Wind of Mediocrity: Solstrom, Part 3

As I continue to watch the new episodes of Cirque du Soleil’s variety series, Solstrom, I so desperately want to say that I love them, that I find them spectacular and that they are as well crafted as Cirque’s live shows. Unfortunately, when I sit down to write these reviews I feel like American Idol judge Simon Cowell. Now I’m not the type to criticize simply for the sake of criticism; when Cirque shows me a spectacular, well-crafted piece of art I can easily overlook any minor flaws in the execution or staging and enjoy the final product. However, when it’s something as half-hearted as Solstrom it awakens the inner critic in me. Instead of a show with a few minor imperfections here and there the entire series is pretty much flawed and I have to strain to find the few moments that actually work despite Solstrom’s ill-conceived trappings. I know how good Cirque du Soleil can potentially be and it upsets me when the company isn’t up to par. As a fan I have to admit I feel like I’ve been sold-out with this series.

Yes, I completely understand that the target market for the series is the “family” audience, but last I checked most families include at least one adult member. The presentation of this series thus far has been so cornball and amateurish that it will completely irritate anybody above the age of four. Even children realize when they’re being played down to and are resentful of the fact; seasoned Cirque du Soleil fans will be even more resentful. I have to question Cirque’s choice in targeting the already saturated children’s entertainment market. Kids don’t have the big bucks to buy tickets to Cirque’s revenue-generating live shows, and parents are unlikely to shell out if the only impression they have of the company is from this ad-hoc series. Who would pay $75 to $100+ per ticket to see Barney and Friends live? That’s about the intellectual and artistic level of Solstrom. Instead of promoting Cirque’s live shows Solstrom could very well tarnish their reputation. One has to wonder if Guy Laliberté fell asleep at the switch when approving this one. What happened to the firebrand critic who in “Fire Within” said things like, “I won’t have six people in an act unless it makes me go ‘wow’?” Unfortunately, Solstrom has never made me go “wow” it mostly makes me go “yawn” when I’m not grinding my teeth in utter disdain at how embarrassingly awful parts of the series are.

Episode 4: “Ghostly Wind”
(Original air date: January 18, 2004)

By the fourth episode viewers pretty much know what to expect from Solstrom. The series relies on the same formula for every installment and as such is becoming increasingly predictable and monotonous. The calibre of the featured acts fluctuates but the artistic presentation of the series remains consistently poor. “Ghostly Wind’s” hackneyed storyline features some contrived nonsense about ghosts (Stephan Kreiss and Petra Massey) wreaking havoc on a costume warehouse and its night watchman (Aitor Basauri Barruetabena), causing a conflict between the security guard and his disbelieving supervisor (Toby Park). Regardless, the narrative structure is more of an obstruction to the show than a well thought-out context. All of the aforementioned actors are from the British comedy troupe Spymonkey
currently featured in Zumanity, where their antics provide welcome comic relief. In Solstrom, however, their interstitial segues are nothing more than idle filler; they are completely unfunny and neither amusing nor intellectually engaging.

The solar wind character for this episode is Dralion’s Âme Force played enchantingly by Cirque vocal coach and former performer Laur Fugère. This is perhaps the first instance in the entire series where a solar wind character is actually used effectively. Laur accentuates the music of the episode with her exotic vocalizations and plays the role with a coy, ethereal charm in her fleeting moments of screen time.

Without exception Solstrom’s strongest acts are those taken directly from the live stage shows of the Cirque du Soleil. “Ghostly Wind” opens powerfully with Isabelle Chassé’s Aerial Contortion in Silk from Quidam. This being one of my all-time favourite Cirque du Soleil acts I was very apprehensive about seeing it featured in Solstrom, as I was almost certain its presentation would somehow be butchered. Gladly, save for a few annoying cuts to the clown character and one intrusive and completely unnecessary interjection from good ol’ Fogus Punch (the mad scientist/narrator character), the act remains intact and is accompanied by Laur’s stirring rendition of “Let Me Fall” Skill for skill and moment for moment the Aerial Contortion act is almost exactly the same as when it was filmed for the Quidam DVD. Though the camera work and cinematography for this particular act is the best ever featured in Solstrom it comes nowhere near the level of the masterful and evocative filming of Quidam Live in Amsterdam five years ago.

Later in the show the second adapted act is presented; Dralion’s Ballet on Lights. Whereas the featured act from Quidam is performed almost identically to its previous filming, the Ballet on Lights act from Dralion is very different. Since the filming of Dralion in 2000 this act, where dancers perform en pointe on an array of light bulbs, has undergone a complete makeover. The costumes are different, the choreography has changed and the skills are dramatically improved. The difficulty level of the skills; towers, balancing and contortion, is heightened. The act is now quite spectacular. Being one of Dralion’s few truly innovative acts it is fortunate that this new incarnation gets its turn to shine in front of the lens.

Of the non-Cirque acts the standout of this episode is the contortion number presented by Vladimir Gagarine from the Academy of Tula. Presenting an act he refined for the 2003 edition of the Piste aux Espoirs international festival for circus artists, the young Russian gracefully contorts his flexible body into many exotic figures. The act is presented with a middle-eastern flavour in its music, costume treatment and style of movement, and with its artistry it is truer in form to Cirque du Soleil. It presents contortion in an artistic context instead of mindlessly going for the shock value and gross-out factor of some of Solstrom’s previous contortion acts.

The remainder of this episode’s acts never attain this level of refined artistry. Transformation is a magic act featuring David Maas and Dania Kaseeva. Dania almost instantly changes costumes before our eyes a total of 10 times in the three-minute act. Though I’m sure this act is impressive live on stage, in the day and age of digital effects the grandeur of the illusion fails to register on television.

The cute Elena Tselishtcheva of the Great Moscow State Circus performs a Hoops act. The performer whirls a myriad of hula-hoops around her body, keeping several going at once. This act is similar to the one performed by Elena Lev of Alegría and Quidam fame minus the choreography, contortion and rhythmic gymnastic elements.

There is a very brief interlude featuring a troupe of dancers, choreographed by Marcelo Juarez Villa, creating a scene from a Brazilian Carnivale. True to the spirit of Carnivale this number is largely free-style and unstructured.

The Flying Pages, an acrobatic family, closes the episode with a flying trapeze number. Though the performers are talented the act is nothing we haven’t seen before in dozens of other circus shows and comes off as blasé without any special music, choreography or costume treatment.

Somewhere along the way supermodel (and rumored apple of Cirque Co-Founder Guy Laliberté’s eye) Naomi Campbell makes a completely superfluous cameo in a mock fashion show. And, soon after, another largely forgettable episode of Solstrom concludes.

Episode 5: “Winds of Courage”
(Original Air Date: January 25, 2004)

By the time the fifth installment rolled around I had pretty much lowered my expectations of the series. Okay, Solstrom is not the creative and intelligent work of art that I had hoped it would be. I tried to accept that and move on. By this point I was tuning in solely to enjoy the few acts from Cirque’s live shows. Unfortunately, the series refused to fulfill even this meager request.

“Winds of Courage” features the largest number of acts in a Solstrom episode yet (a total of 13). Unfortunately that doesn’t mean more bang for your buck, it just means more of what we don’t want and less of what we do. Thematically the episode is an incoherent mess and the production values are so cheap they are constantly distracting. I simply can’t enjoy the show because it looks so amateurish and silly. The costumes are beyond drab and I’ve seen more impressive sets for bad high school plays. For the non-Cirque acts there is no choreography to speak of and the filming is flat and uninspired. The one semi-creative aspect for this episode is the music composed by Phillipe Leduc, Mathieu Vanisse and Jean-Charles Desjardins. It is a mostly-electronic score that alternates between esoteric and video-gameish. While not spectacular it’s just not as bad as the other elements of the show. For once I agreed with Fogus Punch when he said “This is degenerating into a cartoon.” Though I doubt the line was intended to be self-referential.

The episode features the spasmodic Patrick Léonard from the Cirque spin-off troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main as an arm-chair sports fanatic who gets sucked through his television set into a comic book version of the Olympics presided over by the Gentle Giant from “O” (Didier Antoine). It would seem natural that Cirque would want to pay tribute to the Olympics and to sports in general but this episode is more of a mockery. Speaking of “Mochries” fans of Canadian improv comedian Colin Mochrie of Whose Line is it Anyway will be disappointed to learn that his much touted “cameo” translates into a mere 15 seconds of screen time where he wasn’t allowed to do anything but mumble gibberish at the camera as a sportscaster. What a waste of talent! Another oversight; Montreal has an authentic Olympic Stadium, The Big ‘O’, a relic of the 1976 Games. It would have been so easy to film the episode on location to gain a sense of authenticity instead of using a budget set in a TV studio, which underlines the episode’s artifice.

“Winds of Courage” starts off encouragingly enough with strong performances by Polynesian Fire Knife dancers Fua’an Faitau and Steven Silulu and Human Torch Ray Wold (all from “O”). A blink-and-you-miss-it Spanish Web performance by Marina Bouglione (only one or two skills) is followed by La Nouba’s Igor Arefiev Sr. who performs a tightrope routine on a tennis net to a Mission Impossible-style score.

This act, along with the remainder of the acts adapted from the live Cirque shows, are so horribly misplaced, abridged and altered they are effectively ruined. Juggling by Varekai’s Octavio Alegria just isn’t as exciting or impressive without the energy of an audience. Why would they change an act as powerful as Mystère’s Hand to Hand (a new routine performed by Jarowlaw “Yarek” Marciniak and Dariusz “Darek” Wronski) with its evocative staging and haunting score and reduce it to a ridiculous wrestling match? Varekai’s Water Meteors (Bin He, Siguang Li, Junping Yan) and Alegía’s Manipulation (Maria Silaeva) acts are cut down to a fraction of their full length (Maria doesn’t even get to perform the ribbon portion of her rhythmic gymnastic act) and placed in the hokey context of a medals ceremony. My advice to Solstrom’s production team; if you’re going to take acts from Cirque’s live shows, don’t alter them! You’ll never improve on what was originally created and you’re devaluing them by putting them into these contrived story lines.

Of the non-Cirque acts featured the highlight of this episode is a remarkable aerial straps performance by 16-year-old Roman Tomanov. Already a highly skilled gymnast and aerialist, his performance evoked images of the aerial routines performed by Anton Chelnokov, Alexandr Dobrynin and the Atherton Twins, all of whom this young performer can give a run for their money. While already technically impressive, Roman’s act has the potential to be sublime if properly costumed, choreographed and scored by Cirque for a live show.

The remainder of the acts are of the slapstick physical comedy variety of which there is entirely too much in this episode. Pat Léonard performs part of his “stair dance” on a large foam pillow, the act is so much more amusing in the context of 7 Doigts where it opens the show and sets the spontaneous and irreverent tone for the live performance. In Solstrom it just comes off as childish. Matt Hugues, “the rebound acrobat” from Circus Oz, invades a diving competition to perform his juvenile “comedy trampoline” act. And Azimov Choukhratbek, Dmitrii Khamzin, Abdoullaev Khamdam, Abdoullaev Mourat and Ulugbek Raimdjanova, a group known as Kung Fu Clowns perform an asinine mock martial arts display.

Not soon enough, the episode concludes when three Chinese Pole Acrobats (Paul Herzfeld, Darin Inkster, Sébastien Tardif) scamper up the poles and become human flags.

My main gripe about Solstrom has been and continues to be that Cirque completely abandoned its artistic integrity for this series. The resultant shows are uninspired and boring.

To paraphrase Cirque director Franco Dragone; you cannot capture the live show on film without betraying its artistry. Cirque’s film and television projects have historically been their weakest link. The brilliant creativity of the company’s live performances has not translated well onto the screen. Cirque’s Imax film “Journey of Man,” though visually impressive, suffered from many of Solstrom’s problems; contrived storylines, ineffective character use and unnecessary, interruptive narration. Creating innovative television and film projects shouldn’t be difficult for a company with the resources that Cirque has. It’s simply a matter of applying the same standards to the media projects as the live shows. If subject to the same scrutiny it should, in theory, be possible to create a film or television experience with the same attention to detail and artistry.

Another performing arts troupe whose humble beginnings as street artists gave way to a meteoric rise to international acclaim which parallel’s Cirque’s is the rhythm/percussion/dance ensemble “Stomp” whose performers use everyday items such as broomsticks and dustbins to perform acts of intricate rhythm and choreography. I’ve seen this highly talented troupe perform live multiple times, and in the past few years I have also been particularly impressed with the quality of Stomp’s media projects. In 1999 the troupe filmed a special for HBO entitled “Stomp Out Loud” on location in New York City. The special is a hybrid featuring acts filmed during Stomp’s live shows intermixed with original sequences filmed exclusively for television. In this special Stomp used the medium of television to its fullest potential by developing original routines impossible to perform on a stage. An aquatic copper tube symphony in a sewer, a rhapsody on a maintenance truck, a restaurant kitchen opus, all creatively filmed and cleverly presented in a cohesive package. The troupe inventively expanded their live repertoire and created a well-themed, artistic film to complement their live shows. And they were able to do it without selling out or dumbing-down their approach.

Stomp’s recent Imax film, “Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey” features an array of guest rhythm and percussion performers from all over the world; from Spanish Flamenco dancers to Japanese Taïko drummers, African step dancers and American marching bands all magnificently filmed in luscious locales. Each act is introduced brilliantly with segues by the Stomp troupe. Not a single word is uttered in the entire 40-minute film and none is necessary to appreciate the creativity of the troupe. Music is used as a universal human language and the film can be enjoyed by virtually anyone. To tack on a mindless narration would have been pointless and inane. Stomp’s creators obviously have the sense to realize that the troupes popular media projects have just as much of an impact on their brand image as their live shows, and seek to ensure that their film and television projects are infused with the same creative energy that has defined the troupe.

Cirque du Soleil seriously needs to re-think its media strategy and should borrow a page from Stomp’s book and seek to produce creative media projects that are an extension of their artistic capabilities. I think it’s a mistake to dumb-down the contents of a series for mass consumption. Lowering the quality of the product only alienates the current fan base and misleads any uninitiated viewers. Short of a major overhaul of the show I’m not holding out much hope of finding anything worthwhile to watch for in the remaining episodes of Solstrom.