"Can I take this in with me?" I ask the cheery-eyed woman. There was less than ten minutes until show time, and nothing's worse than fitfully forcing yourself to chug wine.
"Well of course you can. It's a show, ain't it?"
I chuckle and order, assuring myself that I have good reason for my ignorance, accustomed as I am to spilling out perfectly good terror-free water in airport lines and drowning myself during short intermissions at most New York City venues. Everything, though, seemed a bit off here, like the fact that no one searched my bag when I went through the tent's entrance, and that every worker who walked by said hello for no good reason.
It came into perspective--I was in Cirque du Soleil, after all. The unmistakable bright purple and yellow tent shines across the Harlem stretch of FDR, parked on a lonely patch of Randall's Island between a horizontally intimidating dirt parking lot and a massive mental institution. While the two-and-a-half hours one spends inside that magical mythology is touted as entertainment, there is only one reason Cirque has built its global empire of modern movement: it offers us a glimpse into the possible.
The website for the Brazilian-music, insect themed Ovo tells us that the show is all about contrast. While this revelation hints at the underworld of crawling critters and feisty reproducers, the actual company is no different, with its eye-boggling ticket prices, not to mention the mega-market one confronts before entering the big top proper. Cirque is a horse of a different color, though, masterful at transforming two paradigms often put at odds--artistic integrity and capitalist ideology--and merging them in a way that supports the people it employs, thus supporting what is undeniably the highest tier of dance and movement in the world. The company is both its own underwriter as well as its biggest fan.
I've only heard good things from people I've met that have worked with the organization, such as personal schooling for children of parents on tour, a health care system that goes well beyond cheap prescriptions, and, if the friendliness of the workers at Ovo was any indication, an irreplaceable sub-culture of people who love what they do. Who wouldn't want to work at the circus?
Thing is, this circus is worlds apart from the elephant herding of old. Ovo's ecological undertones are impossible to miss. Portuguese for "egg," a giant ovo lands in the midst of an insect commune, led by a crotchety beetle and a glamorously plump ladybug whose size is a virtue. (A hilarious impromptu sketch has crotchety attempting to sell the egg-bearing Lancelot various crowd members; he wants the large goods.) Instead of torturing lions and seals to prove man's domination, Cirque reorganizes group psychology, creating an imagined ritual where humans reconnect with amphibian ancestors. The masking tradition, one of this planet's oldest spiritual artifacts, is revived and honored as lithe grasshoppers and bendy felines (yes, a cat appears) showcase the near impossible in human anatomy.
I don't say that lightly. I've been a yoga instructor for six years, and words like hyperflexion and supination take on new meanings in Cirque du Soleil. When one particularly toned insect performs one-armed handstands on top of an uroboros-themed playset, torquing his midsection with Pythagorean proportions, you're forced to squirm in your seats. Improbable angles abound with a spidery unicycle act on top of a swinging tightrope, the cat crawl of a triple-jointed tabby, and a trapeze act that would send Barnum home in shame.
A crew of six female Oompa-Loompas appears from their yellow brick wonderland to toss one another around with their feet, playing hacky sack with humans just as they had with giant kiwi and corn. The vibrant colors of vegetable life were a recurring theme, as was the love story between Ms Ladybug and her blue-clothed suitor, who has to be trained in the lessons of romance: getting high on bug spray has its place, but not when your lady is awaiting a kiss.
The first Cirque show ever written and directed by a woman, the feminine is celebrated throughout. The Brazilian theme was a no-brainer for Deborah Colker, who grew up to a violin-playing papa (hence a violinist featured on stage) in the land of Carnaval and bossa nova. She has made a formidable name for herself in the dance world at home and abroad, and given the seven years Ovo took from inception to realization, you can only imagine the imagination that was allowed the time to brew and bubble over.
The soundtrack is one of the best that Cirque has produced, and from the few that I've seen, so is the show. Some songs on the otherwise fantastic album are overly thematic, tough to enjoy without the visual stimulation of the show. Composer Berna Ceppas mostly performed wonderfully with his crew of violinists, accordionists, cello players, and percussionists, not to mention the highlight, singer Marie-Claude Marchand. The songs do wane when Ceppas attempts electro, with generic dance beats acting as over-tread techno; the acoustic moments glimmer and shine.
While Cirque du Soleil is the apex for performers the world over, that model is supported in every aspect of the company. Low-powered, super clean toilets (and tons of them) are plastered with signs about water consumption. The food and wine were inexpensive and more than palatable, compared to Manhattan prices. And the show was dazzling, inspiring and transporting. Every Cirque performance has that appeal: taking you "somewhere else" in attempts of showing how much better "here" can be. Like millennia-old shamanic traditions, what matters most is the integration of the other worlds with this one we are living in.
One of the most unfortunate things I've come across time and again is people who have large dreams and little understanding of the patience and discipline needed to attain them. When David Remnick discusses the time and effort that Barack Obama put into his public speaking training in his new book, The Bridge, you really appreciate what appears "natural." So it goes with Cirque performers, who make the impossible look effortless. The closing scene of Ovo, in which dozens of insects use trampolines to literally fly up a wall, was unlike anything I have ever witnessed. It reminded me of watching Star Wars for the first time at age four, engaging in the mythic realm of imagination for the first time.
And then, we leave. On the way out, people carelessly threw garbage into three bins, one each clearly marked for compost, recycling, and trash. After seeing such strong messages about the natural world and our place in it, it pained me watching fellow spectators pay no attention to the signs (or worse, simply leave their trash under chairs in observance of that great American motto: let someone else clean up). The imagination may be the agent of change, but it takes conscious effort to see dreams come alive. The distance between here and there only appears long to those who have never taken the first step. When the egg bursts open, there is nothing left to do but walk.
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