The Problem with Cirque d’Soleil

Montreal’s famed “circus without animals” has delighted audiences around the globe with its amalgam of acrobatics, clowning, original music, and spectacular lighting effects — all without tortured elephants and disgruntled tigers.

The company — or, more accurately, the corporation — has as a hand in seemingly every other show in Las Vegas, where its productions command $100 ticket prices and the name “Cirque du Soleil” connotes classy artfulness. Even Celine Dion, who previously was thought to have Streisand-like pipes that didn’t require theatrical ornamentation to hold an audience’s interest, has dressed up her nightly show at Caesars Palace with stage business conceived by Franco Dragone (who, like Cher, Shakira, Beck, and Twiggy, now goes by one name, his last). Las Vegas has become a fertile field for CDS fans — or an overfertilized swamp for those who are not.

The stars of a CDS show — the astonishing contortionists and gymnasts, and the clowns — do their thing on impossibly grand stages in awe-inspiring settings. The show “O,” a play on the French word for water, is performed on, over, around, and in a swimming pool, which magically recedes and reappears with tidal regularity. But rather than merely present wildly talented acrobats exhibiting their craft, the CDS theatrical ethos is: circus acts cannot be safely consumed by discerning audiences unless the acts are augmented by all manner of surreal “dreamscapes” that defy explanation and hint at a secret meaning, one that can never be “decoded” by the bourgeois boobs who attend Vegas entertainment. Thus, apropos of nothing, little troll-like characters scurry across the stage while double-jointed ladies tie themselves in knots. Spooky brides and strongmen and slavemasters dash around the shadows, shaking their fists. Dudes in white wigs and waistcoats hold the guy wires for the high-altitude trapeze artists. And elaborately costumed freaks gesticulate weirdly at the unfolding action, like “The Price is Right” models on a carnival midway.

None of this flim-flammery tells a coherent story with a cogent narrative. It’s all “a dream.” Which is fine — except that the only dreams anyone is ever interested in is his own. Everyone else’s are rambling, bizarre, and, ultimately, boring.

One could imagine the throngs at a CDS show declaiming, “More circus, less pretentious nonsense.” But the clever trick Dragone and his cohorts have managed, whether in their stripper show “Zumanity,” or their inscrutable historical epic “Ka,” is to execute their silliness with a complete absence of irony. The self-seriousness is infectious. If the audience doesn’t “get” the underlying profundity of it all, the audience is not quite hip enough for the other-dimensional explorations of CDS’s stage pictures. Sure, it’s just a bunch of circus acts — but only if you’re too dense to see beyond the fact that it’s just a bunch of circus acts.

Since nearly everything in Las Vegas is a reiteration of something else, an ersatz simulacrum of the original, whether in New York, Paris, Los Angeles, or Texas, CDS’s essential fakeness fits in well with America’s most gloriously inauthentic playground. Even the Beatles, seemingly immune to artification, are getting the CDS treatment in a spectacle that’s replacing Siegfried and Roy’s magic show at the Mirage. Imagine: something even more inauthentic than a couple of aging queens with codpieces.

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