Evolved from a band of street performers in a small town in Quebec, Canada, Cirque Du Soleil began in 1984 and has since gone on to become an international hit, with more than 50 million people worldwide having seen the troupe’s jaw-dropping mix of acrobatics, gymnastics, music and comedy. The show Alegría premiered in 1994, but is still going strong in 2006, as the company returns to London. Caroline Bishop went to the Royal Albert Hall for the first night.
Cirque Du Soleil is circus at its most classy. No lions and lame jokes here, instead, the troupe takes what’s best about traditional circus – the acrobatics, the costumes, the wow factor – and cranks it up several notches to create a piece of circus theatre firmly rooted in this century. The acrobats are professional gymnasts and contortionists with seemingly un-human skill, the costumes, designed by Dominique Lemieux, are sumptuous and detailed, and choreography is complemented by the dramatic score by René Dupéré.
Alegría means jubilation in Spanish, and is, according to the show’s creators, a ‘state of mind, a mood’. The show supposedly tackles themes of power handed down over time and the evolution of monarchies to democracies. Er, ok, but whether the first night audience recognised this or not seems irrelevant – the show offered enough visual sights and quality entertainment to please the punters without worrying about a story.
The beautiful Royal Albert Hall is an apt stage for the show, whose design has a touch of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge about it. The assortment of wacky characters include Fleur, the Dickensian hunchback old man who guides the audience through the show; The White Singer, a plump fairy whose vocals tell the story; the Nostalgic Old Birds – a group of fat and fairly grotesque characters with flamboyant, aristocratic costumes; and the two clowns, who provide comedic breaks between the acrobatics.
The characters in Alegría are the backdrop to what everyone really came to see – the acrobats. Performing in turn are trapeze artists, tumblers, fire baton twirlers, the Flying Man on his bungee string, a girl whose hula hoop spinning is more than a bit weird, and a Ukrainian man who balances on one hand on a thin pole while positioning his body in gravity-defying shapes. In true circus tradition, the various stunts and exploits leave audiences gasping both in awe and also with a sort of lurid fascination at some of the unnatural bodily positions displayed by some performers – like the contortionist twins, whose bodies simply shouldn’t do what they do.
Alegría is a visual feast of glitz, glamour and perfectly honed bodies. Will it inspire you to go to the gym and work off that Christmas excess? More likely, you’ll sit back in your theatre seat, munching on your Malteasers, and be content to leave the acrobatic feats to the experts – Cirque Du Soleil.