Review: Cirque Du Soleil, Koozå at the Royal Albert Hall

Performance: 8 January - 14 February 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 11 January 2013

Cirque Du Soleil 'Kooza' contortionists

It is six years since Koozå premiered in Montreal and, ironically, the show is three years’ older than Totem , the last Cirque Du Soleil show to be seen here at the Royal Albert Hall, in January 2011. I mention this because one might be forgiven for thinking that Koozå was the more recent creation since it seems a better fit for these times of global austerity with less emphasis on elaborate stage designs than other shows in the company’s 30-strong repertoire (around 20 of which are still being regularly or permanently performed around the world). Much of what I recall about Totem had to do with the visual impact of a remarkably versatile set (a theatrical strength likely derived from Robert Lepage’s creative input as its writer/director).

The setting for Koozå marries a simple circus ring (containing several hidden traps) to a two-storey bandstand, known, I believe, as a bataclan and apparently inspired by Hindu culture, which is periodically revealed to the audience by the seductive peeling away of a fabric cover. What the set lacks in technological wizardry is made up for by a dazzling array of some 175 separate costumes, comprising over a thousand individual items – hats, masks and feathers especially well represented.

There is no particular story to Koozå but the central characters are a small, innocent clown (wearing an ill-fitting, horizontally-striped onesie) carrying his beloved kite and ‘The Trickster’, a tall, clever, manipulative and acrobatic figure, dressed from head to toe in perfectly co-ordinated vertical stripes of red, white and two shades of blue. These begin in his shoes and work their way up through a suit into a pointed, plastic hairpiece. Dressed this way, ‘The Trickster’ reminded me of the Knickerbocker Glory man (especially his ice cream hair) from Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!

Koozå takes an age to get going with a preamble of unfunny clowning, regularly interrupted by an annoying alarm and a warning – regrettably unheeded – to “move away from the stage”. It probably helps to accommodate latecomers but for those of us who were seated well before the start time of 8pm, this opening episode lasted way too long. It came as no surprise to read that Koozå was written and directed by a man (David Shiner) whose earlier career was as a Cirque Du Soleil clown. I often feel that I must be missing something in the peculiar brand of Cirque clownery but it seems clear that I’m not alone.

Koozå may descend into showing a pantomime dog cock his leg and pee at the audience but it is also portrays the most extraordinary Olympian gymnastic, acrobatic and athletic skills. Judging by the programme it looks as if one hand-to-hand act had to be omitted but if an analogy were to be drawn to a game of ‘pass the parcel’, the packaging of Koozå may have been dreary but the presents were all platinum-plated.

There were three unbelievable contortionists who shaped themselves like modelling wire into remarkable human statues from which it was impossible to pick out one extraordinary body from the others. A sexy trapeze artist piked, twisted and somersaulted high above us; a tribe of monkey skeletons danced; a pickpocket appeared out of a suitcase to relieve an audience member named Nigel of his watch, pens and even – incredibly – his tie; and another sexy woman manipulated several hoops in a way that should not have been possible under the general law of physics.

But, above all, great athletes balanced – on balls; on balls on top of balls; on a unicycle; on a man riding a unicycle; on a trapeze; on tightropes; on tightropes on top of tightropes; on bicycles; on chairs on top of bicycles; and on chairs precariously perched on top of many other chairs. Just when you think you have seen everything the circus can offer, acrobats hold a fencing match on a tightrope and somersault at remarkable elevations through the air wearing stilts! Every act made unbelievable skills look as easy as child’s play.

The best of these extraordinary acts came in the Wheel of Death (which looks like a giant pair of opera glasses rotating like the London Eye, but VERY fast). It is well-named since this is the apparatus that almost killed Pablo Caesar (of the Caesar twins) when he fell nearly 20 metres from the wheel in 2002. Here, these two unnamed acrobats performed outrageous and courageous feats within the hooped tracks at either end of the wheel, with one mounting the hoop as it flew past him, clinging on by the fingertips of one hand as it sped to the highest elevation before performing huge leaps into the air to land with unerring precision on top of the fast-revolving drum. A millisecond out of time or a millimetre out of place and he would have shared poor Pablo’s fate. The entire audience gasped in unison, several times.

The bespoke musical score (by Jean-François Côté) – performed live by an impressive band – was as excellent as the clowning was poor. I know that these latter interludes are an essential circus safety device to mask the necessary changing and checking of the props and I may be guilty of irrational coulrophobia (do look it up!) but, if it were logistically possible to trim down the unnecessary padding, or at least try to make it funny, then this show would become a humdinger.

Continues at the Royal Albert Hall until 14 February

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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