Whispers of excitement, sharp intakes of breath and utterances of sheer disbelief all emanate from a mesmerized crowd, collectively transported — if only for a moment — to a land not quite human, where anything is possible.
That’s the circus for you.
Specifically, that’s Kooza, a new touring Cirque du Soleil masterpiece now running at the Santa Monica Pier in the iconic big-top tent until Nov. 28.
You can’t help but sit there, spellbound to the point of paralysis, as Kooza’s incredibly talented company of players perform unbelievable stunt after stunt, each more death-defying than the one before. The acts are at once familiar and totally unfamiliar. Most of us have seen contortionists, trapeze artists, unicyclists, tightrope walkers, jugglers, clowns and all other such manner of circus folk before — but probably not like this, with such gorgeous artistry and graceful athleticism that to witness it is but to realize the sheer awesomeness and transcendent beauty of the human form
Kooza returns us to Cirque du Soleil’s origins, doing away with the flashiness and novelty of its more recent productions in favor of time-honored circus traditions. They’ve got old-fashioned slapstick clownery and impossible feats of physicality, live music and crazy contraptions, all fighting to steal away greater portions of your imagination for two blissful hours (separated by a 30-minute intermission) of in-the-moment circus splendor.
The show opens with the Innocent (played here by a likeable Stéphan Landry, but cast members rotate), trying to fly his kite in a bare field — a sublime bit of characterization, and one of those rare moments of the ordinary made extraordinary. His graceful frolicking about the stage is interrupted by the arrival of a large package, out of which springs the Trickster, a wizard who transfigures the Innocent’s world into his own — an otherworldly realm called Kooza.
In Kooza, the Trickster is king, conjuring up misty landscapes of light and dark and playing with the Innocent’s mind. What is this place, and why is the Innocent here? Of course, this being Cirque du Soleil, we’re never given clear answers, but in the Innocent we see a child encouraged by friendship and emboldened by the marvelous to act out his own imagination. It is an adventure story, and the Holy Grail is self-discovery.
Each of the acts, it seems, are manifestations of the Innocent’s imagination, as revealed by the Trickster. One of the first acts is also one of the show’s best: a trio of female contortionists atop a rotating circular platform, bending their boneless bodies into superhuman shapes. The crowd went wild with disbelief.
Other memorable acts include a pas de deux — which is already a difficult dance — performed by an unicyclist and his female partner, and a high-wire act featuring four performers. In perhaps the night’s most heart-stopping moment, one of the tightrope walkers botched his landing trying to leap over his friend and nearly fell off the tightrope. There was a collective intake of breath before he grabbed onto the rope and swung himself back up, and performed the leap again successfully to rousing applause. Such moments of imperfection — as rare as they are frightening — get you thinking: How do I take that? Should I feel let down?
Certainly not. Those moments remind us of the incredible difficulty of these acts. A perfect show, while admirable, is far less exciting. A slight mistake or two, so long as nobody gets hurt (there are apparatuses set up to reduce that risk), rarely detract from the overall experience. Quite the contrary; they make it seem more real, and we remember that these are people doing these stunts, not — as we might sensibly think — aliens from some far-off planet unfettered by the laws of physics. Strangely, a mistake or two goes a long way in making the overall show that much more believable and impressive.
The second half of the night is probably the better of the two. The acts and everything else — costumes, lighting, sound — are grander, scarier, higher and bigger, almost (almost!) to the point where everything stops being remarkable as you become more drunk off seeing the impossible. A contraption called the Wheel of Death, essentially two wheels on either side of a huge steel beauty suspended several feet in the air, might be the most thrilling act of the night. Two men run on both the inside and outside of the wheels, leaping like alien frogs and making a fool out of gravity.
The fun is nonstop. Members of the audience are toyed with, hilariously pickpocketed and made to disappear by two vulgar clowns and their king. The flashy juggling act couldn’t be better — more than just fast hands, it involves the performer’s head and feet and elbows and neck, in an expert display of charisma and precision — and the same goes for the Chinese Chair act and the show’s finale, which makes nail-biting use of that circus staple, the teeterboard. How they can stick their landings on stilts baffles the mind.
The show’s many creators — there are 13 — all deserve a standing ovation for bringing to life this wondrous circus spectacular. The audience leaves breathless, exhausted, inspired, smiling and heightened.
But ultimately — to paraphrase a song lyric from a musical whose visuals rival Cirque du Soleil’s for brilliance — there are no words in the vernacular to describe this “spectacular, spectacular.”