The Wheel of Death, and other amazements

I just noticed that it's been over ten years that I've been meaning (but failing) to see Cirque du Soleil.

For several years, every year I would decide to go see their show, and then forget to get tickets. I would discover too late that they were sold out, or that the only remaining seats had limited visibility; I would promise myself to get tickets the next year; and then I would repeat the whole thing the following year. Eventually I stopped trying.

But a few months ago, Kam and I saw that they were coming to town again, and I mentioned my inability to get tickets in a timely manner, and we went online and got tickets right then and there for the current traveling show, Kooza.

Now, I have seen other circus-arts performance groups. In 2002, Susan G and I went to see Cirque Éloize in Berkeley; in 2005, Kam and I saw Éloize again (different show) in San Francisco; and Kam's family took me to Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco in 2004. Oh, and I saw part of a video of a Cirque du Soleil performance at some point, I think.

There was a fair bit of overlap in the circus arts shown in those shows. There were contortionists, chair-balancing, rope dancing (corde lisse, I think?) and Spanish web, rolling globe, trapeze, aerial hoop/lyra, juggling, flag-spinning (kinda like poi), Icarian games (or something similar), and various other items. Plus clowning/comedy, of course, and pretty images. Sometimes a semblance of plot, but not much of one.

One of my favorite things from those shows was the teeterboard performances--one person stands on one end of a teeter-totter, two other people jump on the far end, the flyer goes up into the air and tumbles and then lands. Sounds simple, looks lovely.

Probably my favorite thing from those shows was roue cyr, a.k.a. cyr wheel; follow that link for a video that gives some idea what it's like, though it was even cooler in performance.

Anyway, so at the Cirque du Soleil show on Saturday night, I certainly enjoyed the first half of the show, but there was a certain sameness; all the circus arts they showed were things I'd seen before, and though they did them well, I was mildly disappointed that there wasn't anything spectacularly new (to me).

And then, after a half-hour intermission, came the Wheel of Death.

Follow that link for a still photo. Or imagine two human-sized hamster wheels (that don't rotate independently) held together in a giant metal elongated figure-eight framework, with the whole device rotating around the center of the eight; then imagine a person in--or on!--each wheel, causing the rotation by running and doing acrobatics within (or on top of) the wheels.

There's at least one video available online, but I'm not going to link to it, and if there's any chance that you're going to see a Wheel of Death act live, I recommend skipping the video, because although the video is cool, it's not nearly as cool as seeing it live, and seeing the video might reduce the amazingness of seeing it live for the first time.

And although I realize I'm overselling it and it can't possibly live up to this description, I gotta say that it may have been the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my entire life. I mean, I'm sure I've seen something more amazing at some point, but nothing's coming to mind.

An astonishing and remarkable performance. I'm glad I didn't know it was called the Wheel of Death, though. Although I think the thrill of danger is probably part of what most audiences like about this act, and although the danger certainly added tension, I think I would have liked it even more if I hadn't been scared that the performers would fall off and die. I read later, online, that something very similar to the Wheel of Death was first performed in the 1930s under the name "Space Wheel," but after a couple of people died on it, performances stopped, and weren't revived 'til the '70s. I also read that the last time someone died on it was in 1982. Which is a little comforting (that nobody's died on it in the past 25 years of performances), but still.

Anyway. Definitely my new favorite circus art. I gather that Cirque du Soleil has also used a similar device with three wheels instead of two, but I don't know anything about that beyond having seen it in the background of that video.

Other highlights of Kooza included the high-wire act, the contortionists, and (again) the teeterboard. And they did do some particularly amazing stuff with the teeterboard, including someone being thrown up in the air and doing aerial somersaults on stilts.

I also liked the set quite a bit.

There were aspects of the show that I didn't like as much. I definitely could've done without the "pickpocket" routine, in which someone from the audience is taken onstage and a performer removes everything from the guy's pockets without him noticing--an old stage-magic routine, focused way too much on humor-of-embarrassment for my tastes. And even though the Kooza website says the juggling act "has been called, quite simply, the best in the world," I thought a lot of it was relatively unimpressive. I had to keep reminding myself that the people I know who can do similar stuff are the best jugglers I know, and that being able to do a juggling routine without dropping is much harder than just being able to do those tricks casually, with drops. Anyway, he was certainly good, and certainly a whole lot better than I am; I just didn't think he was quite as good (relative to other world-class jugglers I've seen) as he seemed to think he was. And I was really hoping that at the end of his routine, his female assistant would turn out to be a juggler too, but no such luck.

The unicycle and trapeze routines were nice but not amazing. The music and dance sequences and costumes likewise. The plot was pretty much the same plot as every circus-arts show I've seen: the Innocent goes on a journey of discovery and encounters amazing stuff. I think I'd just as soon leave out the halfhearted attempt at plot and not try to tie together the routines into a coherent framework/story.

The comedy was a mixed bag for me--some of it I enjoyed a lot, some of it was a bit too crass for my tastes.

But despite a few flaws, the show overall was very enjoyable, definitely well worth seeing. And that would've been true even without the Wheel of Death.

One Response to “The Wheel of Death, and other amazements”

  1. Michael

    Amen to your entire review of Kooza — that matched my reactions exactly.


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