Age 28
When all is said and done, Kevin-san and Johanna-san, the two singers are the most powerful. I’m still tremendously impressed by how those crystal-like singing voices were integrated into the whole of ZED. So, too, with the seven-member live band. It was a very luxurious two and a half hours.

LOVE-ZED / Male / Age 45
On October 19 my parents were beckoned to ZED for the fourth time. At 70 years old the two of them have really come to like ZED. The day after I sent the tickets they called and said, ” Thank you! ZED is delightful for people our age to see many times. We’re looking forward to it.” The reason is they can’t get enough of the DOKI DOKI [heart pounding excitement] feeling. Sometimes when Banquine’s Elena stands at the top they close their eyes. They also enjoy seeing the Aerial Trapeze every time. Parents and child together.

As the CirqueCon 2008 members prepared for traveling to Japan there was a question about how the Japanese audiences would respond to the show. Once there we found the audience reaction and support of the artists to be much like our own during the show attended by the CirqueCon group. A couple of days later though I learned something new as I found myself one of only a few people giving the artists a well deserved standing ovation at the end of the performance. In North America such an apparently lackluster response would indicate that the audience did not enjoy the show as much as the Director, creative team and artists would have liked but that was not the case here. The artists did their initial curtain call and then a second curtain call. After they’d left the stage the second time the audience’s applause didn’t die down as I would have expected in North America. Instead the strong applause went on and on, calling the artists back to the stage for a third curtain call. It was, if you will, a sitting – standing ovation.

In the six ZED shows I’ve seen there have always been three curtain calls, with or without a massive standing ovation. This is wonderful because it means that both singers have time to get to the stage and join the other artists.

As I have noted elsewhere, being an on-stage singer for a Cirque du Soleil production is a difficult task. Like in opera it’s not enough to sing well, it’s not enough to remember the stage directions, it’s not enough to be present on stage, you have to be a “presence” on stage. Both Johanna Lillvik and Kevin Faraci are presences on and above the ZED stage and based on the performances I saw this past May I feel that they have been maturing into their roles. I remember in November of 2008 seeing Mr. Faraci as Abraka, manhandling these two curtains hanging behind him and I was thinking, “What is that all about?” Now in that same scene he stands tall, clearly in command of all that is going on around him. There’s even a very short gibberish conversation between him and Zed that helps establish his command of the scene. It is inevitable that someday one or both of these artists will move on and I hope Cirque du Soleil will have singers of equal talent available to replace them.

Change is inevitable and with ZED, like with other recent Cirque du Soleil shows I’ve seen (such as Corteo in Japan), I wonder how Cirque du Soleil will pass on the original creative intent of ZED to replacement artists, keep ZED connected to its creative roots and maintain those unique aspects that make it a Francois Girard created and directed production?

For those who saw the show in November of 2008 there have been changes since. There was some new costuming. I believe they redid the costumes of the couple that assist with setting up and undoing the stabilizing lines for the high wire act. They also assist with the juggling act. I think there was more choreography for them as well.

The bit where the two clowns cause a giant flower to grow on stage has been cut and now the flower just grows prior to the start of the double straps act.

During this year’s visit I was fortunate to get a partial tour backstage between shows. One of the interesting parts of the tour was the “cylinders” below stage There is a large open area in the center of the ZED stage that is used many ways, the lead character falls into it at the beginning and a number of acts come up in this center area, including the Hand to Hand act near the end. The “cylinders” are large round set pieces that fit into place below stage and are then raised as necessary. You can see what I’m talking about at this YouTube link < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPrstQ6d9Yo >.

One of these cylinders contains the platform for the Hand to Hand act. Normally both Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage are brought up from below stage on this beautifully designed set piece. For one of the performances that I saw, though, Mr. Decoste was brought up from below and Ms. Mesnage was lowered down from above. It was a beautiful expression of one of Francois Girard’s core themes for ZED – the joining of the two worlds of sky and earth – so much so that it brought tears to my eyes. For the next performance they did the
entrance as before, but I’m hoping that someday I’ll be able to see the Hand to Hand act begin with the joining movement again.

As noted before, ZED is one of my favorite Cirque du Soleil shows and like so many Japanese guests have said, I also want to see ZED again. My “To Do” list for next Spring’s trip to Japan starts like this,

1) Buy round trip ticket to Japan
2) Buy tickets to see at least two performances of ZED.