O the Solar Wind Doth Blow: Solstrom, Part 4

Once again we examine the episodes of Cirque du Soleil’s new variety series Solstrom, and once again we find the series has come up short in almost every respect. Coming from Cirque du Soleil, a series like Solstrom is unfathomably bad. After watching each subsequent episode I’m consistently surprised and disappointed by how weak the shows are.

The same problems consistently plague the new series. The production is cheaply done, the style is irritatingly aimed at pre-schoolers, artistry is minimal and uninspired, the themes are corny and low-brow, the music is unimaginative and the episodes all have pacing issues and become homogeneous after a while, so if you’ve seen one episode you’ve seen them all. Solstrom is nowhere near the quality level we’ve come to expect from Cirque du Soleil.

Also, I know I constantly harp on the narrative voice-over but it really does bother me; its presence completely destroys the Cirque mystique. Have you ever been to a movie and sat beside a chatterbox who insisted on talking loudly throughout the entire show and making inane comments thinking they are so smart? That in effect is what Fogus Punch is to the series, an irritating distraction that prevents any possible enjoyment of the show. Not only does the narrator’s presence destroy the universal aspect of Cirque but also I feel he insults my intelligence. I don’t need to be told what everything on screen is; I have a brain and can think for myself, thank you very much.

The following is my opinion of the most recent offerings from Solstrom:

Episode 6: “Howling Winds”
(Original air date: February 1, 2004)

When Cirque du Soleil set out to re-invent the tired, old, traditional circus the company’s main asset, besides its youth and gusto, was its originality. Cirque has a reputation for blending circus with high artistic concepts to produce an original form of entertainment. Sadly, this concept seems to have been abandoned for Solstrom. At the
mid-way point of the series we have an episode entitled “Howling Winds” that is completely trite, unoriginal and kitschy.

The script of the episode finds a newlywed couple (Mystère’s Nicky Dewhurst and Shana Caroll from Les 7 doigts de la main) checking into a hotel on their wedding night. Two Zebra characters from “O” use the solar wind to transform the hotel into a gothic manor filled with about every tired Halloween cliché you could ever think of, presented in such a campy style viewers will groan and roll their eyes. The overall look and feel is of a bad amusement park fun house. The ideas are hackneyed, the pacing is slow and the music (by FM Le Sieur and mixed by François Arbour) is electronic and average.

The episode does have a few assets. An appearance by Mystère’s Brian Dewhurst as the hotel’s owner is welcome although he doesn’t get to do much. For the most part the collection of featured circus acts in this episode is above average. The show opens with Dralion’s Viktor Kee performing his contact juggling routine. The act is presented in its entirety and with its original music, but the presentation is dulled with the absence of Azala the Goddess of Air floating above to pass the balls, and by the addition of a cheap wavy distortion video effect.

Jason Papp of Quidam returns to Solstrom to perform a brief Spanish Web act. He plays a spider but the costume’s black leather suit and mask make the performer look like he belongs in a fetish club. Hmm, did someone say “Zumanity”?

Nicolette Hazewinkel returns as a ghost who lures Nicky Dewhurst to the hotel lobby where she walks across a tightrope while wearing high-heeled shoes. Nicky Dewhurst, of course, follows the apparition and scampers across the wire himself to perform a routine adapted from his act in Nouvelle Expérience. It’s nice to revisit a classic Cirque act though sadly Brian Dewhurst does not perform his comedic portion of the slack wire routine.

Ernest Louvilov and Samantha Larible Louvilov appear to the new bride and perform a hand-to-hand acrobatic pas de deux. Though the pair is talented the presentation of the act isn’t anything exciting; average costumes, un-involving score and minimal choreography.

The episode also has a couple of asinine offerings. Throwing away any pretense of good taste, Stevie Starr performs a grotesque act where he swallows and regurgitates various objects such as an 8-ball, a candle and a light bulb. The act made me cringe for several reasons and wonder if this is the kind of lowball sideshow that passes for entertainment nowadays. Later, two waitresses played by Adriana Duch and Alba Dominguez Mora get into a WWE-style wrestling match. This act is much too violent for Solstrom’s intended audience of very young children and much too stupid to be enjoyed by the rest of us.

Thankfully, the episode closes on a high note with Shana Caroll performing her beautiful static trapeze number from Les 7 Doigts de la Main. Her performance would have actually been affecting if it weren’t placed in such a goofy context. But the same can be said of many of Solstrom’s acts.

Episode 7: “Twin Winds”
(Original air date: February 22, 2004)

After a string of bad episodes comes “Twin Winds,” actually one of Solstrom’s better offerings. Bear in mind when talking about Solstrom that isn’t saying much; the production values are still low and the artistic integration an afterthought, but this installment is decidedly less ludicrous than the previous few and feels slightly fresher. This is perhaps a credit to a new director; “Twin Winds” is the first episode directed by Mario Rouleau. This episode features a strong array of performances and music by Michel Cusson, which is reminiscent of the urban, world-music stylings of Saltimbanco’s score.

In this episode Sébastien Soldevila of Les 7 Doigts de la Main plays Narcissus Janeiro, a wealthy and vain Brazilian media magnate. During Narcissus’ morning routine two Nuts from La Nouba blow solar wind into his mirror and change the vain mans reflection to one which is decidedly less ruggedly handsome (Patrick Léonard, also of 7 Doigts, plays the reflection). Narcissus follows his reflection through the mirror and enters a bizarre world of pairs played by various sets of twins and look-alike couples. He spends the episode wandering through this strange world and witnessing performances by the different duos. I appreciate the fact that the premise of this week’s episode is a simple take on Lewis Caroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and does not attempt to alter the featured acts to fit into the story, something the series has always done poorly.

However, one absolutely inexcusable oversight that must be pointed out is that the episode did not feature the duo trapeze performance of Karyn and Sarah Steben, perhaps the most breathtaking twin act ever featured in a Cirque show. Nor did they feature either set of twins that replaced the Stebens in Saltimbanco and “O”. Though the episode features some noteworthy performances, to a true Cirque fan it will be forever incomplete with the glaring absence of the Stebens.

The first featured act is a breathtaking duo contortion act by Danil and Victor Kaloutskikh, twin brothers who can’t be more than 9 years old. The pair performs a stunning and graceful contortion/hand-balancing act very similar to the duo contortion act originally performed by the two young Mongolian girls in Alegría. This act is one of the very rare instances when Solstrom features a non-Cirque act with music, choreography, costumes and performance quality worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

Icarian Games from Varekai follows, or rather a short, alternate version of the act featuring only the Rampin Brothers (Javier, Pedro and Ramon Santos). This number is so much more thrilling live on stage in the context of Varekai. It really loses something in the translation to television.

Next, a group called Fan Yang (Ana, Deni, Fan, and Melody Yang) performs a moderately interesting if unspectacular act called The Science of Bubbles where the family blows soap bubbles in various shapes, some filled with smoke, to make bubble sculptures. The group is also capable of making bubbles large enough for a person to fit inside and has apparently won seven Guinness World Record titles for doing so.

Narcissus then happens upon a pair of women performing a beautiful and highly sensual hand-to-hand number. Julie Lavergne and Érika Lemay, known as “Azalé,” perform in Cirque Éos. The artistic elements of their number are definitely done in the Cirque style but the presentation isn’t as high-calibre as Cirque du Soleil. Regardless, the act is performed beautifully and is a welcome addition to Solstrom.

An asinine comedy bit follows; Charlie Schmidt presses his nose up against a pane of glass so he can make it “dance” to music. This might have been amusing when I was five years old but now it just comes off as stupid. Mercifully, this number is very short.

Saltimbanco’s brilliant Boleadoras act follows. This is an original performance in which Hélène Lemay and Ann Bernard blend the bolas (small weights on elastics that make a loud percussive sound when they strike the floor) with flamenco into a unique dance/percussion number I loved this number when I saw it live in Saltimbanco, however in Solstrom it is shortened and the filming leaves much to be desired. The majority of the shots feature the performers’ upper bodies when all of the action is happening on the ground.

Alex and Nick Karvounis, a pair known as “Doubble Troubble” perform a standard juggling act with balls, clubs and flaming torches. There isn’t much when it comes to the presentation but the routine itself is mildly amusing.

The Atherton Twins (Kevin and Andrew) perform their breathtaking Aerial Straps number from Varekai. The act is mostly intact and mostly unaltered though the sheer exhilaration of the aerial act doesn’t come across on screen like it does under the Grand Chapiteau. I did enjoy the alternate version of the act’s accompanying song “El Pendulo” featuring Laur Fugère and some more advanced skills that haven’t been seen before, such as a spectacular single hand balance in mid-air as the act’s finale.

The episode closes with Sebastien and Patrick performing their show-stopping Diabolo tumbling routine from 7 Doigts. Again, the energy of the act is much better in front of a live audience, but the skills are all there and the number provides the episode with an adequate finale.

Episode 8: “Wind from the Past”
(Original Air Date: February 29, 2004)

It appears the producers of Solstrom have finally stopped trying. “Wind from the Past” is just awful. I really hate being so harsh on an episode meant to showcase the talents of child performers, and there is definitely a great deal of talent to showcase, but as always the production accoutrements (or lack thereof in this series) are thrown together so haphazardly that their neglect renders the episode almost completely unenjoyable.

This episode is a random, sloppy mess. The lack of structure and focus makes it the most banal offering in an already mundane line-up. I’ve never asked, “Is this over yet?” while watching anything produced by Cirque du Soleil, until this episode when that question crossed my mind several times. And it really is a shame that this episode was staged and filmed so poorly because there are some highly talented young performers featured, and if done properly the episode could have provided a wonderful medium for them to show off their skill. Sadly Solstrom just did what it usually does, waste talent.

The inconsequential story finds The Dreamer from Saltimbanco (Guennadi Tchijov) climbing into an old mans attic to find a place to sleep. He crawls into a crib and with a puff of solar wind transforms the overhead mobile into an aerial ballet. The Bungee Ballet was by far my favourite act when I saw it performed live in Saltimbanco, the vision of majestic white birds soaring across the sky and the overwhelming awe and exhilaration that the act conveys was nothing short of magical. None of that magic is conveyed on screen in Solstrom. Taken out of context, the act is still beautiful but short of sublime.

When the Sleeper causes a commotion, the Old Man investigates and soon happens upon Eddie (Jesko Von Den Steinen, also of Saltimbanco) who serves as a Peter Pan figure. Eddie leads the Old Man through his toy chest into a very low-budget looking Never Never Land. The Old Man has become a boy again (gee, I never saw that one coming) and together Eddie and the Boy (Saltimbanco’s Maxsim Vintilov) venture through this goofy and chaotic world out of a childs imagination. . .or at least out of the imaginations of the producers of a low-budget TV show for pre-schoolers.

Along the way the pair encounters a group on BMX bikes and in-line skates (Pascal Boucher, Vincent Daniel, Charles Deschamps, Julien Deschamps), a bicycle salesman (Justin Case) who performs a goofy trick cycling act, a fire eater (Ronald Gagné), a juggler (Bruno Gagnon), a little girl masterfully manipulating a full-size German Wheel (Chloé St-Jean-Richard), another child scampering along on an acrobatic ball (Louis-Marc Bruneau-Dumoulin) and little girls performing rhythmic gymnastics with ribbons (Anastasia Fomina, Alexandra Fomina). All of these “acts” are really just brief glimpses of one or two tricks, no thought whatsoever is given to their presentation.

Margarita Baranova, Marina Chernysheva and Loulia Kossolapova, the “Trio Shulekine” perform a hand-to-hand/contortion number for which they won the Bronze medal at the 2003 L’Avenir de Cirque de Demain festival. Slava Chabanenko performs an impressive slack wire act. Again, these young performers show a great deal of raw talent but the presentation of the acts is overlooked, and consequently they become tedious.

Renée Bibeau, Jason Papp, Faon Shane, Jeffery Mauss, Lyndsey Mayer and Nick Woodard perform an impressive acrobatic skipping rope number to a bad disco score. The former three artists are Quidam alumni, the latter three are World Junior Skipping Champions.

Alain Gauthier becomes a human video game character by performing on a trampoline. The routine is standard, but you have to give the producers points for trying to present this act in a fun context. Unfortunately the act is too long and becomes boring quite quickly.

Another Saltimbanco act book-ends the episode, the beautiful Adagio Trio performed by Andreiy Vintilov, Maxsim Vintilov and Oxana Vintilova. I’ve seen this number performed by three different families and each brings its own unique style to the act. The Vintilovs’ act is quite spectacular and is easily the highlight of an otherwise dreadful episode.

Episode 9: “Wind of Romance”
(Original Air Date: February 29, 2004)

“Wind of Romance” is a slow-paced and bland homage to love clichés. Overall the episode is more tolerable than some of its downright awful predecessors, but it still fails to engage the audience and in the end is nothing more than mindless fluff set to Miklos’ score of Italian elevator music.

This episode finds Fiona, one of the Baroques from Saltimbanco (Andrea Conway) inspiring love in an Italian piazza by blowing the magical solstrom at various couples with predictable results. First, Romeo rides a bicycle across a tightwire strung over the piazza to reach his Juliet. Jade Kindar-Martin and Karine Mauffrey of La Nouba play the two overused Shakespearean archetypes.

Claudio Carneiro is also after Juliet’s affections but Mooky Cornish is after his. As expected the two Varekai clowns assume their usual roles of bumbling idiot and boy-crazed girl. At one point the two perform their “magic” act from Varekai with Claudio dressed like Liberace.

When flicking aside a cigarette Claudio inadvertently sets a man reading the paper on fire. Ray Wold of “O” performs his “human torch” act . . again; we’ve already seen his act featured in another Solstrom episode.

The stand-out performance in this episode is called Balancing Act on Slippery Surface. It is essentially a one-man Body Skating performance by Anatoliy Zalevskyy. The performer slides, spins and performs balancing figures on the slippery mat. The performance is graceful and understated. This act was the recipient of a Golden Clown at the 1999 Circus Festival of Monte Carlo.

The rest of the episode’s acts are passable but banal. As usual, the presentation isn’t very effective and the production is cheaply done. Olexandra and Vladyslav Bondarenko perform a contact juggling/adagio act, Iuri Chavro and Diana Alechlchenko perform an adagio on a unicycle, Rokardy of La Nouba performs an altered version of his Balancing on Chairs, Michel Lauzière makes another appearance to perform a symphony on vibrating wine glasses, and Igor Arefiev and Colette Elizabeth Morrow perform their Aerial Pas de Deux from Dralion.

The episode closes with the Trampoline and Wall performance that is adapted from La Nouba’s finale. The performers are exceptionally talented but taken out of context the performance is lacking.

It’s no secret by now that I think this series is pretty bad. I’m actually embarrassed that Cirque will release it to an American audience on Bravo this April. Solstrom doesn’t fit into Bravo’s prime time line up at all. I can’t even remotely imagine the audiences of Inside the Actors Studio, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or even casual viewers of Fire Within enjoying this banal, low-ball, low-quality offering from Cirque. The thought of actually spending money to see something of the same level of quality as Solstrom performed live would be utterly ridiculous. That’s why I fear this series will hurt Cirques ticket sales; viewers not already familiar with Cirques live shows will stay away. Solstrom would be better suited to daytime viewing on PBS alongside Sesame Street and Teletubbies where it would reach the audiences it seems to be suited for. It is a low-budget, low-quality kid’s show with pretensions of being classy “family” entertainment. After watching Solstrom it would be easy for anybody to dismiss the buzz surrounding Cirque du Soleil as undue hype. The series is absolutely nothing special, it is uninspired and boring.

My hope is that Cirque will realize its mistake, put the Solstrom tapes in a vault and throw away the key. My fear is that the new series is indicative of a new direction for the company where Cirque abandons its trademark artistry for mounds of hokey, banal tripe to reach a mass market. While I understand Cirques desire to reach out to new audiences I think it’s a huge mistake to do so by compromising the quality of their product, thereby alienating their existing audiences. There’s a certain standard of quality that is attached to the Cirque du Soleil name, that reputation will be seriously soiled by Solstrom. The series represents the McDonaldization of Cirque, a strategy of producing large quantities of low quality goods for mass consumption. After Solstrom, the company will have to work very hard to earn back the respect of its fans.

If Solstrom is the best this company can come up with then I would advise against releasing any further film and television projects. I’ll take quality over quantity any day.