Photograph by Olivier Samson Arcand
GO STRETCH: The Cirque contortionists have lost none of their vaunted limberness in 'Kooza.'
'Kooza,' the latest thrill ride from Cirque du Soleil, vaults into San Jose
By Mike Connor
FIRST, the best news: Cirque du Soleil's new show, Kooza, which plops its Grand Chapiteau (big tent) down in San Jose next week, is filled with the usual jaw-dropping feats of contortion, acrobatics and death-defying stunts. The set is cleverly innovative; the costumes are gorgeous and, of course, pliable.
The bad news is that Kooza fails at the one aspect that made previous shows, such as 2005's Corteo, so astounding. Simply put, Kooza is missing an absorbing story line. The Cirque press materials spin it as a "return to the origins." Director Serge Roy says that the show "brings us closer to the simplicity and humanity of an earlier circus—and closer to the audience. Very convivial. It reminds you of street performance."
Fair enough—there are many elements in Kooza reminiscent of street performance. From the pre-show antics of various performers clowning around in the audience and slapstick routines involving that dreaded street-performance staple—audience participation—to the heart-stopping stunts of the high-wire acrobats, Kooza draws its audience in the old-fashioned way, with visceral thrills and laughs.
The clowns (who are not creepy at all, even for clownophobes) get the first, middle and last words in Kooza, but there is an extended interruption of a story line that threads its way into the show. On a darkened, circular stage (the audience surrounds 260 degrees of it—the last chunk is occupied by a moving two-story tower called the "Bataclan"), "The Innocent," played by a petite, childlike man in pajamas, tries in vain to fly a kite. A mysterious package arrives for him, which is admittedly the best way to begin any story, because who doesn't want to receive a mysterious package that whisks them away on a fanciful adventure full of contortionists, dancing skeletons, a trickster, clowns and acrobats?
Thus the stage is set for a series of modular acts: the "Chinese Chairs" balancing act; the trio of contortionists whose flexibility is matched by their strength to wield it in discomforting ways; the scurrying tightrope walkers; the flying teeter-totter acrobats; the most amazing juggler I've ever seen.
The list goes on, but not without the "Wheel of Death." By far the most terrifying stunt to watch, the Wheel of Death is a barbell-shaped apparatus that spins end over end, with human-size hamster wheels on both sides. The two guys that ride this thing are, as of presstime, still alive, but against incredible odds, given that the tiniest trip up would legitimize the wheel's claim to fame.
The tightrope walkers also evoke plenty of tension by visibly pushing the limits of the possible—one of them actually fell at the performance I attended, and while he caught hold of the rope on his way down, a few quick gestures made it clear that he suffered a gnarly rope burn in his hand for his misstep.
As with most Cirque du Soleil shows, the music is performed live—and loud—in this case by a band on the upper deck of the Bataclan, heightening the drama of the performances with Middle Eastern mystery, powerful rock music and lots in between.
Mostly shorn of the dreamy artistic elegance that cloaks many Cirque stunts, the acrobatics in Kooza gleam with bone-rattling immediacy and danger. Either that or they seem to have no bones at all—the contortionists at the beginning of the show seem to have replaced theirs with rubber. Which brings us back to the clowns, whose rubber-faced hijinks won't fail to get laughs, but more importantly, they won't creep you out, either.
KOOZA, presented by Cirque du Soleil, plays Jan. 31–March 16 under the Grand Chapiteau at the Taylor Street Bridge in San Jose. Shows are Tuesday–Saturday at 8pm plus Friday–Saturday at 4pm; Sunday shows are at 1 and 5pm. No shows Feb. 19 and March 11; added 4pm shows on Feb. 21 and March 13. Tickets are $49.50–$90. (800.678.5440)
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