The ultimate strength of Cirque du Soleil is its capacity for reinvention. Over the two decades of its existence, the troupe has known when to stretch the envelope and dazzle us with ever-growing technical expertise or — on the other hand — how to sense the necessary moment to pull back and connect with a tougher, more informal street vibe. With its latest production, “Kooza,” which opened like all Cirque touring shows under the giant blue and yellow tent pitched in the port of Old Montreal, the company appears to have decided the time has come to step back and re-embrace the elements that made them successful in the first place.
To do this, Cirque needed someone aware of its past traditions as well as its present achievements. To fulfill those needs, the company wisely turned to David Shiner.
An acclaimed modern clown for his work on stage (“Fool Moon”) and screen (“Lorenzo’s Oil”), Shiner spent a formative 19 months of his career in the early 1990s as a member of one of the very first Cirque shows, “Nouvelle Experience.” He returns to Cirque’s origins by combining two circus traditions: acrobatic performance and the art of clowning.
The name of the show stems from the Sanskrit word “koza,” which means both “box” and “treasure.” Shiner has utilized both of the word’s intents in a show in many ways simpler than recent Cirque entries.
Instead of epics unfurling over a giant often amorphous landscape, Shiner restricts us to a single performing space. Granted, this single arena is transformed into many different configurations, but one always has the sense of a single focal point holding everything together. Within these simple confines, the acrobatic feats performed by the troupe are extraordinary.
One sequence features the gifted Zhang Gongli, balancing eight chairs and a pedestal to create a 23 foot high tower on which he bends and twists his body into positions that seem to defy gravity. Then there’s the Wheel of Death, a 1600 pound structure that spins through the air at unbelievable speed, while Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza hurl their bodies into the void.
But in the end, one remembers “Kooza” as a series of individual harmonious parts, ultimately building to a powerful collective finale. The message is that we all are one, even though we may be very different.
Shiner’s touch is seen in the way the clowns keep their distance in the first half of the show and then expand their influence in the second, creating amusing pieces of audience involvement. One of the show’s greatest strengths is that it has no dominant theme forcing all the other elements to sing from the same hymn-book. It’s simply a celebration of the joy of the circus.
It’s perhaps not coincidental that the Cirque show which tries less than any other in recent memory to dazzle us brought the jaded Montreal opening-night audience to its feet on three separate occasions. The powerful simplicity of “Kooza” likely will make it far more popular than some of the more esoterically complex Cirque shows hitting the road in recent years. Less is more, especially when the “less” is as richly complex as what Shiner has created here.