It was quite the bombshell (and a well-kept secret) when it was announced that the USA version of Dancing With The Stars would host a night of ballroom dancing inspired by the music and shows of Cirque du Soleil. Coming, seemingly, out of the blue, reactions ranged from “Yeah!” to “WTF?”.
For those unaware, Dancing With The Stars (DWTS) is one of the most popular syndicated reality shows in the world. The idea is simple – professional ballroom dancers (all champions in some way) are paired with celebrities with varying levels of dance experience, to compete against each other in ballroom dancing, their efforts judges by 3-4 judges and audience voting. Originating with the BBC in Britain as “Strictly Come Dancing,” it has been franchised into 42 countries. The US version is now in it’s 23rd season (with seasons in fall and spring) and has consistently been a top 15 network show for the last 10 years. An average episode is watched by between 10-11 million people, with the franchise global audience standing at more than 250 million people worldwide.
To me it sounded like a good fit, but rife with the possibility of can’t-look-away train wrecks, depending on the synergy between celebrity, Cirque show and music. The idea was intriguing but posed questions – how do you bring the Cirque ethos into a ballroom dancing competition show? What music do you pick for what dances? Does the in-house band (Ray Chew Live) play the music, and how close will it be to the original band sound, or do they use pre-recorded tracks? How successful will the professionals be in crafting routines that aren’t overshadowed by Cirque-ish elements?
“Theme” nights are common on DWTS. My Most Memorable Year, TV night, Movie night, Halloween night, and the corporately-synergistic-Disney night (as DTWS is broadcast on the Disney-owned ABC network). Cirque has had exposure on DWTS before to be sure – a “Love”-infused dance in November of 2015. But this is the first time an “outside” brand has been chosen as the theme for an entire show.
Both sides benefit. DWTS gets to incorporate the intellectual property of a content-rich brand whose product is imagination. What Cirque gets is much more. 10.5 million people watched the Monday, October 3, 2016 broadcast. Consider that in order to reach 10.5 million people, by our approximate calculations, every Cirque show (resident, touring and arena) would have to play two shows a day, seven days a week with 100% sold out houses for over four months! And Cirque reaches that many people for two solid hours with this one show, with a demographic rich with the people Cirque would most like to reach – people with an appreciation for the arts!
With popcorn in hand my wife and I sat to watch the broadcast end to end, as well as the following days results show and the “DWTS All Access Webcast” that broadcasts to the Internet simultaneously with the main show. We watched the great, the almost-great, the OK, and the not-great. And I’m here to give a quick run-down of the show with particular emphasis on how the performances incorporated the Cirque “magic.” In the tradition of the show, my “Cirque Score” will look at this aspect exclusively, on a 10-point scale.
What we were expecting to see, in general, we got. No retired show music (people can’t buy tickets for shows that aren’t playing). All the US-based resident shows covered except Criss Angel Mindfreak Live. Three songs from the Beatles and Michael Jackson shows that didn’t feel too Cirque-ey. A song from Kurios, but no other touring shows, which left out Luzia, Ovo, and Toruk-The First Flight (which might have mixed branding and metaphors anyway).
Right off the top of the show, judge Bruno Tonioli invoked the creedo of the evening: “We want to be transported into the mesmerizing, magical world of Cirque du Soleil. So free your imagination, and let the show begin.” (Wonder who wrote that for him.) The “stars” entered to logos of the shows they represented blasted on the ballroom big screen. The opening features several characters from Cirque shows, from the Red Bird of Mystere to the Green Bird of La Nouba, KA warriors, and others.
In order of performance, they were:
1 – Football Star Calvin “Megatron” Johnson Jr. & Lindsay Arnold
Jive to “Bella Donna Twist” from – Kurios
The scene was set with a control panel prop from the scientists lair (that host Tom Bergeron tried to use to make a latte later). The costumes were very evocative of the show, with gears on Johnson’s jacket and goggles for Arnold. Projections on the floor made it look like the Kurios stage, and Anne, the upside down aerial bicyclist from the show swung in the air above the ballroom floor. A nice opening to the show with lots of Cirque ambiance. And here we must mention the music. The score for many of the acts was played by the in-house band, Ray Chew Live. It was a nice arrangement and sounded very much like the show. To these ears, though, it was just different enough to catch the ear as being different and not what we were used to. But it was being played live in front of 10+ million people! [DWTS Score – 23 | Cirque Score – 9]
2 – “Brady Bunch” actress Maureen McCormick & Artem Chigvintsev
Argentine Tango to “High Bar” from Mystère
With the Red Bird bounding about upstage, and Taiko Drums downstage, the dance was involved and connected with the show. The drama of the show was well incorporated into the choreography. Though they had trouble during the week, the couple pulled off a very nice tango. [DWTS Score – 24 | Cirque Score – 7]
3 – “One Tree Hill” actress/country singer Jana Kramer & Gleb Savchenko
Foxtrot to “Here Comes The Sun” from The Beatles LOVE
This couple visited the Love Theater in Vegas for some training. The music track was pre-recorded original Beatles. While there was a graphic similar to the “sun” LED ball used in the show, there really was very little Cirque influence here. [DWTS Score – 23 | Cirque Score – 5]
4 – “Taxi” Actress Marilu Henner & Derek Hough
Pasa Doble to “Battlefield” from KÀ
With decoration of a Wushu warrior and 4 flag bearers, the arrangement by the band was a nice approximation of the original music. Hough played a villain who gets stabbed by a flying(!) spear at the end of the dance. Henner struggles with being “in her head” so has trouble appearing smooth and giving over to the dance. The set, however, was very nice, with flames and graphics of the theater. [DWTS Score – 21 | Cirque Score – 9]
5 – VH1 talk show host Amber Rose & Maksim Chmerkovskiy
Tango to “Tickle Tango” from Zumanity
This Tango was hot and sexy, inspired by Zumanity but with no real Cirque content. This was right in Ambers wheelhouse, as she was an exotic dancer in her youth. A large amount of TV time was taken with a possible body-shaming comment made by one of the judges during last weeks’ show, where both sides aired their views but neither side apologized. With her ample top and bottom set off against a thin middle, looking on the TV screen like an exaggerated hourglass, her awareness of this issue must have been a part of much of her life. [DWTS Score – 24 | Cirque Score – 5]
6 – Rio Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Ryan Lochte & Cheryl Burke
Viennese Waltz to “Jeux d’Eau” from “O”
This couple also went to Vegas, with Lochte spending time in the “O” pool learning from some of the shows synchronized swimmers. The headless Elizabethan costume and a carousel horse provided set decoration. The music was a beautifully played version of the “O” CD opening track, with Ray Chew onstage playing a white piano in front of raindrops falling from the ceiling. The couple wore contrasting half-black, half-white outfits that I initially thought were inspired by the Zebra costumes (Lochte later said his character was based on Le Vieux (“Eugen”) though I don’t see the resemblance.). The performance, especially the music, was fantastic, described by one blogger as, “A sophisticated, content-rich waltz that beautifully paid homage to the water-based show.” I couldn’t agree more. [DWTS Score – 22 | Cirque Score – 10]
7 – Musician/Producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds & Allison Holker
Tango to “Come Together” from The Beatles LOVE
From the sublime to the ridiculous. The dance concept involved a series of spotlights lighting up sections of the dance floor. But the spotlights were on a timer, and it was up to the couple to move from one lit area of the floor to the next by a deadline, otherwise they would be in the dark. They got off to a bad start and never recovered. The music again was a pre-recorded Beatles original track. The darkness also meant there were no Cirque elements I could, um, see. Sorry. [DWTS Score – 18 | Cirque Score – 4]
8 – Little People: LA star Terra Jolé & Sasha Farber
Samba to “Tzelma” from “O”
Again, the sound of the band was a very close approximation of the shows music. This is the first little person the show has had, and she has improved steadily week-to-week, though the height differential between her and her partner and her different body mechanics continue to be a challenge. Though the dance was good, it missed the beauty and longing present in the show, that was better incorporated by Lochte. [DWTS Score – 25 | Cirque Score – 7]
9 – Rio Olympics Gold Medal Gymnast Laurie Hernandez & Valentin Chmerkovskiy
Jazz dance to “The Way You Make Me Feel” from Michael Jackson ONE
Gymnast Hernandez has been a leaderboard top performer since the beginning. There is something about the dedication and practice towards perfection that athletes are used to (as well as body awareness and ease of movement) that often helps them stand out in this competition. The 16-year old is also a big Michael Jackson fan, having costumed as him for 2 Halloweens. The dance is an interpretation of the video, with Val playing the part of Jackson. He has also done two routines to Janet Jackson songs, so is no stranger to Jackson-family music. With those factors in play (a favorite artist of the contestant, a familiar dance style and song, and a partner experienced in video dance interpretation) it was as if the producers had set her up for success. It was HOT, best dance of the night, and earned the first perfect score of the season. It was really great, but Cirque presence was missing. [DWTS Score – 30 (Perfect) | Cirque Score – 5]
10 – Singer Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) & Witney Carson
Viennese Waltz to “La Nouba” from La Nouba
The new ladder aerobatic act and Green Bird added atmosphere to this act, with Ice dressed as a ringmaker in a costume I couldn’t see as being very Cirque-related. The music was another great rendition and the dance was good but not great. Ice pointed out during the video package that he had five concerts to perform that week, so would only have a couple of hours between sound check and showtime to practice with Carson each day. Complaining about outside committments has often been the kiss of death to voters, who figure if you’re not devoting all or much of your time to the competition you shouldn’t stay. [DWTS Score – 23 | Cirque Score – 8]
11 – Indy Car driver James Hinchcliffe & Sharna Burgess
Quickstep to “The Hollywood Whiz” from Paramour
A great way to end the show. Driver Hinchcliffe has been the surprise of the season, a true non-dancer (unlike many DWTS celebrities who have had prior dance training of some sort) who is coming into his own. His Hugh Jackman-like good looks and good-humored nature have endeared him to voters, as has his improvement as a dancer. Hinchcliffe plays director AJ Golden, with red-maned Burgess perfect to play Indigo. They visited the show in New York to meet the cast and get pointers. This is a more straight-up interpretation of the opening number of the show, incorporating show acrobats Chris and Remy. It sparkles, dazzles and entertains. [DWTS Score – 28 | Cirque score – 10]
The Tuesday night results show was a double elimination, with Babyface Edmonds (who had the lowest judge’s score of the night) and Vanilla Ice being eliminated. We are still in the early going where the worst dancers are eliminated before voting blocs, name recognition, and personality and character appeal become more important toward the middle of the competition. What, you thought they were just judged on their DANCING?
Several times during the show a character or prop would make an appearance. The boot tricycle and bubble piano from LOVE, the Green Bird from La Nouba interacting with the judges. There was no attempt during these pieces to attach the object/character to a particular show. In this context it worked – it was all “CIRQUE” and I think brand awareness in general was the goal here.
Though doing so might have made it feel like an infomercial, there was little context given to the theme of the show the contestants were “inspired” by. Something quick in the behind-the-scenes video package that explained “this show involves a scientist who unlocks a turn-of-the-century steam-punk-ey world of incredible visitors from another realm” (in the case of Kurios) would have been fine.
As it was they were presented visually with no explaining context. The video package showed Lochte practicing in the “O” pool. Why is there a pool, what does it have to do with the theme of the show? Why is that half-naked red bird fella flipping about on the stage during the Mystere number, what’s he all about? There was next to no effort expended to explain that all these shows are different from one another, so they all ended up looking no different from one another. As my mother is happy to explain, “I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil once already.” That felt like a missed opportunity, but perhaps the TV show structure didn’t allow for it. I thought there would be a 30 or 60 second advertisement by Cirque, something to the extent of – (beautiful shots of acrobats and circus acts doing impossible things in the background) “all these shows you’re seeing interpreted here? They’re all different, all beautiful, and all worth seeing, and you can see them by going to CirqueduSoleil.com or calling this number for tickets.” Which might have brought the point home a bit more, but again risked the infomercial concern.
While being interviewed on the DWTS All Access webcast, longtime Mystere Red Bird Ross Gibson revealed that plans for the Cirque/DWTS mash-up had been in process for several years. And that is likely an understatement. The amount of negotiation between Cirque, DWTS, and ABC over what Cirque shows to feature, what songs from those shows, clearances for the Jackson and Beatles songs, what pieces of Cirque intellectual property to include in the show, how to design costumes similar to but not exactly like Cirque costumes, even how the Cirque and DWTS logo would mesh must have been daunting. Add to that scheduling Cirque artists to perform at the show and the amount of prep with rigging, lights, costumes, makeup, stage management, safety, the list goes on. I’ll bet the “cast list” of people involved from the Cirque end is a long one (and deserves to be published – which we’d be happy to do if you want to contact us, Cirque)!
This was an interesting foray for Cirque du Soleil, as it was for Dancing With The Stars. While it certainly raised Cirque awareness among millions of people with one show, I don’t think it did much to convince viewers to see multiple shows. That will now be their next challenge.
Highlights from the show can be found on the Dancing with the Stars YouTube channel: < https://www.youtube.com/user/ABCDWTS > under “Week 4.”