Thursday, January 17, 2013

Snow, as created by Slava

Artwork of Slava's Snowshow (Source:
My usual mantra concerning clowns are that they are always, at best, a necessary evil. In my experience the humour is low-brow, annoying, and ususally serves as padding to the superior action that goes on stage elsewhere in performance. That said, my friend had told me great things about Slava's Snowshow, and I'd previously seen a segment of the act in Cirque du Soleil's Alegría. I know that since I was never going to see snow in London this year, Slava's Snowshow was probably being the closest thing to living in the real thing.

The chorus of forlorn clowns (Source: Slava's Snowshow).
Concieved and written by Slava Polunin, the piece is a series of sketches that are loosely tied together through various esoteric symbolism and themes of loneliness. The humour of the clowns is surprisingly charming, and very sweet, not relying on the usual toilet humour or slapstick. The talent of the performers is awing, who move with adorable choreography and endearing innocence. There is no real language spoken, and instead choreography and music dictate the mood while the performer's movement and  the audience laugh. Only one or two sketches are devoid of humour, the rest are wonderfully original, endearing and whimsical. Particularly entertaining scenes included a hilariously dramatic, repetitive falling off a seat to Mozart's Requiem and the capsizing of a ship which involves sharks doing floor dives among the mist on stage. The piece de resistance is the finale, after a tender and somewhat sorrowful display an elderly clown causes a thunderous snowstorm which sweeps the space with thousands of cut snowflakes. It really is gorgeous and truly magical, and needs to be lived to be believed.

Clowns in a boat sketch (Source: Wikipedia).
Attention could be easily lost in a large theatre but there is also a fair amount of audience interaction, which is just enchanting. A giant spider web passes over the audience, snow falls and sits among the seats and giant spheres lumber across the space, moved by the hands underneath. It's wonderful to watch, but my issue with the piece was that due to where I was sitting it was impossible to be immersed into the action. The piece is clearly made for smaller theatres, since much of this interaction doesn't reach people sitting in the nosebleed seats. While I had a bunch of awful children sitting behind me, I felt bad that they didn't get to be caught in the grand finale and feel any snow, and likewise, everyone who handled the giant bouncing balls had no sense of space and kept hitting them back to the front.

The lighting is gorgeous and sensual, suitably matching the moods of the sketches on stage. The music is also fitting - simplistic, quirky and sweet, however somewhat occasionally tacky. The use of Carmina Burana in the finale is a bit jarring since it feels like some original scoring that isn't so bombastic could have enhanced the magic even more.

It's slow to take off - and at times I wondered why I was there - but at certain points in the piece there is a wonderful whimsical charm to the piece, and once it draws you in you are kept firmly engaged. If you are going to see the piece, make sure you see it up close and in the middle - staying at the side really removes you from the action and it's somewhat disappointing to be watching the spectacle rather than living it. A lot of things contribute to making this an enchanting piece of theatre, and it's easy to see why so many people have been swept away by it.

Slava's Snowshow performed at the Royal Festival Hall from December 17th - January 7th.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kooza at the Royal Albert Hall

Artwork from Kooza, featuring 'The Trickster' (Source: Group Line).
Talking about Cirque du Soleil is a precarious embarkment these days. My violent love-hate relationship towards the company swings from side to side as a viciously sharpened pendulum, moving like a little boy's favourite yo-yo in the wind on a blustery day. Cirque's annual January engagement this year brings Kooza to the Royal Albert Hall, a show directed by prominent theatre director with many accolades, awards, and experience at directing accomplished multi-million dollar productions ex-clown David Shiner, the mastermind behind Banana Shpeel, who totes the 'art' of clowning to be best thing since sliced bread.

The Innocent. Being Innocent.
It's his thing, yo.
(Source: Cirque du Soleil).
When Kooza opened it was described as "a return to Cirque's roots", which everyone knows is performing without animals and allocating large amounts of stage times to awful clown acts. All in all, Kooza is not as terrible as I was warned it would be - it claims to look at themes of innocence, identity and fear through a barrage of circus acts and a lot of clowning. To some extent it succeeds but a major issue with the show is its nauseating and egregious prominence of clowns, owing to the horrible attempt at making a homage to the 'art'. There are a total of six in the show, which means there is more inane toilet humour and slapstick than any other show in the world. Also, while this show draws Cirque back to its roots, it also falls into the oxymoron that the original Cirque wasn't actually that unique or noteworthy, and it wasn't until almost a decade after its inception that they started their signature fusion of theatre and circus acts which has made them so prominent. But never you mind that - just pay money!

As far as it goes in theatricality, anything is better than Ovo, so while Kooza lacks any serious discussion, its sense of storyline is pretty random, and its mise-en-scène is just a mélange of 'anything goes', it's still somehow enjoyable to watch. The plot focuses on a character called The Innocent (who is, you guessed it, innocent), who is pulled into a "zany kingdom" which is created and ruled by The Trickster (tricky, but also sinister). There's also a bunch of skeletons who turn up for one scene - no one will be able to explain why.

For Kooza, I'm happy to temporarily abandon my insanity and morals, and excuse the quality of the theatrical elements since the acts really blow you away, and there is a distinctly higher calibre of acrobatics and athleticism compared to other Cirque du Soleil productions. Aerial acts including the Highwire and Wheel of Death attracted the biggest applause I've ever heard for Cirque acts, where it was surreal to look around the entire Royal Albert Hall and see everyone clapping furiously. The Mystic Pixies have long departed from the tour, but the trio of tiny Asian women who perform Contortion brought the house down with a similar routine. The two highlights of the evening were the Hoops Manipulation and the Balancing on Chairs. I've wanted to see Irina Akimova's hoops act for years and it was certainly worth the wait (her act is better suited in Delirium, since there was better music and her costume wasn't as hideous), as she spins five hoops while rotating and grinning at the audience, and Yao Deng Bo's serene and languid act shows a mastery of patience and the entire scene is beautifully choreographed. We missed out on the Trapeze, and whoever was managing backstage apparently forgot there is a rotational act (Hand to Hand) that could have replaced it . . .

Akimova's Manipulation act (Source: Tumblr).
I've owned the soundtrack for the show for around five years, and it never dawned on me until I saw the production just how campy the music is. Jean-François Cóté's score is a bizarre fusion of 80's big band, Indian ethnic and pop music, and while certain pieces are beautiful and slow, adding multilayered percussion and REALLY LOUD drums sounds like a gimmick. The main theme, 'L'Innocent' is just . . . wow. It's flaming. It's just the most in your face Cirque score, and I'd have to agree with cynics that usually critics the music since it's very washy material, and with all the kiddies yelling vowels it sounds very childish. Other aspects include Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt's costumes and Florene Cornet's makeup, which are just a clusterfuck of colours and random tassels which blend right into Stéphane Roy's set, a giant bataclan resembling a triple-decker Indian tour bus which is gorgeously revealed.

Despite any criticism, I very much enjoyed the evening, and I think any London theatre viewers who were a bit disillusioned by Totem will enjoy Kooza due to its linearity and superb circus feats. The material performed by clowns is awful, the music is very contrived and the theatricality is lacking, but Kooza has its moments and certainly enchants the audience. At the end of the show the cast get together on stage and yell "Kooza!". Why not?

'Kooza' is also an underwear brand.

Just saying it like it is.

Tickets for Cirque du Soleil's Kooza are £25 - £80, and is showing at The Royal Albert Hall until February 14th. Duration of approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 30 minute interval. Book by visiting Cirque du Soleil's website.