Dir: Franco Dragone
120 min • O2 Arena • July 18-28, 2013
There’s such a sense of escapism with the circus. For years, children have dreamed of running away to the bright lights of the travelling fairs, with their performing animals, magic and wonder. The main problem with the circus is once you’re an adult, and you’re older and wiser, you realise that it’s all for show, and that most circus’ are grotty, the acts underpaid and the magic well and truly lost. Over the past 30 years, there’s been a few circus companies to challenge that preconception, with arguably the most successful being Canada’s Cirque de Soleil, whose high-end take on the classic circus formula has thrilled audiences all over the world.
Alegria, now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, was the show that changed the face of circus forever. Created by long time Cirque collaborator Franco Dragone, with a desire to take Cirque du Soleil away from their light image and create something dark and heavy -“Alegria, Alegria, Alegria” meaning “Joy, Joy, Joy” in Spanish, but also meaning great pain in his native Italy, used in such a way to mean “life goes on”.
The most enchanting thing about Alegria is its simplicity. Yes, this is massive full scale production, with a beautifully designed moving set, death defying feats and a huge cast of performers, but the most engaging elements come from the intimate moments rather than the larger set pieces. A clown holds the whole of the o2 arena in the palm of his hand with a paper airplane. A torch is turned into a motorcycle with just a few human made motorcycle noises. A beautifully designed snowstorm, showering the audience in white confetti, closes the 1st act with a large feeling of haunting melancholy.
Alegria is a “baroque ode to the energy, grace and power of youth” and its cast of characters are a constant comment on that. Young Nymphs in feathers, a singer split into two parts, her white clad good side and her black clad bad side and a disfigured man called Fleur, with a hunchback and a hook nose who presides over the whole experience. My favourite characters, though, have to be the Nostalgic Old Birds (yes, that’s actually their name) who watch everything with bitterness and resentment, often gazing into empty ornamental mirror frames that the acts travel in and out of. The inclusion of these mask-clad older characters gives Alegria not a story but a cohesive through line that transcends simple circus tomfoolery.
And on the subject of the circus, of course it goes without saying that Cirque du Soleil’s athletic company are beyond perfection. Beginning with a simple trapeze duet, which is impressive nevertheless, each act gets more and more impressive as the show goes on, and we are treated to the most elegant contortionist duo I have ever seen, the beautiful trampoline-esque power track, stunningly choreographed hand balancing, fire knife dancing (in which the fire dancer intentionally sets fire to the stage), beautiful girls with hoops and ribbons and, my personal favourite, Russian Bars, where artists perform flips and tricks in unison on long planks, all reaching exactly the same height and landing at exactly the same time. It’s something that, in live performance, I would have thought was physically impossible.
Add to this the company’s original score by the award winning Rene Dupere, all played and sung live, incorporating not only French influences but also Spanish and African music. The ultimate perfectionists, their music is as important as the visual aspect of their show, and after 20 years Alegria remains their biggest selling soundtrack.
I’ve wanted to see Cirque du Soleil for years, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The normally cavernous o2 Arena was transformed into a space that felt almost intimate, the arches in the stage design feeling intentionally claustrophobic and oppressive, and I was spellbound from the moment the band first stepped onto the stage, dressed in white and assuming the roles of a small circus band, to the magnificent finale of title song ‘Alegria’, a song I had long associated with Cirque and was thrilled to see performed live.
Alegria is a truly magical experience, and is classic family entertainment, totally at odds with a lot of the dumbed down family shows that now populate our theatres and arenas. Full of pathos and mysticism, it articulately captures the joy and sadness of being young and getting old, without leaving you reaching for the anti wrinkle cream. The show is now touring Europe before coming back to the UK in the autumn! See it any cost, but be prepared to leave with a renewed childlike enthusiasm to join the circus.