Review: Kurios by Cirque du Soleil

I love Cirque du Soleil. I’ve seen more Cirque shows that I can accurately remember. This weekend I saw Kurios in Atlanta and it is my new favorite.

It is hard to beat Alegria, the first live Cirque performance I ever saw. Andrea and I were living in Santa Rosa, California, and we drove down to San Francisco to see the American premiere of the show. As we were sitting there, we were overcome with a sense of joy and wonder that we had not experienced since we were children, and we later identified the emotion as “delight”. It’s the delight of a young child on Christmas morning, and it comes all too rarely in our adult lives.

Now, I am not saying that Kurios is the best Cirque show ever created. First, I haven’t seen them all, and second, there are individual acts, like the Balance Goddess in Amaluna, that I liked more than any single act in Kurios, but the show taken as a whole was really, really strong.

I want to state that I am not a Cirque “fan boy”. I don’t see everything they produce nor do I think everything they do is golden. When a new show is announced we look at the description, and sometimes a show comes near to us that doesn’t seem that interesting. However, when I learned that this show was to be “steampunk” Cirque, I was in from the start.

It is hard for me to accurately define steampunk. According to Wikipedia it is a subgenre of science fiction, but outside of books it tends to reflect a sense of fascination and wonder often identified with the late Victorian era. It can appeal to certain people involved with technology since that world is becoming more and more virtual (you can almost live in virtual worlds accessed via your “phone” where you interact with your virtual friends and have virtual relationships) and in contrast steampunk is very physical. Before electricity became easily available, most motive energy was derived from steam, which resulted in a very mechanical aesthetic. Think clockwork gears, brass and struts, such as this steampunk keyboard.

Or, if you need another example, just check out the Kurios set:

The stage is circular, like most Cirque shows, although this one had a small raised area along the edge that would often host a number of odd devices and people that would travel along its track. In the back were two large clockwork towers, and as the show started the center stage was dominated by a large chair with various devices hanging off of it. Like the shows I’ve seen before, it would start off with various characters wandering through the audience. One was a mystical turbaned man with a large sphere sticking out of the turban. Various images were projected on the sphere and occasionally he would stop in front of an audience member, touch his temple and the images would change as if he was seeing the person’s future or dreams.

The first main character we are introduced to is the Seeker – a man with white, unkempt hair in a lab coat. He wandered around the set playing with the various devices, and he was assisted by a number of clockwork “kurios” would would help clean the lab, ride a bicycle to generate power, etc. Cirque shows usually start off this way to allow for stragglers to get to their seats. Another Cirque tradition is a clown in the role of Master of Ceremonies, this time played by Facundo Gimenez channeling a half-Italian, half-Spanish character who goes through the usual introduction involving exits, phones and the prohibition against photography.

The show kicks off properly by a parade by the band and the introduction of a whole group of characters, all in period dress. I liked the music in Kurios more than the last few performances I’ve seen and I loved how they integrated it into the show – in the main opening number the percussionists use a table, themselves and pretty much everything else as instruments.

We also get to meet the other main characters. There is Nico the Accordion Man whose clothing contains hundreds of folds that can make him look tall or short. Klara wears a metallic hoop skirt that acts as an antenna so that she can receive invisible signals. The most imposing character is Mr. Microcosmos, whose body is made up of a huge sphere that looks like a Bathysphere used for exploring the sea, although he also appears in the opening number as the front of a large train that expels many other members of the cast. It is out of this sphere that one of the best surprises of all pops out: Mini Lili is played by Antanina Satsura is 3.2 feet tall and weight 39 pounds. She is a perfectly proportioned little person who provides a counterpoint to the size of Mr. Microcosmos. At one point Mr. Microcosmos is on stage in a much larger device that opens up to reveal Mini Lili’s parlour, complete with wingback chair and chandelier, where she sits making a phone call.

What I loved about Kurios was this level of detail. They really carry the theme throughout the show. Outside of the Bathysphere, there are a lot of references to sea life. There is a contortion act done on the back of a huge mechanical hand where the performers wear these sea-life inspired costumes that work really well in the piece, and the second half opens with a trampoline aerial performance that also invokes the sea in the form of jumping fish. It didn’t take me long to find a scholarly reference that the Victorians were very much interested in things like sea life, as this was the first time that the technology existed to start exploring that part of our planet.

Which brings me to the only miss of the night: the invisible circus. A large round elevated stage is rolled out to the front and the clown played by Gimenez describes various acts being performed by “invisible” players, including a man riding a unicycle on a high wire, a lion taming act and even a high dive into a pool filled with three inches of water. Like a mechanical flea circus, you see various things move and even see the splash when the invisible diver lands, but I found the whole act strained and not funny.

I was so jaded by the bit that when Gimenez led a woman from the audience on stage for a mime performance I was ready for the same uncomfortable feeling. The act was him pretending to be on a date, and in the set up you understand he has both a bird and a cat as pets. He answers the “door” and leads her to a couch where he mimes some of the hesitation that can come from a first date. To alleviate this he goes off in search of drinks, but then reappears as the bird. The lady from the audience did a great job of playing along and I was starting to warm to the bit, when the bird is eaten by the cat (also played by Despr├ęs) who then hops up on the couch to investigate the lady.

As a cat owner, what followed was one of the most talented and hilarious pantomimes of the behavior of a cat I’ve ever seen. I was crying I was laughing so hard. Thus, all is forgiven.

I’m not going to go through and describe all of the acts as a) I didn’t take notes and b) you can find it elsewhere, but what makes this my favorite show was how well it all integrated into the theme. It was like they took it to the next level. For example, most Cirque shows have a hand-balancing act. The performer comes out and slowly builds a tower on which they will do various feats of balancing. This one started out as a dinner party hosted by Klara and attended by some of the other characters, including the turbaned mystic from the beginning of the show. At one point he levitates a candelabra, but it won’t come down. So another guest starts stacking chairs to get high enough to retrieve it.

As the tower gets higher and higher, the lights go on in the catwalk above the stage where a duplicate dinner party is revealed, only this one is upside down. They too build a tower but this one heads down toward the stage. While the hand-balancing act was entertaining on its own, it was this extra level of theatricality that made me love this show.

My overall favorite act was one called Rola Bola. A man in a aviator’s costume comes out and does a balancing act on a small platform on top of a ball. Good, but I’d seen that before. Then he builds up a small stack of acrylic cylinders and boards, and he separates them with a smaller metallic cylinder on its side. Again, I had seen something like that before. It wasn’t until he added a second metallic cylinder, perpendicular to the first, that I started to think “wow”. Now there are at least two axes of motion, and when the whole thing was raised into the air I knew I was in for something special.

Not only did he balance on this contraption, he took of his jacket and contorted metal loops around his body, all while remaining balanced. He ended that part of the act by rotating the whole thing 360 degrees. Truly impressive.

He followed that up by adding a third metal cylinder and another stack of objects that at this point was so high he had to use a little pole to get on top of it. Once again elevated, he was able to remain balanced with these three plus axes of motion, although there was little room left for acrobatics.

Is Kurios perfect? No, I saw a few mistakes at Saturday night’s Atlanta show and the invisible circus bit really could be dropped, but overall it is one of the the strongest Cirque shows in recent memory and I might even have to see it again.

It’s in Atlanta until the beginning of May, when it moves on to Boston, DC. New York and Miami. If you can make I highly recommend you get a ticket. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: Louis C.K. at The Comedy Store

I’m a fan of the comedian Louis C.K. and I also really admire the way he markets his performances. When he does a special, he frequently offers it on his website for $5. With no DRM and high definition formats available, it is a great way to see and own his work.

His latest special is called “Louis C.K. at The Comedy Store” and I watched it last night. It was solid, like most of his work, but not quite my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I think I got more than $5 worth of laughs out of it, but one of the issues I have is that the first thing I saw him in was also one of the best things he’s done, and one of the best bits of comedy ever made.

Note: for purists there may be spoilers below, so stop reading if your that type. Yes, you know who you are.

It was with Conan O’Brien, and while I remember seeing better versions, this is the one I found on the YooToobz and the quality isn’t great:

I’m a year older than Louis and I identify with a lot of what he talks about as we’re from the same generation. However, he is also a parent and I’m child-free, and I have a hard time relating to his parenting-based humor.

There were a couple of bits that stood out in this show. I like it when he talks about flying, as I am a frequent flyer, and he did a bit about traveling with crying children. Again, since I’m child-free, I don’t do crying children well (or deal well with those packs of pre-teen girls whose voices can hit vocal ranges so high it upsets the dog but that’s another issue) but I did find a great way to deal with them on planes. At the recommendation of my friend Ben I bought a pair of Etymotic 4P earbuds, and now that I can use my phone pretty much the whole flight, with just a little bit of music I can drown out almost anything.

In the show he tells a story about getting the “stink eye” from another passenger when his daughter was crying on a plane, and he talked about his limited options. He then pantomimed strangling the child and handing her limp body back to the guy. Okay, not everyone’s idea of humor, but short of that there isn’t much he could do about it, and that situational comedy appeals to me. I was watching this with my friend David and we both thought of the final episode of the show M*A*S*H during this bit.

Where he really shines is when he points out how lucky we have it and how spoiled we are as a society not to realize it. He riffed on people who are trying to “find themselves” and determine what to do with their lives by saying “Eat food”. Basically, wander around looking for food, and when you find it, eat it. While that is a vast oversimplification, if one were to deconstruct existence to its bare minimum, that would be it. So as long as you have enough to eat, consider yourself lucky.

My favorite bit was when he compared America to the world’s worst girlfriend; someone who does horrible things but justifies it every time by bringing up a past event when they were wronged. Of course he is talking about the events of 9/11, and I think we need more people talking about our reaction to that event. A lot of people died and a lot of money was lost on that day, but our actions after the fact caused considerably more death and destruction than 9/11 itself. To question it is often portrayed as being unpatriotic, but nothing is more patriotic than to question authority in a democracy.

I wanted more of that, and for me I found his Beacon Theater show more to my liking. In this one he does put a few images into your brain that you might wish to remove (I’ll never be able to watch “The Wizard of Oz” in the same way again) but there are a number of “gut laughs” as well.

Still a bargain at $5, and I eagerly await more from him.

Louis CK’s Long E-mail

I am a fan of Louis CK. He’s brilliant but still seems down to earth, and quite frequently he makes me laugh but more often he makes me think.

Today he released a new show and once again he’s made it available for $5 – no DRM and in a number of formats. I love that he’s confident enough in his fan base that he doesn’t encumber his work with DRM, and I pretty much buy everything he tells me to buy. I plan to watch it tonight.

He also sent out a rather long e-mail on why he did this show in a comedy club and not a theatre. Let’s get serious – Louis CK at the moment can sell out Madison Square Garden, so working in the much smaller space of a club must have been a change.

In the e-mail he talks about some of the clubs he played, and he even mentioned Charlie Goodnights in Raleigh. I used to spend a lot of time there, and I got to know the staff well enough that I could almost always reserve a table right next to the stage. I would ask for the one off to the left (as you are facing it) as most people are right handed and thus tend to focus a little more to their right, and there was a good chance that I would get to interact with the comedian.

I got to chat with Bobby Collins and Elayne Boozler (among others), and had a very memorable exchange with the late, great Rich Jeni. Note that I didn’t heckle or try to be a douche but with my voice and introverted nature, plus my prime location, I almost always managed to come to the attention of the person performing.

Good times.

Louis CK did this show at The Comedy Store in LA. When I lived there we used to hit the Improv a lot, but one time we decided to spring for The Comedy Store. The tickets were spendy for college students so we had to make it a special occasion. The headliner was Andrew Dice Clay.

Note that this was when Clay was thin and had hair and not too many people had heard of him. I think it was 1986 or so, might have been 1985. Anyway, we had no idea what we were getting into. Clay’s humour is rather singular, and being in a group of easily offended liberals, we didn’t know what to think.

I laughed my ass off.

There is just something about seeing comedy in a club. One Sunday night my friend Howard and I hit the Improv and for a two drink minimum we got to see a number of acts, including Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld just walked in, did about ten minutes, and left (this was before he was super famous). I’ll still remember the guy after him: Rick Ducommun. He killed. He started off complaining about having to follow Seinfeld and then just had us in stitches.

On nights like this each comedian gets a set amount of time, and when their time is up a little red light flashes in the back of the club that can be seen from the stage. When Ducommun stopped his act and told us he had to go, there was almost a revolt. He was that “on” that night.

After the noise died down, he laughed and said “hey, so I got the light, what can they do?” at which time the entire stage went dark. After we laughed even more, they gave him another five minutes or so.

It was pure magic.

Ducommun had his fifteen minutes, as fame can be fleeting. In the year after that show he had an HBO special (at one time the pinnacle of the comedy mountain) but then disappeared. Louis CK seems to realize that it could, and probably will, happen to him, but he continues to keep coming up with new ways to keep us engaged.

This makes me real eager to see his show, and looky, it’s done downloading.

Review: So You Think You Can Dance 2014 Tour

Okay, so, yeah, I like So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD).

I’m not sure how we got started watching it. I think that was back when I paid attention to American Idol and since it was the same producers we just kind of left it on.

Now, I am not a “dance guy” – I am as much a dance guy as I am a folk singer (can’t sing, can’t play guitar, do it anyway). In part is it due to the fact that I don’t speak its language. I live on a farm, have a pickup truck and (currently) three tractors. Not much call for dance around here.

When I was in college I took a class called “Film and the Novel”. I thought we would read a book and then see a film adaptation, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the course taught us conventions used in film that have parallels to those in a novel, and by learning those conventions I developed a greater understanding for the more avant garde cinema.

I’ve never had that opportunity with dance. But, the people on the show have talent, low body fat, and as I once described it, the women are all hot and the men … non-threatening.

All joking aside, I found myself really enjoying the two hours I watched the show each week. Most often my reaction was “cool” but on a couple of occasions I was moved to tears. Not really sure why, but something spoke to me.

Anyway, a couple of years ago the Season 9 SYTYCD tour came to Durham and I scored third row seats. We had a great time. We missed last year’s show due in part to non-interest but I was motivated to return because of the strong group of contestants in Season 11. Every show I watch that comes out once a year proclaims “This is the best season evah!” but they kind of meant it this year. Every one of the Top 20 dancers was solid, although I didn’t see a break out star like Travis Wall or Twitch they worked well as an ensemble.

The show was at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and we were about 20 rows back from the stage. The tickets weren’t cheap so I was surprised that we were the only two people sitting in a line of eight seats. It really did make the experience enjoyable not sitting cheek to jowl with your neighbor. It started at 7:40pm, ran for an hour, and then there was a twenty minute intermission followed by another hour to end promptly at 10pm.

These kids work hard in this show. While the producers, judges and choreographers are presented via taped segments on a large screen behind the stage, the dancing is pretty much non-stop, with one number blending into the next. Quite frequently the dancers have to manage their own props as well, moving them off and on stage. It’s a lot of dancing and a lot of costume changes.

Speaking of hard work, this show the dancer Tanisha Belnap seemed to be in nearly every piece, especially in the first half. While not my favorite dancer of the group, she did a solid job and it became almost comical as a new number would start and there she was. I almost wonder if one of the other dancers was hurt and she was standing in to help so they could limit the stress to their body.

I also liked the music. In the television show they will display the song and artist being played but not here, so I decided to use Sound Search for Google Play on my phone. After going zero for three I switched to Shazam and it did much better. I’m not sure if it was the loudness or the occasional cheers but Shazam seemed to have a much easier time tagging the tracks, so it is my new default app for that.

While I had a great time, I did find myself obsessing over the dancers’ feet. A lot of the numbers are in bare feet, and if you have ever been on a stage you’ll remember that they ain’t the cleanest. So after a short time you could see the dirt on their feet clearly. I couldn’t help but laugh and think to myself “Welcome to the Tarheel state”.

I only saw one blatant mistake (a small fall) and the only numbers I really didn’t care for were the ones from the “Michael Jackson” night. Back when I was active on Twitter my crowning achievement was getting called an asshole by the executive producer of the show on the occasion of Michael Jackson’s death. He didn’t get the rights to perform to Jackson’s music so there was no “special” back then but they did get them this year, although the songs they used were definitely B-list.

I even think I’m beginning to understand this whole dance thing. There was one number with two pairs of dancers where the two women danced together as did the two men. They were wearing formal wear and the whole thing suggested a commentary on marriage equality. It wasn’t sexual – it just seemed to celebrate the happiness two people can feel with each other. Later, when a taped segment by Travis Wall was played, he called the piece “Equality” so I think I nailed it. Granted, it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer but I still liked it.

Contrast this to when we went to the Sydney Opera House. Since it was my first trip to the city, I wanted to say I’d seen a performance in that building. Unfortunately, the only show we could make was a modern dance performance. All I can remember is that I liked one piece involving large ribbons, but the rest of it was lost on me. Toward the end the stage was covered in a white powder, so I started making up dialog in my head that it was a massive amount of cocaine and riffing from there.

I did love seeing my favorite dancer from this season, Valerie, as well as the one who beat her our for the prize, Ricky. Ricky is an amazing dancer and deserved to win but it would have been nice to see a tapper take the top prize.

The only other criticism I have is that while only the top 10 of the initial 20 contestants were introduced, they actually had the top 14 performers from the show. Would it have really hurt to introduce them as well? You could hear people in the audience going “wait, there are twelve up there” etc.

The final number had the whole cast (all 14) dressed up as cheerleaders dancing to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off“. Even though it was the last number, I found myself grinning. It was just plain ol’ fun, and I while I probably get more than my fair share I can always use more.