Weathering the ‘Strom: Solstrom, Part 2″

As Cirque du Soleil fans watched the second and third episodes of the company’s new variety series we’ve had the opportunity to see Solstrom take shape. Although certainly not the most creative of Cirque’s enterprises, the series nonetheless presents interesting circus acts that we may not otherwise have the opportunity to see. However, if there’s one thing the series is consistently lacking it is presentation. The overall artistry is nowhere near as strong as it is in Cirque’s live shows.

With the large amount of time available in each episode of Solstrom the series could present full versions of Cirque acts never before filmed. Instead it crams too many mediocre acts into each episode. The time allotted for any particular number is shortened. Despite the variety of acts available, episodes have already started featuring variations of the same acts. Each of the first few episodes features an aerial silk act. There have also been multiple hand balancing and juggling acts. When Cirque brings back a familiar act in a subsequent live show the inventive staging, artistic context, music, costumes and choreography refresh it. In Solstrom, the overall sameness of the episodes means they feel repetitive. Also, the adaptation of certain acts from Cirque’s live shows is done sloppily; taking an originally beautiful act and changing the costuming and/or music, effectively ruining it. Forget trying to fit the act into the context of the episode, the context rarely works anyway. Cirque could have filmed disparate individual acts from its shows and other circus shows and it would have worked to greater effect.

What follows are my impressions from the second and third episodes of Solstrom.

Episode 2: Once Upon a Wind
(original air date: December 7, 2003)

In the second installment of Solstrom mad scientist/astronomer Fogus Punch (John Gilkey) tracks two solar wind characters (Gaya from Dralion and Quidam from Quidam) to a London library. The costuming and set dressing suggest that it is the 1930s or 40s. A boy is combing the shelves looking for a storybook. Gaya influences his decision by huffing solar wind onto a particular book which jumps out at the boy. It is an adventure/comic book filled with the stories of action heroes. The boy checks the book out and takes it home. The next morning Gaya emerges in the boy’s family’s kitchen and the solar wind blows apart the binding of the book so the magic infused pages fly out the window and disperse all over town. Those who pick up the pages fall under the solstrom’s spell.

While the first episode landed with a klunk due to some major artistic and pacing problems, the second episode hits the ground running and is able to build up some momentum. Overall this episode is a great improvement over the first. The quality of the individual acts is more consistent, the story arc, although still weak, is more cohesive and better developed. Even the music has improved. Though still overly reliant on synthesizers the original music, written by Sylvain Charles Grand and Dominique Grand, possesses a hint of the simple charm of the very early Dupéré compositions (circa Le Cirque Reinventé). The artistic presentation of the episode borrows from the themes of Quidam and Varekai though they aren’t as effectively developed as in those shows. During the episode a family’s ho-hum daily existence is transformed into a fantasy of adventure stories and action heroes.

We begin in the family’s home at breakfast. The parents busily prepare for work while the child flips through his storybook. Dad leaves to catch the bus while the child looks at a page with a drawing of a Wonder Woman-like comic book heroine. His mom, in the midst of folding a red towel, transforms in a flash into the heroine from the book and the towel becomes a long silk “cape” which she uses to perform a wonderful aerial silk act. Mom is played by Ginger Ana Griep Ruiz from La Nouba. Though only a supporting performer in the Aerial Ballet act in the live show, Solstrom gives this highly talented aerialist the opportunity to perform some high-calibre skills on the aerial tissue apparatus. Though similar acts have appeared in numerous Cirque du Soleil shows I couldn’t help but marvel at the masterful skill possessed by this particular performer. She delivers one of the most dynamic performances of the series so far.

After Mom has landed we check in with Dad who is waiting for the bus. A figure with a familiar “face”, the headless Quidam, walks by and inspires one of the gentlemen at the bus stop to find delight in manipulating the light fixture from a nearby street lamp (actually a small blue ball). The man exhibits his dexterity as he rolls the ball across his body, bounces it on his head and his briefcase. He then adds more balls and starts to juggle. The “suitcase juggling” is performed by Steven Andrew Ragatz, a veteran Cirque performer who was part of the Manipulation trio seen in previous incarnations of Mystère and Quidam.

We join Dad’s co-workers dressed in suits and wearing bowler hats, either in homage to or directly copying the thematic elements of Quidam (which are inspired by the paintings of surrealist René Magritte), as they arrive for work at a large accounting office. The workers sit in a room with ranks of desks each with an old-fashioned manual adding machine on the corner. They settle in and synchronously work in a rhythmic choreography meant to symbolize the monotony and uniformity of the work-a-day world. Overseeing the workers is the grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge-like boss, the cantankerous foible of this week’s episode, played by Cirque alumnus Rodgrigue “Chocolat” Tremblay of Le Cirque Réinventé.

As a page from the magic book sails in from a window a male and female employee simultaneously reach to pick it up. When they touch the sheet their business attire melts away into swanky leather garb, invoking images of John Steed and Emma Peel from the British television series the Avengers. Played by Sara Joel and Stephan Choinière the duo takes the concept of an office romance to dazzling new heights by performing a sizzling balancing/adagio act to a British spy film score. This performance is an adaptation of the Body2Body act the pair performs in Zumanity. In Solstrom, the performers are fully clothed and the sexually explicit choreography is toned down for a PG audience. Though not overtly sexual the act is still beautiful and sensually performed by this talented pair.

Back at home, Mom leaves for work and Grandpa arrives to baby sit the boy. Grandpa is a little mischievous himself and as soon as Mom is gone he invites two friends over to play poker. However, Gaya transforms the three gentlemen into foot jugglers. This acrobatic group known as Les Castors consists of three brothers aged 54, 58 and 60. While Russian/Ukrainian dance music plays the trio reclines on chairs and juggles diverse items back and forth including basketballs, rolled carpets, a child’s bed and even each other. Eventually the men settle back down to finish their poker game, neglecting the Boy who sneaks out in search of his parents.

Back at the office Dad sneaks in late. However another encounter with the magic book has caused the office to become overgrown with jungle foliage. One employee transforms into an Indiana Jones-type character. A large wooden ball comes rolling through the office. Our adventurer hops on top of it and scampers across the room, performing a series of flips all while remaining on the ball, much to the chagrin of the increasingly agitated boss. The performer is Frédéric Barrette a 2003 graduate of Montreal’s École Nationale de Cirque (National Circus School).

From the chaos of Dad’s office we cut to the quiet museum where Mom works. We happen upon a janitor who is looking at an ancient Egyptian artifact and daydreaming. A page from the magic book floats by and suddenly the Janitor is transformed into a cat burglar. He dons a black cap and sprays mist at the artifact’s enclosure. Laser beams protecting the exhibit are revealed. The burglar realizes the only way to get to his loot is from above. Hence, he climbs up a Spanish Web (vertical rope) and attempts to swipe the treasure. Jonathan Morin (part of the Spanish Web team in Quidam) makes a dramatic plunge from the ceiling, the rope tied around his body arresting his fall at the last possible second. Before he can make the grab a visitor walks by and he quickly scampers back up the rope. When the coast is clear he plunges again and again, each attempt foiled by a passer-by. This is one of the most inventive adaptations of an existing Cirque act featured in the series so far.

Back at the office, the workers leave for their lunch break and Scrooge is left alone with his beautiful assistant. He is in love with her though she adores another man. In an attempt to win her heart Scrooge presents his assistant with a gift; a pair of ballet slippers. She slips them on and the two dance a comic pas de deux mock ballet during which the boss strips down to his underwear. The dancers are real-life husband and wife Rodrigue Tremblay and Nicollette Hazewinkett. Upon the return of his employees the Boss drops his love-interest and quickly scrambles to put his clothes back on.

Back at the museum Mom receives a huge crate with a new exhibit inside. She signs for the shipment and leaves. As the deliveryman pries open the crate he magically transforms into a warrior, dressed in an ancient Roman-style costume similar to that worn by the Aerial Strap artist in Nouvelle Expérience. The crate contains a large stone with a sword embedded in it. Could the sword be Excalibur? Could our warrior be King Arthur? The performer uses the sword as a hand balancing cane and demonstrates his extraordinary strength by performing an agile series of poses and balances on the cane, not touching down until the end of the act. The hand balancer is the remarkably talented 18-year-old Dimitri Prudnikov.

Mom observes a painting which has slowly changed during the course of the day and as she is turned away Quidam walks by and she disappears. Returning to the office we find that it has become even more of a jungle as the foliage grows thicker, and the office workers start to shed their suits in favour of more tribal attire. Some wear their ties as headbands. The boy arrives and finds his father. Overjoyed to see his son the father picks him up but they are affected by Gaya’s solar wind and we find them performing a beautiful adagio/hand-to-hand act similar to the one performed in Saltimbanco. The boy, possessing all the grace and flexibility of a young Anton Chelnokov, precariously balances on his father in a variety of poses in a beautiful performance.

The storybook has not yet finished wreaking its havoc on the office. Another page inspires Tarzan to materialize. Played by Igor Zaripov, Tarzan flies through the air in a high-flying aerial strap act. The 20-year-old performer displays remarkable gymnastic ability.

Finally, Gaya and Quidam emerge at the office. Mom is transported there as well and the office workers transform into a funky dance tribe and party late into the night. As “Aborigenes Jam” (the Hoop Diving song from Dralion) strikes up the tribe accentuates the music with a variety of percussion instruments, and the Amazon warriors join the party as a group of female fire jugglers dance to the beat. The finale is performed by BAM, a street percussion group and Walkyries, a group of fire jugglers who are a product of the 2002 Cirque du Monde outreach program.

Episode 3: “Wind of Freedom”
(Original air date: December 14, 2003)

After showing a glimmer of potential in episode two, Solstrom comes crashing back down with its third installment. Entitled “Wind of Freedom” the premise finds Boum-Boum from Quidam descending on a prison and inspiring inmates to escape via various fantastical means. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t work at all. It’s simply too far fetched to be achievable without descending into the absurd. The style and presentation is a confused mess and the low-production values, shoddy scripting and weak artistry all but ruin this installment.

Don’t get me wrong, the individual acts are no less spectacular in this episode but the context is just so ill-conceived and poorly executed that it constantly distracts from the performances, and the viewer can only think about how ridiculous it all looks. This is disappointing given the potential of the powerful “freedom” theme which Cirque has used evocatively in acts such as Varekai’s Flight of Icarus, Alegría’s Flying Man and Mystère’s Aerial Cube. The sheer visual poetry in the presentation of these numbers turns them into powerful metaphors for the struggle of the captive who yearns to break free. It is this artistry that is painfully absent from this episode of Solstrom.

The episode opens with a group of prisoners in an exercise yard. The solstrom inspires them to break out into an energetic dance/percussion session. The troupe is known as Beat and their performance draws inspiration from shows such as Bring in ‘Da Noise Bring in ‘Da Funk, Tap Dogs and Stomp.

A new prisoner is brought in; lanky Varekai clown Claudio Carneiro. He plays a clichéd bumbling idiot character and seems to give a rather subdued performance without an audience’s energy to feed him.

One young man placidly bounces a ball against a wall in a classic “prisoner” image. The solar wind inspires the young man, 19 year-old Vladik Miagkostoupov, to perform an energetic contact juggling act. He dances and writhes while juggling and manipulating up to seven balls. This young performer exhibits talent and skill reminiscent of Dralion’s Viktor Kee.

Next, Troupe Khaylatov of the Great Moscow State Circus performs one of the most high-level acrobatic acts I’ve ever seen. One performer balances a 9.5 meter (approximately 30 foot) pole on his shoulder on top of which another performer is perched. They perform some skills similar to Chinese Poles performers, if the poles were simultaneously being balanced on the shoulders of porters. Though amazing, the uninspired presentation of the act makes it less than enthralling. Without the music, costumes, lighting, sets, choreography and drama usually present in Cirque du Soleil’s live shows even this spectacular act seems dull. In the absence of artistic elements the act is just a meaningless bunch of tricks and despite the skill of the performers, I found that it dragged on and got tired quickly.

Claudio winds up in the prison infirmary. The patient in the adjacent bed is inspired by the solar wind to leap up and perform a dance on crutches. Bill Shannon is a New York dancer/choreographer who turned his reliance on crutches into a new form of dance. Inspired by hip-hop and break dance Bill perfected his “Shannon Technique” for dancing on crutches which, until Cirque commissioned him to choreograph a piece for Varekai, only he practiced. Bill is amazingly agile on the cumbersome crutches and performs moves that are far more advanced than his protégé in Varekai is capable of. But the performance in Solstrom is devoid of any deep evocative power since it is not presented in a dramatic context like it is in Varekai.

A short slight-of-hand card routine performed by magician Étienne Vendette follows. Claudio is then hauled to his cell which he shares with a strange fellow; Zumanity dislocation artist Mukhtar Gusengadzhiev. Mukhtar presents his human-pretzel bone-displacement dance which demonstrates his extreme flexibility.

We cut to an adjacent cell where one inmate wrangles loose the bars on his window, but before his escape Boum-Boum’s puff of solstrom transforms the bars into balancing canes. The prisoner, played by former Alegrìa artist Samuel Tetreault, performs a hand-balancing act taken from his current show Les 7 doigts de la main.

Meanwhile a group assembles in the courtyard. One prisoner taunts Claudio by stamping down on one side of a bench and sending Claudio’s shoe on the opposite end flying into the air. The solar wind turns the bench into a Korean Plank and the group members (from Mystère) propel each other higher and higher on the apparatus. I adored this act when presented in Mystère but in Solstrom the unimaginative costumes and bland music diminish its impact.

The episode closes with La Nouba performer Yuri Maiorov attempting a helicopter escape. He ties bed sheets to a rig lowered by a hovering chopper but before he makes his escape Boum-Boum’s magic has him soaring across the prison yard performing an Aerial Ballet in Silk. I usually adore aerial silk acts; they are among my favorites in any show where they are featured. However, in the context of Solstrom they don’t have the same evocative power. Whereas in the theatre the aerialists fly over the heads of the audience and evoke a sense of wonder and other-worldly awe, on television they simply don’t have the same effect. Without the spatial reference of the theatre the viewer can’t appreciate the act in the same way and unfortunately it becomes flat on screen.

Solstrom is to Cirque du Soleil what a buffet is to dining; you get quantity over quality. There’s a lot of stuff but none of it is very good and everything is watered down. A good Cirque du Soleil production is very much like a gourmet meal at a fine restaurant; presentation is everything. In this case I expected Cordon Bleu and got Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Many fans were concerned when Zumanity was in the works that Cirque would somehow damage its own image with the release of a show that so seemingly strayed from its tradition. This is the risk the company takes when targeting a show to a specific audience. However, whereas I found Zumanity to be an intense, evocative and well thought out expansion of Cirque’s artistic capabilities, providing a strong complement to the company’s existing repertoire, I feel Solstrom is derivative and poorly crafted. This time I feel that Cirque rested on its laurels instead of pushing the envelope and charging into uncharted territory. The company squandered the potential of the new television series and merely stuck its name on an inferior product. I certainly would not have bothered watching this program if it did not carry the Cirque du Soleil banner and I am indeed concerned about any potential lasting effects in releasing this show to a wide audience. It’s not at all representative of the artistry and quality Cirque is capable of, and if Solstrom were the first I had ever seen of the company I would not have been impressed in the least. Nor would I have been inspired to shell out the money to see their live shows.

There are several areas where Solstrom needs work. Firstly, the series needs a director (or directors) with a clear artistic vision and an eye for visual storytelling. There are so many talented directors on the avant-garde of film that Cirque could have hired to make the series innovative instead of inane. Higher production quality is a must. If Cirque is going to produce a television series it should do it right and that means investing the necessary time, resources and money. I would have liked to see a much more film-like visual quality with scenes shot “on-location” as well as in a studio, as they did with Journey of Man. There is a painful need for better art direction and cinematography. The music would be much more effective if it were written by a more seasoned composer. What are Benoit Jutras and René Dupéré doing nowadays anyway? Furthermore, instead of synthesizers they should spring for a full scoring orchestra. And, perhaps most importantly, they should scrap the irritating, pointless narration and re-think the Sesame Street-does-Cirque style. When it comes to Cirque du Soleil productions it is the presentation and artistry that matter most. The company shouldn’t feel that it needs to pander to appeal to a wide audience.

What sets Cirque du Soleil apart in the world of circus arts is the company’s exacting eye for detail, its keen sense of artistry and its ability to create thought-provoking imagery. All of these elements are noticeably lacking in Solstrom. The series may pass for entertainment but it has certainly not achieved the level of art. It grieves me to say it because I love this company, I want it to succeed and continue to create wonderful, artistic shows. But Solstrom is nothing special. Anybody can simply throw together a collection of circus acts and produce a show. Sadly, I feel this is what was done with Solstrom. It is missing the very essence of what makes Cirque du Soleil great. It neither invokes the imagination, provokes the senses nor evokes the emotions.

Keep in mind however, that this is merely my own opinion after seeing the first three episodes. There is certainly the hope and possibility that the show may improve in subsequent installments. I encourage readers to watch for themselves and form their own opinions. Perhaps I may turn out to be a harsher critic than most. If some fans truly enjoy the show then I am glad. What I’ve seen of Solstrom so far just doesn’t really appeal to me.