From Rome’s Circus Maximus to Barnum & Bailey’s turn-of-the-century spectaculars, the magic of the big top has always been undeniable. But after a group of avant-garde Canadian street performers got together in 1984, circus changed forever when they formed Cirque du Soleil, a company that elevated the three-ring carnival to an art form as yet unrivaled. To date, Cirque has thrilled over 90 million people and with the debut of “Iris,” Los Angeles has its first resident production.
Since this is an industry town, the show, whose name refers to both the part of the eye and a camera that regulates the amount of light that enters, is all about motion and picture. Housed in the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are held and photos of Oscar winners giddily clutching their statuettes greet you, the show takes audiences on a journey through the history of cinema.
Entering the theater, you’re greeted by a stage transformed to resemble something out of a Baz Luhrmann movie, the two-story face of a vaudevillian monocled ringmaster on either side, their smiling mouths gaping open to reveal red curtains where performers will soon appear and disappear, a spool of celluloid winding around the proscenium, atop which the show’s credo, “In Motion We Trust,” is emblazoned.
Each Cirque show has a narrative and a hero to shepherd you through the extravaganza. At the start of “Iris,” a lone Buster Keaton-esque custodian appears in a porkpie hat sweeping a barren stage. Drawn to an abandoned upright piano, the kind that once provided the soundtrack for silent movies, as he plays, he unleashes a cornucopia of imagery and a barrage of stage performers as black-and-white footage of the show plays overhead and award-winning composer Danny Elfman’s score swells. For a moment, you have to wonder, “Is this all too much to take in?”
No! This is Cirque du Soleil! They do sensory overload better than anyone on earth.
As the sea of performers recedes – including a Clara Bow/Betty Boop character dressed in a skirt that spins like a phenakistoscope, lighting up to reveal two boxers sparring and a chorus line of dancers – the stage is left to two sculpted, stoic blonde twins in strong-men outfits. A set of straps drops from the ceiling and suddenly they’re off, flying overhead like Peter Pan, practically landing in an opera box before spiraling together in an aerial ballet that’s everything Cirque du Soleil does best. Elegantly breathtaking on every level, the sheer beauty, stunning ability and unimaginable strength and agility required as they fuse into one body and spin up into the rafters is a perfect example of why Cirque is synonymous with unparalleled artistry.
Next, a black-and-white film of New York in the 1930s starts over a drop-down scrim. It’s unremarkable at first, until a performer bursts through the frame and onto the stage, igniting a sequence of high flying trampoline choreography across and around a rooftop set. Seemingly lifted from a James Cagney movie but with a Dick Tracy color palate, Manhattan in the background, a glowing neon “hotel” sign and water tower acting as a super-charged jungle gym for the acrobats as they fly through, around and over as they plunge and vault, all the while shooting Tommy guns, landing punches and eliciting gasps from the crowd, leaving the preview audience yearning to see the rest of the show.
Daniel Lamarre, Cirque’s president and chief executive officer, brought Cirque to Los Angeles for its first major performance without enough money to bring the show or the performers home. Had it failed, the carcass of his dream would have been forsaken on the grounds of the LA Arts Festival, and perhaps that’s what makes the debut of “Iris” feel like the completion of a dream 27 years in the making.
As Lamarre says, “[Cirque du Soleil] had to be successful in the capital of entertainment, and we were. It’s about passion, emotion, creating something that will push the boundaries of our creativity. Everything we do is just to bring the magic onstage to you.”
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Kodak Theatre is located at 6801 Hollywood Blvd., #180, Hollywood. For more information, visit cirquedusoleil.com.