Left – Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel. Cover – Photo: D-CORD <Keiju Takenaka> Costumes: Philippe Guillotel. © Cirque du Soleil
Given what an immense and perpetual global franchise Cirque du Soleil has become, it must be quite a challenge to keep coming up with new themes while still attempting to conform to a vague unifying style that maintains the brand. This time around, the hook is that of Steampunk which, for those unfamiliar with it, is a kind of alternate-history subgenre that imagines (or retroactively characterises) Victorian-age science fiction taken to more fantastical technological heights, such as pneumatic computers or clockwork aeroplanes. Think of the work of Jules Verne, the transforming jalopy in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or Doc Brown’s flying steam train at the end of Back to the Future part III.
Generally though, Steampunk boils down to an anachronistic design aesthetic, full of brass wheels and bell-jars, gramophone speakers, aviator goggles, tesla coils and riveted copper contraptions that look like robots made from old diving suits, or improbable conveyances that glide on canvas wings. And, lest we forget, clockwork. The shiny-toothed cog of a clockwork gear-wheel affixed to turn-of-the-last-century clothing is, more than anything, the emblematic shorthand of this strain of retro-futurist faux-Victoriana.
With its clowns, acrobats and chanteuses thus all adorned in this style and the stage bedecked like some kind of mad scientist’s laboratory, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities primes the big top for a journey into the fantastic with an old-timey flair that is charming and immersive. Admittedly, Steampunk has come to be seen in some circles as lazy cosplay aesthetic instead of a serious genre (snarky jokes about sewing motoring goggles onto top hats and copper gears onto corsets abound) – and to be fair, this touring show originally debuted five years ago. Yet for the majority of us who don’t take these things too seriously, it is a fun visual playground that seems well suited to Cirque du Soleil’s whimsical style.
Of course, the visual design themes of these circus shows, or even their intentionally thin would-be narratives, are rarely the main reason one buys a ticket. Rather, it is the performers’ amazing feats of physical prowess, their seemingly superhuman skill and virtually unerring accuracy in performing feats of dexterity and agility with a precision that defies the comprehension of us mere mortals.
I probably wouldn’t be the first reviewer to opine that, in an age of blockbuster superhero movies in which several times a year we see brightly costumed characters do seemingly impossible physical acts with the aid of CGI and other special effects, going to the circus can serve as an eye-opening palate cleanser, showcasing some of the truly astonishing things that real human bodies can achieve. (In fact, I may even be paraphrasing myself in a past review)
Yet it is true, that there is something both humbling and thrilling in seeing actual people in front of your own eyes use trampolines to jump thirty feet in the air and catch each other, seemingly defying gravity while they swing on elastic ropes, or balance upon half a dozen chairs stacked end-to-end. If you saw Spider-Man or Batman do this in a movie you’d assume it was a special effect, but here it’s real, and it’s awe-inspiring.
All that said, however, Kurios is not necessarily the high watermark for the broader Cirque du Soleil franchise. At the risk of sounding jaded, the good fortune of having seen some half-dozen of their other touring shows can be a double-edged sword in having a potentially excessive basis for comparison, as there are seemingly a finite number of variations under the sun for circus routines. Of course, it rather depends on personal taste and what types of acts you prefer to witness, as both my companion and I have generally been most wowed in the past by the really death-defying stuff. Kurios feels comparatively light on high-flying performances and large pieces of acrobatic stage machinery, such as the memorable double spinning human hamster wheel contraption from Kooza.
Instead, Kurios leans a bit more into some of the free-standing acrobatics, illusion pieces, and clowning acts, including a miniature “invisible circus” routine which perhaps goes on a tad too long without any significant physical feats, or an awkward audience-involvement segment in which a performer attempts to impress a “date”, interspersed with miming the persona of his house cat. More successful (perhaps due in part to seeming briefer) was a multimedia segment in which literal hand-puppetry is captured on live video and projected onto a balloon, with tiny shoes on fingertips managing to enact a surprisingly cute and affecting little wordless story that spills out into the front rows of the crowd.
With distinct and engaging characters in captivating costumes performing a variety of acts both humorous and breathtaking, Kurios is a highly entertaining show that is sure to beguile all but the most hardened of cynics. It may not be Cirque du Soleil’s most exciting production of all time, but it still packs a wallop, and would be a great place to start for those new to the franchise.
Cirque du Soleil presents
Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities
Written and directed by Michel Laprise
Venue: The Showring | Entertainment Quarter, 122 Lang Road, Moore Park NSW
Dates: 2 October – 24 November, 2019