Photos courtesy of Daniel Desmarais
When you think of a Cirque du Soleil production, words like magical, awe inspiring, and stupendous come to mind. If nothing else, it launches you out of your own here-and-now into an imaginary, brightly colored, and boundless universe that doesn't just defy gravity, it repeals its laws. Never in a million years would you associate one of their productions with words like vague, amorphous, and fibrillating. Until now that is, with opening night of Dralion at the Long Beach Arena.
Pre-show, nothing seemed amiss. It was set up like any other Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. Expectations bristled. The music, the clowns, and the bumblebee buzz in the audience at what we were about to see. You anticipate the next couple of hours in which your belief will be suspended; the only thing you know will be there on the stage, where enchantment is the default emotion.
The costumes were resplendent, as always. So were the set, the music, and the lighting. The Germans call it a Gesamtkunstwerk, a sesquipedalian word that describes a synthesis of dance, music, theatre, and art. We can just call it a reality distortion field, in a good way. And yet, too many things conspired to break the spell. The result was production that was long on spectacle but short on magic. (To be clear, since we tread on hallowed ground here, substitute the word "magic" for "jazz" in Louis Armstrong's response to "What is jazz?" "If you have to ask, you'll never know"). It felt like a plain old circus, the kind you'd see pre-1984, the year of Cirque du Soleil's founding.
The title's portmanteau is meant to symbolize the fusion of Eastern (the dragon) and Western (the lion) culture. This fusion extends to a blending of the elements of Eastern and Western circuses. That much is apparent in the act selection. The show's look and texture successfully embrace the Eastern philosophical idea of harmony between man and nature. This harmony is nicely embodied in the elemental characters of air (costumed blue), water (green), fire (red), and earth (ochre).
There was an abundance of movement. As in nature (or a three ring circus), nothing rests. Performers not directly involved in any particular act, especially the Four Elements, stay on the stage and watch, seemingly as intrigued as we are. Those performing some manner of juggling, trampolining, diving, or jump roping, were, well, energetic, exuberant, and so very elastic. Overall, though, the show felt arrhythmic. It didn't help that twice the hoop divers hit the rim. Instead of having the experience wash over us (in prior shows, with the chapiteau and the high-flying aerialists, it would literally fly over you), it felt like we were eavesdropping on what was going on up on the stage. Sometimes we need to live vicariously through death-defying aerialists. Here we couldn't. What happened on the stage stayed on the stage. It was like watching an ant farm.
Fusion is one thing. Lack of narrative or least the semblance of one is another. Dralions galumphed around, but seemingly to no purpose except for what seemed to be an ongoing Chinese New Year parade. Without a context to unify them, the acts, albeit some spectacular, felt standalone. The show felt truncated, as if bits were cut out, which perhaps explains why the earthbound clowns seemed to be up on the stage for an inordinate amount of time. Talk about buzz kill, the audience plant looked too much like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Because they set the bar so high, even the worst Cirque du Soleil production is still pretty good. Instead of leaving with a Giaconda smile and sparkly eyes, though, you walk out feeling let down. Let down like, instead of feeling like you've just watched Christopher Robin have a Taoist conversation with Winnie the Pooh on a fluttery day in Ashdown Forest, you feel like you were just told, all at once, that there is no Santa Claus no Easter bunny, and no tooth fairy.