Review: Cirque du Soleil's 'KOOZA'

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By Andra Jenkin

Date / Venue: Friday February 15th, 2019 - Alexandra Park, Auckland

Years ago I saw the Cirque du Soleil show Alegria, and it remains one of the most beautiful and creative spectacles I’ve ever seen. It is therefore with great expectation that I approach the Big Top. Here, one of the current incarnations of the Cirque du Soleil, Kooza, will be staged.

I have taken my daughter Allara with me, who loves art and dance, in the hopes that I will see the circus through the eyes of a child as well as my own.

The minor notes of a circus dirge pipe through the speakers as we are seated. Traditional and evocative the music promises wonder and marvels, with a dark undercurrent of danger. While technical experts climb the rigging I examine the back-lit back-drop. Dark blue and rippled it gathers like a moody cloud behind and above the stage.

I’m distracted by a strutting ballerina, circling the edge of thatstage, waving at children in the audience. Other performers are among the spectators now, clowns are roaming freely, the show has not yet started, but we are entering into the world of Kooza, mysterious, magical, at times perilous, and always imaginative.

It appears all of Auckland is here. With a Big Top that seats 2600, opening night is packed to the canopy with eager punters. I can see people not expecting to see their friends and family giving hugs like they were greeting them at the airport. There is a sense of camaraderie and anticipation, we all know we are about to be treated to something truly special.

I refuse to spoil the spectacle by giving away too many details of the performances. There are surprises in abundance, so it would be unfair, after all their hard work, to reveal the secrets of the entertainers. Besides, there’s no way I could do justiceto the amazing acts.

As the show begins the only thing more extraordinary than the skills of the artists is the expression on the face of my 6 year old daughter. Completely captivated she conveys that all of her suspicions have been confirmed. Adults go out at night without her to see the most incredible sights, magic is real, and I have kept her from it until now.

The opening is simple and beautiful. Bo Yang delivers a box, and from there unfolds a narrative both powerful and charming. Innocent Cedric Belisle will represent the audience in a journey of discovery, while Derek Piquette as The Trickster invents illusions around him. The blue cloudy backdrop reveals an astonishing surprise in a clever set designed by Stéphane Roy. Live musicians and singers lend another dimension to the show, transporting the audience to a fictional place, and providing an other worldly atmosphere to the proceedings.

The programme promises clowning and acrobatics and Kooza delivers. The massive cast tumble and leap, acting while flying. These are performers at the pinnacle of their careers and it shows. All around people are starring in rapt attention, and gasping at particularly heart-stopping tricks.

The contortionists perform feats of strength and dexterity in an artistic display. Their piece belongs firmly in the realm of “things that are only possible in dreams.” I am not sure who of Ninjin Altankhuyag, Odgeral Bayambadorj and Sender Enkhtur are the two performers on opening night, but they are fast and vibrant and bring new meaning to making shapes.

Haley Viloria has no safety net, no harness, just her and two straps upon which she soars and spins, in a dynamic and dangerous show. She’s energetic and skilled, her strength and agility apparent. She’s comfortable and familiar with the space, and is accompanied by dramatic modern rock music. Her performance is more battle than balletic and she could not be more impressive.

Kooza has sudden mood swings, one moment we’re watching transformative beauty, the next physical comedy. Characters such as the raucous King, brought to life by Sean Kempton cause the audience to roar with laughter. Then there are romantic vignettes like Yury Shavro and Olga Tutynina’sold-world unicycle duo, followed up by hilarious vulgarity, like the exploits of The Mad Dog and the clowns, Miguel Berlanga and Michael Garner that bring to mind Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

There is a sense of time travel, exacerbated by costumes which are in some scenes traditional and almost antiquated, in others extravagant and sexy. Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt’s vision is extraordinary. It is clear that she has drawn inspiration from diverse sources, with elements of steampunk and iconic films such as Baron Von Munchausen and The Wizard of Oz, and books like Alice in Wonderland. They also have to survive the most extreme feats and be practical so the performers can move freely. Forget the merch, Kooza should open a clothing line inspired by the costumes. I would never wear anything else. My hat is off to Vaillancourt, I just wish she was the one who designed it.

There is audience participation, and if you like to be part of the show I would recommend getting a seat right up front or at least on the aisle or front of row between sections. It’s interactive and fun, these seats are not for the shy. There were volunteers from the audience at various points, both of whom were great sports and really added to the show.

One of Allara’s highlights was the high wire act, “Are you kidding me?” she asks after seeing a particularly difficult trick, her voice full of amazement. The artists are ageless and brilliant. Cirque du Soleil is like a circus on steroids. The last act exits to ominous laughter, and I wonder what dark twist the second act will reveal.

Intermission is announced by the strange Heimloss, and we all file out for ice-creams, hot dogs and a pit-stop. The only issue in an otherwise flawless night is with the amenities. There are not enough toilets to handle the crowd and at least 5 in the row I queued at were broken within 10 minutes. The lines for food were also long, and people had to leave without being served to get back into the tent for the show to start. Not ideal if you had a child with you. These however are the teething problems of an opening night and I fully expect them to be sorted for the rest of the performances.

The second half reopens to pitch black, except for the rude bastards on their cell phones. Seriously people?! If you can’t put them down for Cirque du Soleil you shouldn’t be allowed in public at all.

This half is darker all round and the act that opens it recalls New Orleans jazz and a celebratory dance of the dead that choreographer Clarence Ford should be proud of. The live music could stand on its own as entertainment and I would kill for the singer’s dress as well as her voice. Tymara Walker is a revelation. Mary Guilbault too has an incredible range and the two elevate every scene they sing in.

The next act is more heavy metal than jazz. They subvert the expected with their entry to the spinning wheels of death and mirror each other in a performance that shows that gravity is still just a theory to these guys. They float, fly, jump and practically twist reality. There were two performers and three names on the running order, so I’ll just have to say that I am in awe of at least two artists who include Angelo Rodriquez, Ronald Solis and Junior Espinoza. I imagine all three are brilliant, and I’m positive that will be proven should I be privileged enough to see Kooza again and watch the missing third daredevil. There are no harnesses or safety nets here and death is clearly an actual possibility. It’s a hardcore and savage act you could head bang to. It’s even closed by a face-melting drum solo, courtesy of Paul Butler.

A stunning bird enters, shedding plumage to spin hoops. This was the performance my daughter declared her favourite of all. The hoops themselves seemed to create a hologramatic effect in the air, while Anna Stankus used contortion, choreography and precision to dance with them. 

The characters return for a bit of audience participation. Allara giggles in delight, “That’s hilarious,” she says, and she’s not wrong. The characters and clowns have been thoroughly entertaining throughout, switching up the mood constantly.

Another sudden tone change, from the ludicrous to the divine, an entrance evokes spirituality, like a religious ceremony, again, the live singing creating ambiance. The ethereal chair balancing of Deng Bo-Yao makes way for the pure acrobatics of an entire troupe of performers whose precision is incredible. They are perfectly on mark in an act that has no room for error. Also I want their boots. Each tumbler deserves to have their name listed, but with 13 fantastic acrobats, that would lend nothing to the review. Instead I urge you to go and see them live; it’s absolutely worth the money.

If there’s a hyperbolic description I’ve missed in describing Kooza, it’s not because it wasn’t earned. I have left out the names of many who have made this circus the joy it is, and for that I apologise, I am worn-out from excitement, and my head is filled with imagery. I will say that all of these are seriously tricky acts people, from properly talented artists. If there was an Olympics for circuses Kooza would surely win the gold.

On the way out I hear one of the patrons say “I’m ruined for all other circuses.”

It’s true. Kooza is the experience of a lifetime and if there’s anything you take away from this review it is to go and see the show. You will remember it forever.

KOOZA runs until March 17- https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/new-zealand/auckland/kooza/buy-tickets