Surreal Beauty, Ideas in Cirque Du Soleil

This week, I had the good fortune to attend two Cirque du Soleil shows on the Vegas Strip: Mystère and O. While strikingly different, both productions exhibit an element of abstraction that leaves much to the interpretation of the audience. Each contains a number of characters and settings connected by mood, tone, and style, so much so that the viewer is insistent on discovering the central story connecting each act. Of course, there is no explicit plot to be found. Much like the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali, each theatrical act is meant to convey a general theme strewn with enough conflict to move the show forward.

A description of Mystère indicates that the show “provides the ultimate discovery that life itself is a mystery”. This is a powerful summation of its inherent themes, unraveling the mysteries of life through adventure and exploration of the unknown. Not knowing what’s to come, audience members undergo their own exploratory journey of the illusionary wonders before them. There are no central characters around which Mystère progresses, but instead a variety of main characters with their own themes and who are connected by the overarching ideas of mystery and discovery.

While the cast consists of a multitude of unique characters, one of my favorites and most memorable is the Red Bird. The Red Bird broadly symbolizes human progress. He carries himself too proudly amongst others, often jesting or taunting other creatures as a superior terpsichorean. But despite the Red Bird’s inability to fly, his acrobatic superiority is proven at the close of the trampoline act. If he ever did manage flight, would the Red Bird have gained such prowess? While there are those who do fly across the stage in other acts, their appearance is brief and less memorable. In their natural-born abilities, they lack that which Red Bird has gained for himself.

The Red Bird, while memorable, fits thematically with Mystère’s overall stage and character design. The dancers, acrobats, and entertainers offer a variety of colorful, nature-inspired outfits; lizards, birds, tribesmen, and pirates come to life beneath a ship’s sail that alters with the acts, creating a continual dance of life and motion. Of the too many creatures to note, the spermatos are worth a mention for their direct symbolism to the seeds of life, as well is the Clown, described as a “cog in the machine” of Mystère. Hilariously interrupting the acts to interact with the audience, Brian Le Petit reminds us not only of our own journey, but of his and the others’ journeys -like Red Bird-,  that are equally consonant and dissonant with the more seamless harmony of the island set pieces.

While the thematic material of Mystère revolves around the mysteries and possibilities of life’s journey, O is much more philosophical. Titled after the French word eau for ‘water’, O utilizes an incredibly engineered water pool as the theatric stage, creating a dynamic space to mirror the grace and fluidity of water through dance. While water provides the tone and atmosphere of the setting, the subject matter as exemplified by the characters and choreography revolves around the them of infinity, as implied by O’s titular double meaning, the circle representing rebirth.

As with Mystère, O’s themes are experienced both by the characters and the audience. The theater was built to impact one both entering and leaving the show; yet while the visual entrance -an inspiring exhibition of bronze sculptures by Richard MacDonald- does not change, there is a sharp contrast between the anticipation of not knowing what to expect and leaving amidst a throng of wowed spectators. The second most concrete example of the theme of infinity (besides the visual ‘O’ in its many forms throughout the production) comes with the manner in which the show ends, which I won’t spoil here.

There is a great variety of set pieces in O that speak volumes of the embodied imagination. While Mystère manages to create variety even amidst the tropical seas from which it is inspired, O uniquely blends a gothic, romantic style with African-inspired set pieces, creating a stark friction between both the artificially civilized and the primal that reside equally in man. L’Allumé, a modernly dressed man on fire in the Savannah who is either unaware or not concerned with being ablaze.

Le Vieux is the character who most embodies the circular nature of O. He does not particularly stand out throughout the production, relegated often to his orchestra in the background. His journey, however, is one of the many that are connected to the overall theme, just as Mystère juggles its own immense cast of characters. O’s cast is also grand, though less colorful, preferring a simpler overcast of tones rather than the eccentric, quasi-citrus color spots of Mystère. Among the scores of dancers and acrobats, two clowns provide light-hearted intermissions that balance the energetic pacing of the water routines.

One of the greatest acts must be the Russian Swing (although truly there are too many good acts to choose), whereby the largest host of characters participate in a festive routine of high diving after being sprung from platforms weighted by ringing bells. It is described as a part “of life, love and death”, fitting well with the overarching theme that implies notions of rebirth and joy in the present.

While both O and Mystère share many similarities, they are each a character of its own. I think Mystère is the show of characters and O the show of acts, but they each breath themes and ideas that shouldn’t conclude at the stop of the show but in the evolving interpretations of the audience.