My childhood recollections of circuses feature draughty big tops, bum-numbing seats, the gut-wrenching smell of sawdust mixed liberally with animal dung, wading ankle deep through mud and straw to get to the big top, and, even at a tender age, the realisation that this was not the place where animals were meant to be. Yet it still seemed to embody romance tinged with mystery and the exotic. Little wonder then that some of my childhood contemporaries were drawn to escape their parents or the boredom of their daily lives by running off to join a circus.
If you share my negative recollections, put them to the back of your mind when thinking about a visit to Cirque du Soleil. Because this is a different kind of ‘circus ‘altogether. First, there’s not an animal in sight. And the ‘big top’ (at least for this production) has been abandoned in favour of the more salubrious surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. This is circus with comfort, and much more besides.
Cirque began in Quebec in the mid 1980s when a number of street-performers joined forces. They’ve come a long way since then, and now employ over 600 artists and have a number of different shows touring all over the world, as well as residencies in Las Vegas and Walt Disney World in Florida. So, you may well bump into them during your holiday travels.
I first saw Cirque du Soleil (reluctantly) with some friends in London in the early 1990s. To say we were stunned and over-awed by what we saw would be an understatement. Fantastic light shows, brilliantly original music, amazing and highly skilful acts changed our views about what ‘circus’ should be. So, I was intrigued to see how they’ve developed since I saw them last.
East meets west in the new Cirque show, Dralion, which opened in London last night. The name is a synthesis of ‘Dragon’ (representing the East) and ‘Lion’ (representing the Western influences in the show). In some ways it’s a highly inappropriate title of course, since there are no animals whatsoever in this production (unless you include the human variety, or several Chinese ‘dragons’). However, I don’t think even ardent animalists will balk at such a reference.
The clowns who open the show and reappear at regular intervals throughout, are suitably bizarre in their appearance, and in one case not a little frightening - he sports a bowling ball stuck to his thumb and resembles a zombie from a Hammer horror movie. And their antics are also suitably bizarre. For example, one staples hair (retrieved from various parts of his anatomy) to another’s head! However, the running ‘joke’ which the clowns introduce at the beginning of the show wore a little thin for me by the end. And I thought their opening routine ran on just a little too long, leaving me itching for the rest of the show to start. However, I’m not sure my opinions were necessarily shared, judging by the reaction of the rest of the audience.
That minor quibble aside, the other acts in the show were stunning. In particular, a charming and engaging but diminutive girl balancing on one hand and contorting her body into amazing positions was, for me, the highlight of the show. But there’s also incredible ball-juggling and tumbling, and a delightful aerial ‘pas de deux’ performed using enormous silk-like sashes.
Many of the performers double-up in several acts such as hoop-diving, skipping ropes and pole-balancing – it’s an awesome demonstration of the incredible skills which these entertainers posses. One can only guess at the huge amount of practice and coaching which has to go into the refinement of these performances. I didn’t spot even one minor fault in any of these visually intriguing and riveting routines, and that says a lot when one considers they involve fetes such as somersaulting on stilts!
Perhaps the hallmark of Cirque du Soleil shows is their ingenuity in staging the acts and weaving them together with light, original music and dance. And this show didn’t disappoint on any of those counts. The music in Dralion is quite exceptional, and brilliantly performed by what appears to be a relatively small but highly gifted ensemble of singers and musicians. The score is emotive and captivating, but like the best of musical accompaniment, doesn’t overwhelm or distract from the skill of the other performers.
The staging is immensely impressive and visually stunning – the stage alone takes up around a quarter of the cavernous Albert Hall which gives everyone a truly ‘ring-side’ view.
Innovative, imaginative, and teeming with skill, Dralion is great family entertainment at its best. Catch it if you can, you won’t fail to be impressed.
However, you may want to consider your budget if you’re thinking about buying an official programme – at £9, even with fantastic photos of all the acts and a highly polished and professional layout, it’s an excessive price in my view, and I suspect will be beyond affordability for most visitors.