REVIEW: Dralion (Cirque du Soleil)

     
     

Cirque’s ‘Dralion’ a visual feast but lacks thematic arch

     
     

Cirque du Soleil's 'Dralion', now playing at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates

  
Cirque du Soleil presents
  
Dralion
  
Guided by Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix
Directed by
Guy Caron
Music composed by
Violaine Corradi
at
Sears Centre, Hoffman Estates (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $33-$100  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Now the definition of circus in the 21st-century, Cirque du Soleil has brought millions of smiles and awe-struck looks to millions of faces. For a few nights, their 11-year-old tour of Dralion shacks up at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates before embarking on the rest of the continent. Its name coming from a mash-up of “dragon” and “lion,” this classic in the Cirque lineup touts a combination of Western and Eastern cultures. The acts are pulled from across the globe, with clowns from South America, dancers from Africa, and acrobats from the Far East. It’s a fascinating, eye-catching medley of cross-cultural pollination, and there is a lot of magic at work.

Cirque du Soleil's 'Dralion', now playing at the Sears Centre in Hoffman EstatesFor a group known for their conceptual wizardry and honest performances, however, Dralion comes across shallow. The concession stand is open the entire show. If you leave for a hot dog at any point, sure, you might miss some stunning performances, but you wouldn’t be totally lost upon reentry (did I mention that there’s free refills on popcorn and pop?!?)  Dralion would be better if it forced the audience to follow, instead of being a take-what-you-want of visual delights.

Director Guy Caron claims the show is inspired by Eastern philosophies, especially a sense of connection with nature. To be honest, I didn’t see any driving philosophy working behind-the-scenes. The four elements fire, water, earth, and wind are personified, but there isn’t any sense of journey or character ever.

It’s a shame, because Dralion contains some haunting moments. Amanda Orozco and Lorant Markocsany perform a beautiful and heart-wrenching aerial pas de deux on rich, blue silks in the second act. The ballet-like grace of the two puts one in a trance. Directly following, a large group of performers float around in a high-flying dance. Shrouded in shadow, the stage looks like a home to ghosts. Both moments take your breath away, leaving you hanging on every muscle movement.

Other times are less exciting. Three multi-lingual clowns speckle the show with a few skits here and there. Juan Carlos Bratoz, Michael Edward Hughes, and Christopher Neiman’s brand of comedy is very broad and feels forced at times, especially a bit with a fake hairpiece. The comic breaks seem like interruption.

Many of the show’s light-hearted moments really shine, too – like the chaotic hoop diving or the double-dutch insanity of the final act (see video above). Another astounding part is the bouncy antics of the trampoline jumpers, who literally bounce off the walls.

The ever-pounding orchestra, led by Stephen Poulin, gives the performers all the aural inspiration they need. The score focuses heavily on Eastern rhythms and massive amounts of percussion, but also pulls from classic rock and new age stylings. Agnes Sohier and Cristian Zabala lend their gorgeous voices and foreign tongues. For Cirque, the music score is almost as important as the visuals. The Dralion pas de deux - Cirque du Soleilattention to music direction and choreography ensure a dazzling, multi-sensory experience.

Nowadays, Cirque seems most concerned with tacking their shows onto the legends of superstar musicians, with Viva Elvis playing in Vegas and a Michael Jackson-inspired extravaganza in the works. Considering this trajectory, it’s nice to see one of the original innovative shows that propelled Cirque into the common conscience. There’s a zippy, wait-till-ya-see-this energy to the piece.

Judging from the empty rows at the Sears Centre, though, it seems like Cirque will have to keep evolving to keep audiences. The separate acts are truly amazing—Dralion really nailed down a winning cast. But the conceptual glue requires review. The show needs to dive deeper and more strongly connect to its fundamental ethos. Dralion’s biggest failing is that – possessing a more consistent, cognizant thematic arch – it could be even more remarkable and relatable. Then it would really be worth the ticket price.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

A scene from Cirque du Soleil's 'Dralion', now playing at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.

 

  
  

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Review: Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9 (at Navy Pier)

A thrilling summer show for the entire family

 

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Cirque Shangha
i and Navy Pier present
  
Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9
  
Directed by Miao Miao Chen
at the Skyline Stage, Navy Pier (map)
thru September 6th  |  tickets: $12-$29  |  more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Never mind the official calendar. If Cirque Shanghai is in residence on Navy Pier, it must be summer in the city. In residence under the armadillo-shaped tent that is the Pier’s Skyline Stage, the Chinese import is back with its roster of spectacular  human oddities and jaw-dropping feats of strength, balance and grace. Think Cirque du Soleil, minus the artsy existential clowning and plus motorcycle stunt drivers. That’s the general aesthetic that informs Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9.

Cirque-Shanghai-Cloud-Nine001 The new show brings new acts to the stage, chief among them those motorcycles. During the kinetic Imperial Thunder, a quartet of roaring bikes and their color-coordinated riders zip around like bees inside of a metal dome that you’d swear wasn’t large enough to accommodate even one rider let alone four. Inside the Imperial Thunder dome, the riders make it look easy, flying over and around each other in a display of centrifugal force and precision racing that’s a genuine jaw-dropper. On the other end of the spectrum? The contemplative Thousand Hand Guan Yin,  a golden-tinged illustration of a goddess with – yes – a thousand hands.

Those two acts illustrate the extremes of Cloud 9, the creation of Sylvia Hase with director Miao Miao Chen and Chicago-based choreographer Brenda Didier.  Whichever performance style you prefer – ear-drum rattling roars and performers in full-body whirl at break-neck pace or new-agey strings serenely accompanying hand-dancers creating illusions with the most delicate movements of their fingertips – Cirque Shanghai delivers plenty of it.

Performed by a troupe of elite circus performers aged 15 to 25, the show is pure eye candy. There’s no subtext to contortionism, nothing to deconstruct in a display of hat juggling. That’s absolutely fine. Cloud 9 is a seasonally appropriate wonder, entertainment that screams “leave your thinking caps at home, school’s out for the summer!”

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That’s not to say that the 18 acts within the production are anything less than top tier. Try not to ooh and aah at the Suspended Pole Acrobats as they leap, two stories up, between perilously swaying stalks. Ditto the gleefully silly  Bicycle Platform Balance, where in nine grinning cyclists form a pedaling human pyramid atop a single bicycle. There are also strong men, hoop divers and aerial artists whose skill spinning on silks evokes acrobatic spiders flying between web strands.

The look of the production is as marvelously over-the-top as the acts. Think Liberace meets Bob Mackie meets a Bedazzler set on stun and you get a sense of the show’s visual appeal. Cirque Shanghai: Cloud 9 might not ponder the depths of the human condition, but for pure fun, it’s tough to beat.

      
     
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

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REVIEW: Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale (Lookingglass)

A stunning display of physical artistry

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Lookingglass Theatre and Silverguy Entertainment presents
 
Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale
 
Adapted from the Greek myth by Tony Hernandez
Directed by
Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman
at the
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through May 23rd  tickets: $25-$70  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Move over Billy Elliot. There’s a new kid in town, and he’s flying – without wires or harnesses – just a few blocks west of where the famed coal miner’s son is hoofing the light fantastic. ‘Tis the season, apparently, for jaw-droppingly talented pre-pubescent boys. In Hephaestus, a Greek Mythology Circus Tale, ninth-generation 39-iris7 circus performer Fabio Anastasini plays a show-stopping role as the Lookingglass/Silver Guy telling of the Greek myth biography of the God of the Forge unfurls. Flipping and flying so fast he’s a centrifugal blur while his partner (and older brother) flings him skyward on the soles of his feet, Fabio is a dazzling highlight in a series of dazzlers that comprise Hephaestus’ 90 breathtaking minutes.

Imagine the very best acts of Cirque du Soleil, played out in a space so small you could reach out and grab the acrobats as they fly by. (Don’t even think about it.) Oh – and there’s no net. Also – nobody is wearing a harness or any sort of other safety rigging. When a seven-person human pyramid makes its way across the high wire during the show’s climactic finale, it’s as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the Goodman’s tiny Owen Theatre. You can feel the audience collectively holding its breath. Cell phone rings aren’t just an aggravation during this show – they pose a very real danger. Knock wood – were any of the aerialists to lose their concentration during Hephaestus, the results could be deadly.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Tony Hernandez’ version of myth is enacted by the world’s elite circus performers, Flying Wallendas among them. These aren’t part-time buskers on summer break. They’re the best wire-walkers, acrobats, contortionists and stunt men and women on the planet. They’d be thrilling to watch 001731 under any circumstances. But in the intimate space of the Owen, they’re simply staggering. Get a seat in the third level of the courtyard space, and you’ll find yourself going eyeball-to-eyeball with that mind-blowing pyramid that ends the show. And prior to that, with Ares (Almas Miermanov) the God of War, as played by an impossibly chiseled gymnast doing his routine several stories up on the ends of furls of silk.

Since Hernandez (who also plays the title role with great emotional impact) debuted Hephaestus in 2005, he has tweaked it slightly. Aphrodite has lost her gleaming hula hoops and turned into a toe-dancing contortionist. A two-man hand-balancing act is now a single, silvery, spooky machine-man pulled by Hephaestus from the fires of his desert island forge. Then there’s the addition of the Anastasini brothers, who also start life as liquid metal beings formed by Hephaestus from molten metal. They’re a thrilling improvement.

The show’s primary flaw remains its narrative. The adaptation of Hephaestus’ myth is a flimsy coathanger draped in circus garments so richly spectacular you tend to first forgive and then forget that the myth even matters. Still, the individual acts could be put into the service of any story, and don’t feel especially integral to the story of Hephaestus.

Even so, there are moments when the story resonates powerfully. When his mother hurls Hephaestus from Mount Olympus, the fall is a gasp-inducing triumph of stagecraft and stuntwork. It’s a signature Lookingglass moment – the sort of indelible physical storytelling that nobody does better. The towering (Literally towering. There are drummers all the way up to the theater’s scaffolding) , immersive percussion makes you feel as if you are in a grand canyon echoing with drums, surrounded by an urgent, primal beat that drowns everything else out but the pure, raw, power of rhythm.

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As Hephaestus’ mother Hera, Lijana Wallenda Hernandez is an ethereal stunner, spinning high above the audience in a silver hoop. When Hephaestus falls to the bottom of an enchanted sea, the theater turns into a murky green eden of nymphs and bubbles hovering with liquid grace everywhere you turn. It’s an underwater paradise almost enough to make you weep at its watery, calming beauty.

And lest you discount that 7-person pyramid as just another circus stunt: Wallenda and Hernandez were among the artists who pioneered the act, and got it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. In other words, it’s a form of dangerous beauty that they actually invented. It was largely considered impossible before they did it. Watching Hephaestus, much of it seems impossible. The artistry is just that stunning.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

NOTE: Many of these pictures were taken from previous years’ performances.

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REVIEW: Science Fiction Circus (The Actors Gymnasium)

Cute kids, talented teens and a few pros create marvelous science-fiction circus

 Science Fiction: An Experiment in Circus

 
The Actors Gymnasium presents
 
Science Fiction: An Experiment in Circus
 
Conceived, written and directed by Larry DiStasi
At Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston
Through April 18
(more info)
 
reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
 

Five professional performers, eleven up-and-coming members of The Actors Gymnasium Teen Ensemble and five pint-sized prodigies bring the high-flying Science Fiction: An Experiment in Circus to life in a whirl of color and sound.

Robots, aliens, monsters and an impressive lineup of circus acts come together in this show, conceived and directed by The Actors Gymnasium Artistic Director of Programming Larry DiStasi, a founder of Lookingglass Theatre. We start off with a quartet of mini mad scientists and their unfortunate subject (Griffin DiStasi, Jude Sims, Sadie Sims, Asher White and Julia Science Fiction: An Experiment in CircusWhite), and then segue into a black-lit, fluorescent team of talented, silk-rope-swinging aerialists (Jill Heyser and Kacin Menendez with Teen Ensemble member Meaghan Falvey).

A unicycle dance featuring all 11 members of the Teen Ensemble: Falvey, Gabby Aiden, Lucy Brennan, Sarah Buonaiuto, Lander Ellis, Emily Fishkin, Eleanor Goerss, Jackie Jarvis, Rachel Karn, Leah Orleans and Alison Tye — comes next, followed by Matt Roben as a monster Slinky twisting and contorting around the stage.

Karn, Tye and Nicole Pellegrino next perform an extraordinary and graceful contortionist sequence. Other noteworthy acts include a dance of "Stilts Creatures" by Heyser, Menendez and Pellegrino with Buonaiuto, Ellis and Falvey, a robot strong man act by Menedez and Will Howard, and a whirling Spanish web rope routine by Buonaiuto, Ellis, Fishkin and Orleans.

Another highlight is a vigorous drumming act choreographed by Jarrett Dapier featuring Pellegrino, Falvey and the five children, all delightfully clad as aliens in Spock ears and armor constructed from kitchen gear and designed by Larry DiStasi. Throughout, the costumes, a group effort, compliment the action beautifully, from blacklit neon leotards for aerialists to shiny lame robot outfits.

During interludes between the circus acts, a live band featuring Ellis, Goerss and Roben, sometimes supplemented by Griffin DiStasi, Fishkin and the Whites, plays original music by Greg Hirte, including an eerie trio on oboe, violin and musical saw. The circus acts themselves are performed in perfect time to a riveting soundtrack of found music put together by Larry DiStasi with aid of other cast members that ranges from part of "The Symphony of Science" to Daft Punk’s "Robot Rock” to Basshunter’s "I Can Walk on Water."

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The science-fiction theme creates a cohesive and humorous narrative to hold things together. In all, Science Fiction comprises a notable 30 acts and intervening scenes. On opening night, there were a few missteps but everyone gamely kept on going. Having recently seen the world-class Cirque du Soleil, I don’t need a time machine to say that these young performers are well on their way, and you can see them now for a fraction of the price they’ll command in days to come.

Rating: ★★★½

 
   
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Alegria to open in Hoffman Estates (March 3-7)

alegria

Cirque du Soleil presents

 

ALEGRIA

 

in HOFFMAN ESTATES for EIGHT performances only
from MARCH 3 – 7, 2010
at the SEARS CENTRE ARENA

INFO: Cirque du Soleil is pleased to announce that the critically-acclaimed touring production Alegría will perform in Hoffman Estates at the Sears Centre Arena from March 3 – 7, 2010 for eight performances only.
Tickets are available at www.cirquedusoleil.com/alegria or by calling 1-800-745-3000.

alegria-Highbars2 ABOUT: Alegría is a Cirque du Soleil classic and an internationally acclaimed production that has entertained more than 10 million people worldwide since its world premiere in Montreal in 1994. In May 2009, Alegría embarked on a new journey, performing the same mesmerizing production, but now in arenas in North America, giving more people the opportunity to enjoy a Cirque du Soleil show in their own town.

Alegría is a Spanish word that means happiness, joy and jubilation and features an international cast of 55 performers and musicians from 15 countries and showcases breathtaking acrobatics.

Acts include the Synchro Trapeze and the intense and high-energy Aerial High Bars in which daring aerialists fly to catchers swinging more than 40 feet above the stage. The vibrancy of youth is alive in Power Track, a brilliant display of synchronized choreography and tumbling on a trampoline system hidden under the stage floor. In Russian Bars, artists fly through the air and perform spectacular somersaults and mid-air turns, landing on bars perched on the sturdy shoulders of catchers.

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Ticket Information:

Category 1, 2, 3

  • Adults: From $35 to $75
  • Children (12 & under): From $28 to $60
  • Military, Seniors & Students: From $31.50 to $67.50

Premium Tickets

  • Adults: $95
  • Children (12 & under): $76
  • Military, Seniors & Students: $85.50

Show Schedule (March 3 – 7, 2010):

  • Wednesday, March 3 at 7:30pm
  • Thursday, March 4 at 7:30pm
  • Friday, March 5 at 3:30pm and 7:30pm
  • Saturday, March 6 at 3:30pm and 7:30pm
  • Sunday, March 7 at 1pm and 5pm

REVIEW: Cirque du Soleil’s “Banana Shpeel”

Yes! We have no bananas

 Dance 9

Cirque du Soleil presents:

Banana Shpeel

written and directed by David Shiner
at the
Chicago Theatre
Through Jan. 3 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Comedy 3 When I mentioned to another critic that I planned to rank Banana Shpeel by scoring each of the acts separately and averaging the results, she asked, "Can you use negative stars?"

Yes, parts of Cirque du Soleil‘s new stage show are that bad.

Although a few elements of this remarkably uneven spectacle are terrific, it all adds up to a disappointing and chaotic whole. If you’re too impatient to sift through the details, the short version is that Cirque du Soleil’s effort to re-imagine the vaudeville variety show succeeds in the circus acts for which the company has become famous and fails in nearly all of its efforts to be vaudevillian and, notably, the comedy.

The humor of vaudeville was broad and slapstick – think the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges – often bawdy and coarse. While some of that era’s gags remain timeless, others have become unfunny through overexposure or because modern audiences have finer sensibilities than those of the minstrel era.

Banana Shpeel groans under the weight of hoary old bits that went dull before Groucho Marx was born and ragging jokes that most of us no longer laugh at. Cirque steers away from vaudeville’s most commonplace slurs and stereotypes, but still, within the first 15 minutes, Banana Shpeel pokes fun at old people and deaf people, uses a filthy Yiddish word in reference to an apparently Jewish character and tops it off with a pair of African-American tap dancers.

 

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The lineup:

Auditions. The show begins with an utterly lame, overlong act that introduces cigar-chomping impresario Marty Schmelky of "Schmelky’s Schmelktacular" (Jerry Kernion); his two would-be comic sidekicks, Daniel (Daniel Passer) and Wayne (Wayne Wilson); and three other clownish characters who are supposedly auditioning: Claudio Carneiro, a lame Brazilian impersonator of "ordinary people with knee problems"; Patrick de Valette, an exhibitionist modern dancer; and Gordon White, "The Oldest Mime in the World." Despite discouragement by Schmelky and company, this trio shows up again and again in different guises, the running gag of the show. This bunch of second bananas apparently inspired the name. No actual bananas were harmed in the making of the show. zero stars

Welcome to Schmelky Spectacular. Next, we get a not especially spectacular opening dance number, featuring lots of flappers and feathers and highlighting siblings Joseph and Josette Wiggan, two talented tappers who deserve better than to be exhibited like a revival of the vaudevillian "two-colored" rule. ★★

Juggler. In this more traditional Cirque act, Tuan Le adeptly juggles hats – getting up to six – using his hands, feet and head. ★★★

Eccentric dance. An ensemble dance number more remarkable for its fluorescent costumes and effective use of blacklight than for its choreography. ★★½

Duo hand to hand. Strongman Jeff Retzlanff and lithe Kelsey Wiens perform a pas de deux of acrobatic maneuvers that climax with her standing on his head on one foot. ★★★½

Clown restaurant. A long, painful episode involving all five clowns, an apparently well-coached audience member and some trite routines so antique they’ve fossilized.

Act II Clowns. More of the same. zero stars

Foot juggler. A hypnotic act in which dexterous, scantily clad Vanessa Alvarez spins mats with her feet while, among other things, standing on her head. In the background, three other young ladies pose with giant fans. ★★★

Magic dance. There’s nothing especially magical about this dance number. ★★

Magic. A stylized, slapstick magic act, set to music, disjointed and dumb.

Hand balancing. An awesome performance by Russian strongman and contortionist Dima Shine, a beautiful young man doing beautiful, sinuous, graceful, almost impossible things with his body on a lighted pole. ★★★★

Tap dance. If you thrill to the tap spectacles in old movies, this one will wow you. It starts off a bit slowly, but perks up fast. The Wiggans do some fine work here, as do the whole ensemble. This may be the one act that really justifies the "new twist on vaudeville" label, and would have made a much better opening act than those excruciating clowns. ★★★½

Charivari and finale. The lady from the audience is pulled back on stage for a tender scene with Daniel, while White clowns at one side. Surprise – there are actually a few laughs here! Then another chaotic crowd sequence brings the two-hour show to a merciful end. ★★½

Dance 12 - Finale 

Set and lighting. Set Designer Patricia Ruel and Lighting Designer Bruno Rafie did a noticeably impressive job. The shifting, colorful backdrop made from a huge, lightbox screen and a glossy, lighted, moving floor add real impact, especially to the dance numbers. ★★★★

Costumes. Costume Designer Dominique Lemieux evokes flamboyant vaudeville style with glittering, shimmering, iridescent and phosphorescent fabrics. ★★★

Music. Composer and Musical Director Scott Price has put together a good live band, but nothing in his score will leave you humming. ★★½

So, let’s do the math: 37½ points, divided by 16 items, equals 2.34. Do we average up to 2.5 stars or down to 2?

Given the incredible pre-show hype, which included spammers posting to local blogs, and the price of decent seats, I’m inclined to average down. Cirque fans who need a fix are advised to skip this and wait till March, when the perennially touring Alegria will play in Hoffman Estates.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Banana Shpeel – Offering up a new take on tap

Directed by David Shiner, Cirque du Soleil is putting a contemporary twist on Vaudeville by infusing this classic form of theatre with a modern flair. Http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/vaudeville  Banana Shpeel is currently playing its world-premiere at The Chicago Theatre on State Street