Humans throwing other humans around in the air. High-flying hoop stunts. Bodies bent double. Wheels of Death. The mind- boggling talents and magnificent production of Cirque du Soleil
’s performances have rarely left a spectator disappointed, though the opportunity to witness such marvels have largely eluded Beijing audiences over the years.
Perhaps surprisingly, the arrival of the long-running touring spectacular Kooza in December was only the second landing in the capital for the Québec-based entertainers (following the Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour stop in 2013), coming straight off the back of a blisteringly successful two-month run in Shanghai last Autumn.
Currently the company’s longest-running touring show, it’s also one of the best- travelled and well-received, having now been performed in 18 countries to just under 8 million spectators, since its world premiere in Montreal back in April 2007. A proven success for us Beijingers to feast upon, then.
True to Cirque form, the fabulous acrobatic spectacle of Kooza is not devoid of narrative – far from it – with a compelling storyline following a curious and childlike character called The Innocent, a buffoonish sort who is plunged into the stimulating world of the agile Trickster. It is through similarly naïve eyes that the audience is invited to experience the gifts to the senses flamboyantly exhibited before them.
You are mainly here for the stunts, though, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front: expect contortionists, high-wiring, balancing on seven-metre stacks of chairs, fearless acrobatics on the rotating Wheel of Death and much more, all backed up with dazzling light and sound displays.
For all the pomp and grandiosity, the show’s focus on clowning and acrobatic performance offer a return to the very roots of Cirque du Soleil, and indeed circus itself, as its creation director Serge Roy puts it: 'This show as a whole brings us closer to the simplicity and humanity of an earlier circus – and closer to the audience. It reminds you of street performance.'
It’s a feeling aided in no small part by the arena the performance takes place in, its exposed rigging and 260-degree views for all 2,600 revellers. Housed underneath one of Cirque’s signature Grand Chapiteau (or Big Top tents), the Kooza stage is in fact the highest ever designed by the company, reaching a vertigo-inducing 39 feet, and from which features such as the Wheel of Death extend diagonally towards the crowd: ‘I wanted to capture the essence of circus itself by creating a scenographic environment that offers true proximity to the audience and where danger is palpable,’ set designer Stéphane Roy explains. Such risk, exposure and fragility prove to be some of Kooza’s most thrilling aspects.
As you might expect of a company that dangles its employees from the skies every night, there’s a meticulous precision and attention to detail that runs top to bottom at Cirque du Soleil, no more evident than in the assembly of their self-sufficient travelling villages. In addition to the centrepiece Grand Chapiteau, there are entrance tents, box offices, kitchens, offices, warehouses and more to throw up, in a process that takes around nine days to complete, three to take down, and 80 trailers to haul from city to city. It’s a spectacle in itself, and one that’ll be sprawling over Chaoyang Park for another six weeks.
'Kooza is about human connection and the world of duality, good and bad,' says the show’s writer and director David Shiner. 'The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s very much about ideas, too. As it evolves, we are exploring concepts such as fear, identity, recognition and power.' In terms of Cirque du Soleil’s own identity and recognition, Shiner and all around him will be hoping that their so-far successful four-month stint in Shanghai and Beijing can be the springboard for more lasting and repeated success on the Mainland.
Regardless of Kooza’s arrival, however, it’s clear that many have seen the potential for growth, and a bright future for Cirque du Soleil here in China; Shanghai-based investing conglomerate Fosun International bought a 25 percent stake in the company in 2015, while preparations are well underway to open a permanent resident show in Hangzhou later this year – one that is set to feature a nearly 50 percent Chinese cast. Watch this death-defying, acrobatically enthralling space.