Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico
Cirque du Soleil
March 31 and April 4, 2017
Review by Sharon Cumberland
Cirque du Soleil is justly famous for its spectacular, high-flying performers, its elaborate narratives, and its fabulous costumes, all seamlessly knitted together into two astonishing hours. I had only been once before—to last year’s “Kurios”— which was something of a steam-punky hodge-podge (what else can you expect from a cabinet of curiosities?) but memorable, nevertheless.
Yet I confess to feeling some skepticism about this year’s Mexican theme. I went on a social justice trip to Cuernavaca and Mexico City last year and came away with a new understanding of Mexican politics, corruption, drug cartels, and exploitation of the poor. How could Cirque du Soleil present anything cheerful about a nation in such dire straights? It would either recreate the tourist’s bubble of sunny indifference to Mexico’s dangers, or it would be another dark, scary world populated with acrobatic bad guys. I’m glad to report that it was neither, though on opening night there was an accident that brought the audience to a sudden awareness of the physical dangers involved in the Cirque du Soleil brand of heart-stopping gymnastics.
“Luzia”—“light” in English—has the double entendre of being bright and funny at the same time. Its light-hearted theme was less about Mexico than about what Mexico would be like in Paradise, where everyone loves and respects each other and everyone is young, strong, and good-looking. Mexico’s traditional arts—the bright turquoise, red, purple and white of the fabrics, the flower and bird motifs, the banderollas of cut-out paper, the music that makes you want to dance in the aisles—all of it offered up a guilt-free vision, a “waking dream” of Mexico as a place of beauty and culture. Who wouldn’t want to go that Mexico?
The show cleverly emphasized the inaccessibility of dream-Mexico by parachuting its narrator, a silent-but very-expressive clown, into its garden of birds and marigolds (watered by adorable little robots). The clown, played by the aptly-named Eric Fool Koller, is our surrogate, stumbling his way through one sweet or dangerous delight after another. And what delights they are! In addition to the musical transitions with gorgeous singing and dancing, there are a dozen acts that take your breath away, each in a different genre of grace, strength or daring.
The hallmark of Cirque performances is that each scene of daring-do is contextualized with a group of other performers strolling, dancing, wearing animal costumes, or otherwise enriching the environment so that you hardly know where to look. The huge revolving stage has what must be the world’s largest treadmill, supporting an array of hoop-jumping, air-tumbling acrobats and parading puppets. I was especially entranced by the “Running Woman”—a young lady dressed in a butterfly dress whose fabulous wings are manipulated on rods by other actors as she races in place on the treadmill. While this is happening, a silver stallion—a very realistic life-sized puppet inhabited by three puppeteers—begins galloping along with her to thrilling Mexican percussion and trumpets. If you could ever be made to believe in a dream, this would be the moment.
Another scene that captured my heart was a trapeze act in which a single orange-clad woman flyer described fantastic hieroglyphs in the air as two other young women in airy dresses revolved around the stage below in life-sized hula-hoops (called “cyr-wheels”—who knew?). A massive backdrop reminiscent of the Aztec calendar stone changed colors and projections throughout—for this scene it was covered with ants, and the three women had ants printed on their beautiful costumes. A theme of birds, insects and animals continued throughout the show, a strategy that keeps you situated in the sunny desert of dream-Mexico, along with a trio of life-sized saguaro cacti—one with a hilariously placed, upward-bending arm at crotch level—who remind you that we’re not in Seattle anymore.
There are lots of good-natured, jolly performances, like that of Ugo, the body-builder lifeguard who, surrounded by bathing beauties in sunglasses and mirrored bathing suits, stands on higher and higher swaying rods performing impossible feats of strength and balance, like a gymnast on rings but without the rings. Two soccer-ball Einsteins, Laura and Abou, play the fanciest game of keepie-uppie you can imagine, a juggler flings multiple silver bowling pins into the air to live marimba and tuba music, and a handsome fellow with long locks climbs, twirls, and falls through the air on straps while flinging his long hair into the water and creating designs in the air with water drops.
“Water?” you say—“what water?” Water, in this dream-desert, is the most spectacular part of the whole evening. At strategic moments a water wall falls from the two-story top of the tent to add drama and surprise to the show—to tease the clown, to drench performers who incorporate sparkling water into their arts, and to create a pallet of water-pictures so surprising and beautiful that it got me all choked up, as did many other moments in this beautiful, thrilling show.
I was lucky enough to go to “Luzia” twice, once as a reviewer for SGN on opening night (free sodas! free popcorn! free cactus-shaped cookies!) and once again on a family trip with a very generous niece and nephew. I’m glad, not only to have seen the show twice—it merits multiple viewings for those who can afford it—but because I got to see the show a second time without the real-world scary part. As widely reported in other media, on opening night there was a terrifying moment that caused the audience of more than 1,600 to sit in stunned and anxious silence. The grand finale of “Luzia” features the Russian swings, apparatus consisting of two gigantic curved platforms on metal frames, each of which is pumped by a strong man standing on the back of the swing so that lighter-weight acrobats can stand on the front and leap from one platform to another, turning multiple somersaults and twirls in the air as the big swings fling them toward the top of the tent. Not only do the guys pumping have to get the timing exactly right so that the jumpers have a platform to land on, but the jumpers have to time their air-born twirls so that they unfold and land on the opposite platform as it rises to meet them. It’s a hair-raising act that has your mouth gaping, your hands wringing, and your heart thumping—but in a good way.
Good, that is, until something bad happens, which happened on opening night. A young lady in the troupe was flung high into the air, performed a twirl, but then lost her footing on a backward-facing landing and fell flat on the platform, which was rising at such a rate that it whacked the entire back of her body. I was sitting three rows away as this happened and heard the sickening sound of the fall. Her fellow performers stopped the swing almost instantly, though the music continued on, weirdly, as the message that an accident had happened seeped through the system to the sound engineers. The injured girl lay flat on the platform, but her eyes were blinking and her chest was heaving. A manager, then a dozen medics, materialized as if by magic. It took fifteen minutes to immobilize the performer with inflatable stabilizers, to move her to a stretcher and to carry her out. During that time I’m sure some tears were shed and some prayers were sent up from the audience. As the performer was carried out to applause, there was a palpable concern that we had all witnessed a disaster. The show went on, of course, to the big Fiesta finale. I was impressed by the bravery of the cast, who were determined to smile and be cheerful so that the audience would not leave dream-Mexico in sorrow.
So fast-forward to April 4th, when I got to see the show a second time. Imagine my delight, at the grand finale, when I saw this same young lady on the Russian swings again, flying through the air, turning summersaults, and landing backward on the platform as lightly as a bird. What I hadn’t realized was how much of the show had been cut short on opening night—a good ten minutes of additional aerial acrobatics performed by the men in the troupe, who were performing such feats of tumbling in the air and flying high that they were snapping their suspenders (literally) with pride instead of struggling to hold up their heads and hold back their tears as they did at the finale on opening night.
Though several reviewers who witnessed the accident on opening night reflected on the morality of audiences demanding ever more dangerous acts to satisfy their thirst for danger, I doubt that this is the motivation for these performers. I would have been as thrilled to see the girl jump forwards instead of backwards, or the men to do one summersault instead of three. What do I know about their standards? I think these people are real competitors, recruited from the ranks of elite and Olympic gymnasts. They will always want to go bigger, higher, more dramatic, more dangerous, no matter what the audience thinks. They know the risks and they know how to perform safely. Accidents happen to all of us. It’s as likely (even more likely) that I could get killed in an accident going home from Cirque du Soleil as that a acrobat could get killed doing their highly perfected performance. So it was a rare, sad moment on opening night that ended happily, and hopefully, for the rest of the run, which continues through May 21st.
I highly recommend this “waking dream of Mexico” because it honors all that is beautiful, musical, and traditional about a wonderful country whose people deserve better than they’re getting. It’s an image of hopefulness that we might all bear in mind, like a light—a “Luzia”—at the end of the tunnel.