“CRYSTAL: Colder Than You Might Like”

What is so special about Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia that they get all the Cirque du Soleil shows – both Grand Chapiteau and Arena? When a city just as cool and metropolitan and Cirque-friendly, Seattle, Washington, just 150 miles north (or south), hasn’t seen an Arena show since Delerium? Is it the water?

We have heard that Cirque promises arena promoters that no big top show will appear in a market within six months of an arena show (though we’re not sure if that means six months on either side of an appearance for a year total, or three months on either side for six months total). And we know that Cirque comes back around every two years or so to its custom-built asphalt pad in Redmond’s Marymoor Park. But, still, there should be time slots available, one might think, for Cirque to put in an appearance at one of our area’s several accommodating arenas.

The seeming embargo on Seattle-area arena shows means that when a Cirque arena show makes its way to the Pacific Northwest, it will usually go to Portland and skip Seattle for Vancouver or Victoria, BC (sometimes the other way around). And so it was for the first Cirque ice show, Crystal. Meaning that, once again, we needed to shlep down to Portland to the MODA Center. (This is also the arena that hosts the Portland Trailblazers NBA basketball team – another feature Seattle lacks. Could the two be related? Could Cirque also be angry over the loss of the Seattle Supersonics (now in Oklahoma City)?)

The MODA Center is located across the river from the main part of the city, but is easily accessible by their light rail transit system. It’s a city with a talent for urban planning Seattle just hasn’t latched onto yet. It’s nice-sized arena is perfect for Cirque arena shows – we saw Toruk here when it visited (since it, too, skipped Seattle).

This being Cirque’s first attempt at a show on a frozen ice surface, we were curious – which side would prevail, the Cirque side or the ice show side? We don’t partake of the “Disney On Ice” Feld spectacles that come to town yearly, or the “Stars On Ice” athletic shows. So though we didn’t know what expectations to have on the ice show side, we certainly knew what to expect from the Cirque side. And with ticket prices on par with other arena shows, we were expecting a CIRQUE show more than an ICE show.

Upon entering, we perused the souvenir “mini-boutique.” The things on sale here were in many ways different from what we were expecting. The most desirable item, a furry hoodie sweatshirt was only available in small. They had fake “snowflakes,” a keychain, small bits of jewelry, and other items that we thought would appeal to the younger girls in the audience.

Then there was the program.

This program is thinner and smaller than typical programs, and is radically different. It is designed as a “creative journal” meant to challenge and inspire the reader to become more creative. There are NO pictures of acts here. No attempt to memorialize the linear flow of the show in pictures or any other writing. It is, instead, a series of “exercises” meant to draw out creativity.

• Describe a situation where you felt stuck / how did you feel / what did you do to feel free?
• Write down everything you can think of relating to the word “imagine.”
• Draw yourself as a fish.

OK. This is certainly a different expression of a souvenir book.

There are pictures of the artists, and credits, and a few Cirque ads, but that’s it. This is not a “souvenir program” as we have come to expect it. It is the least representative souvenir of any Cirque show we’ve seen (and I include the Zumanity and Varekai CD soundtracks in that list). Sadly, this didn’t set us up well for the show to come. Nice try, but I don’t want homework from a program book, I prefer pictures of the acts that trigger memories of the show.

Like Toruk, the “stage” for Crystal takes up the arena floor. There is a setpiece at the back of the arena that houses ramps, platforms, hidden doors, and projections. A teleferique spans the back half of the stage, allowing performers to float from the setpiece to about the middle of the floor. That turns into a nice piece of stagecraft, as it is used creatively several times. There are several ramps and jumps through the setpiece and on the perimeter for feats of jumping.

So, is this a Cirque ice show, or an ice show created by Cirque du Soleil? It seems to us to be an amalgam of both, with some of each’s benefits.

Remember when I said we don’t go to Disney On Ice? Our expectations were more along the lines of skating coverage we see on TV, which is more competition-based, with more challenging choreography. As such, we were expecting more challenging and daring technical skating (a triple jump perhaps?) than there was. A lot of moving around the ice, a lot of “expressing,” but not much excitement.

Many of the acrobatic acts wore shoes, not skates, and the shoes that were specially developed for the show allowed the artists to do nearly anything they could do on a normal stage. And the added choreography was interesting. But perhaps it was the distance from the stage ice floor, we didn’t feel drawn in to the performance. There was pre-recorded dialog to clue us in to what was going on, but it was occasionally garbled or hard to hear.

The acrobatics were fun and well skilled, including acts we didn’t expect. Juggling on ice, how do you do that consistently? We found the second act better than the first in that department, especially a banquine-type act with a few scary moves that was quite impressive.

The music was also really good and well mixed. The inclusion of current songs (“Chandelier” by Sia being the most obvious) was an interesting change. It was re-arranged in a more laid-back “alt loungey” (is that a word?) style for which the vocalist (who never appeared on stage that we saw) was perfectly suited. There was also a woodwind player and a guitarist, though most of the tracks were pre-recorded. So why not a CD yet – come on, Cirque, where is it? If Volta and Toruk can have one, why not Crystal?

Overall, it’s a good show – for an ice show. The audience at our performance seemed to appreciate it. A woman sitting next to us had never seen a Cirque show before (are there still people like that out there?) and loved it. We decided not to see the show again the following day, an indicator that it wasn’t truly special to us, as the best Cirque shows can be. The melding of the “ice show” aspects with the “cirque show” aspects was nice, but there didn’t seem to be enough of either for us to appreciate.

I recently read a review of the show recently that mentioned the powerful effect the show had on the writers’ children, how they looked up to and identified with the Crystal character. I could see how the show had been tailored to younger members of the audience, especially with its overt narration that made plain what was happening onstage, and the workbook style of the program book. We did note, though, that for our Saturday 8pm performance we did not see many children in the audience.

We wish Crystal lots of success as it tours the world. With its ice hockey arena layout it will have its choice of cities – nearly anywhere – to play in. We just wish it was more of a Cirque show than an ice show.