“KURIOS and VAREKAI: Where Less is… about the Same”

When the “economic reset” occurred at Cirque du Soleil headquarters at the beginning of 2013 we wondered what effect it would have on current shows, as well as how it would be applied to new creations. We knew we would be getting “less” but would we notice it?

Living in the great Pacific Northwest my wife and I were ready to ponder that question when two of Cirques shows came our way, Kurios Big Top and Varekai Arena. KURIOS-Cabinet of Curiosities arrived at its custom-made asphalt pad in Redmond’s Marymoor Park in late January. Scheduling (as did Amaluna before it) in the middle of winter, we could only shake our heads at such a season-ignorant touring plan. This was the first show designed from the start with new economic realities in mind. Would it “feel” like a Cirque show?

The Kurios site was decorated in typical “Cirque Big Top” fashion. There is now a circular Kurios logo sculpture in the perfect place for group pictures and a nice touch. People were busy snapping pics on their phones, and since it was Saturday night, the Tapis Rouge tent was open for those with fatter wallets.

Inside, the “single concession” tent (with all the “pre-show” functions under one vast canvas roof between Chapiteau doors 3 and 4) was set up differently than we had seen in the past. Gone were the interior standup ticket sales counters, banished once again to an outside portable. Instead, the area they used to occupy was taken up with a small selection of merchandise and several TV’s that displayed Facebook and Twitter feeds from those attending the performance. Some of the tent opposite the concessions area was taken up with a bar for those alcoholically-inclined. They also had a “magic photo” booth set up, as we had seen at other Chapiteau, shows where your picture could be combined with a Kurios-themed border and background.

The merchandise area was about the same size we have seen at other shows. There were some interesting new items, such as journals with Cirque-inspired covers. But what I’ve noticed, and it may be a perfectly logical business decision but is disappointing in any case, is the lack of cross-promotion of other shows under the brand. An occasional ad would appear on a TV monitor, but there were no displays of the various Cirque videos or CD’s that would make people aware of other shows on offer, especially in Las Vegas. Instead, what few recordings they had of other shows were mixed among the small souvenirs ringing the cash registers, easily overlooked.

It was a surprise when we were introduced to the Kurios program, which has to be one of the most creative Cirque has attempted in a long time. Instead of a large-format center-stapled book the “cover” is more like a box, representing a journal of the writings of the “Seeker” at the center of the story. Inside are a foldout poster that serves as a cast and crew and creation team roster (including five choreographers, two sets of composers, and 2 sound designers), another fold out poster with ads from the tour sponsors, and a 6” x 9” book of the Seekers drawings and observations. There are very few photographs in the booklet, instead using illustrations and comments (French first, then English) to notate the Seekers findings. It’s really a very clever way to extend the mythos of the show into the merchandising. To top it all off is a fold-out “Travelogue” of illustrations and comments from the Seekers journey. This piece is completely extra and a nice little bit of fun.

Stepping inside the tent envelops you in the shows world, as does any Chapiteau. And the show itself is wonderfully creative. But the reason for this review is to consider the production in light of budget cuts. Is it noticeable or not? I would say yes. The cast is smaller in total than older shows. There are no children, so there is no need for a traveling school. I recognize several Cirque veterans, such as drummer Kit Chatham (this is his third creation experience!), and several artists from the late, lamented IRIS (such as Ekaterina Pirogovskaya, who played the Praxinoscope character). The “steampunk” design style lends itself well to a more intimate atmosphere. Even within the show there is further focus inward, such as in the finger puppetry act of the second act, where the attention is magnified down to a tabletop where the act is performed (and captured by a camera projected over the stage so all can see).

For me, the show feels smaller than other Cirque productions, but because it was designed that way it doesn’t suffer from it. Most of the 44 artists play multiple characters, so it seems like there are more cast than there is. The stage seems to have more props on it more often, so the space seems filled. In all we like this show a lot, with its steampunk-inspired esthetic and an occasional new take on an old discipline. (The chair climbing act is fabulous, with the chair climber ascending to the top only to see that the scene from below is also playing out upside down from above. Including a reverse stair climber who assembles a stack of chairs – upside down mind you – and climbs down to meet the other chair climber in the middle. It is supremely impressive just because of the rigging that is required alone!)

Three months after Kurios moved on, Varekai made its way to the Northwest. Skipping the Seattle/Tacoma market (a good idea with Kurios fresh in the mind) the show came to Spokane before heading to Portland and then Vancouver, BC. We hesitated on buying tickets for Spokane, as it is not as pleasurable a weekend visit as either of the other two. But we finally pulled the trigger on Spokane tickets shortly before the other cities were announced. Really, you couldn’t announce all the shows of a particular leg at the same time? We would much rather have gone to Portland.

Before going further, I should declare our bias. Varekai is a show close to our hearts. We saw it in Montreal during its premiere run. I worked selling merchandise for the show when it came to Seattle. So we were very interested in the resultant product after its conversion, which we discussed with Varekai’s Artistic Director Fabrice Lemire a few issues ago (see http://www.cirquefascination.com/?p=5411 ).

The show played Spokane Arena, and fit into the typical “half-full” arena seating arrangement. But before we sat down we checked out the merch table. Very little on offer here, as there was little room to display it. But amongst the handful of items was the $20.00 program. It has taken its cue from Kurios and gone to an 8.5” X 10.5” “box” format. But where Kurios’ opened like a book with smaller pieces nestled in a recess in the center, Varekai’s slides out like a drawer. Instead of a center-stapled book, contained within are 20 numbered card-stock “mini-posters” each of a character or act. The “drawer” that holds these sheets has a map of the order of acts in the show, suggested to be Icarus’ “journey,” a nice touch. Cavalia used the same “poster” style for its program, only in a larger format with flimsier paper, and I dis-liked the format then as much as I do now. For Kurios I can understand it, a non-traditional style program format integrates well with the concept of the show. Just not so much here. In addition, a fold-out poster is printed on both sides with Cast/Creators/Credits/Introductions/Sponsor Ads.

A saving grace of the Varekai program is how it tells the shows “story.” While roughly in the order of the show, it is Icarus’ “voice” that provides the narration. He talks about his fall, the characters he meets and what they are trying to teach him, and his feelings of love at meeting “The Promise” (caterpillar/butterfly/hand balancer). This communicates the meaning of the show much better than other Cirque programs. The pictures seem to be of the most recent cast, though Icarian Games is still included. (I note this format would allow them to update the programs content more easily and cheaply; just pull out the card with the old info and slip in a revised card!)

Arenas hold no advantage over big tops other than making Cirque available to smaller markets. You are more obviously watching a show here and not being welcomed into an environment. We saw the show two times during our weekend, once from six rows back on the floor (the furthest row sold on the main floor) and again from the furthest row back up high in the center. Our experience brings us to this conclusion: if you take seats on the floor don’t sit any further back than the third row unless you are over 6’2”. The lack of raking (row elevation) means that from the fourth row on your angle of viewing is such that the average persons’ view will be impeded by taller heads. My wife (who is 5’2”) kept moving from side to side to see around a tall person sitting in front of her. Yes, we could feel the warmth of the lights, hear the characters shout, notice the stage squeaking. But we actually got a much better EXPERIENCE out of sitting further back – it gave us a better overall view of the stage action.

Cirque has of late taken a more liberal policy on how a shows original intent is interpreted. Company Artistic Directors are allowed to explore more changes to their shows, sometimes to make it more exciting for the artists, sometimes to account for injury, sometimes to ease staging. There have been a lot of changes to Varekai over its lifetime, and more were made to birth it into this new life. Some acts that were a part of the show are now gone, such as the three blue ladies formerly of the Triple Trapeze, replaced by a solo trapeze act. Their appearance in the show is now more of a mystery without an act to feature them. Water Meteors fell victim to the adult-artists-only policy of Arena Shows. And the most recent, and in our opinion deepest, cut of all was the elimination of the Icarian Games act – what we considered along with Russian Swings to be Varekai’s signature acts.

There were some nice moments in the new format. We saw a baton twirler act in rotation who was excellent. She used a variety of batons, had some interesting variation of tricks with them, and was quite refreshing. The male clowns’ moment with the spotlight singing, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” was more fun as he had more distance to cover to reach the top of the arena.

But the show wasn’t the same. The first act only lasted 45 minutes; it felt rushed, like an act was missing. The replacement for Icarian Games, Synchronized Tumbling, didn’t carry the “WOW” the prior act did. (Guys doing somersaults over each other are just a variation of competitive gymnastics we can see on TV. One guy tossing another guy over and over and into the air – with his FEET – now that’s circus!) The Georgian Dancers did their dancing, but didn’t bring the energy and exhuberance to their act we have experienced before. Actions happened faster, moments didn’t linger, it all felt a bit sped-up. Though we do note that the number of the cast is the same as it was during its Chapiteau days, 50, as compared to Kurios from-the-start 42.

Sometimes I have to stop myself. We have been fans for so long, seen so many of Cirque’s shows that occasionally we have to remind ourselves of the high level of daring and artistry in each and every show. And how to most other viewers these are feats to be marveled at. For us, Kurios deserves every bit of that wonder. Varekai in its newest incarnation not as much, but it is still a show I can confidently recommend as an introduction to just what Cirque du Soleil is all about.

And if you bring back the large-format bound program book, so much the better.