I’m a hockey girl. As a warm-natured, anti-winter, native Californian and a former competitive swimmer with an allegiance to water in its’ natural liquid state, admittedly it doesn’t make logical sense; but it’s the truth. One might assume that my affinity for the puck would directly translate to a love of all things skatey. Indeed, I can see how one might conclude that figure skating and/or recreational ice skating would also be my thing. This is an incorrect assumption. I have no love of any kind for skating that doesn’t involve something teal and/or sharkish. If there isn’t a Stanley Cup Playoff eventually involved, I’m epically uninterested. Honestly, if asked to describe my own personal hell, an eternity of ice skating would have to rank supremely high on the list. It’s right up there with telemarketing and being hangry. I make no apologies for my position and it’s for this reason that I entered the Shark Tank to see Cirque du Soleil’s CRYSTAL, with some significant trepidation. While I do love a Cirque show, I was exceedingly dubious (but also tremendously curious) about CRYSTAL. In addition to my none-too-complex feels on the whole ice skating sitch, my previous experience with a Cirque arena show wasn’t memorable aside from the recollection that the intimacy of the custom tent was very much missed. I’m happy to report that this problem has been obliterated in this latest iteration. And, yes… I don’t know why I ever doubted. The show has everything a girl like me needs to forget the sting from an 8 game winning a streak Sharks loss to St. Louis the previous night, and then some. Mad skating and acrobatic skills, big scale technical wizardry, a compelling score, visual design bad-assery, poetry and even some hockey.
With the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, wrapped in a fleece, lightly scented with hints of Frozen, folded in a layer of Narnia, coated in the essence of a Django Reinhardt song, infused with a generous dose of X Games gravity-defying adrenaline, dipped in a Bar mitzvah, sprinkled with a dash of 80’s music video and a smidge of So You Think You Can Dance, stuffed inside an undiscovered graphic novel by Picasso, blended with Parisian Fashion Week, with equal doses of pinball, calligraphy, humor and Young Adult Romance, CYSTAL is fresh, fun, damn near miraculous and quintessentially Cirque. Extra points for a red headed, day dreaming, misunderstood, establishment-busting, authorial heroine! They don’t just put Cirque on ice, they create an entire world with a story that has ice and skating at the very center of it. While it does have a tad more kitsch than I might have liked, it’s far less gimmicky than I expected for a show that has to fill much bigger spaces and harder, more structured venues.
Everything is up to Cirque standard in this show, skating (literally) that line between risk and relief. Nowhere than at a Cirque show are you almost as excited about watching an act than you are when it is over. It was a sweaty palm kind of night. The suspense of the stunts is first rate and what I’ve come to expect from Cirque shows with plenty of the requisite audible, “Shut ups!” “No Ways!” “Dudes” and “What’s?” blurted throughout. But, I had to keep reminding myself that what they were accomplishing took it up an additional notch just due to the fact they were doing all of it ON ICE. Juggling… but ON ICE. Balancing on people’s heads… while skating, in skates and… ON ICE. Swinging on a trapeze…in skates… OVER ICE. Running, dancing, pratfalls, flips, handstands all… ON ICE, PEOPLE. There were blades near faces y’all. They may make it look effortless, but I’m certainly never of the opinion that it is. If Olympic skaters can fall in a 4 minute routine with 1 -2 people on the ice, how is it that 40+ seem flawless over the course of 2 hours with any number of death-defying stunts occurring as a cornucopia of Timberlakean Superbowlery simultaneously blows it up technically. To be frank, how the exquisitely beautiful sets pieces get moved around safely is a show worthy of one’s attention and respect all on its own. Just that could make the show and I’d be fine. Okay, okay, full disclosure, exquisitely beautiful set pieces moving AND Khal Drogo’s younger, less-dead-but-just-as-shirtless-younger-brother, on a trapeze in the second act executing some flawless feats of strength and grace with his partner. Let’s make sure we keep that part too. Forget Jagger, his moves were bold, unexpected and previously unseen despite nearly a dozen cirque shows under my belt. And, ON ICE. I even forgave him for his man bun, it was that awesome.
As with every cirque show, they pace it well, mixing frenetic, over stimulating, chaotic speed with slower, more gentle acts, and it’s typically these “slower” acts that I find less compelling. Between the gravity defying feats and slapstick clowning, there are a few numbers that highlight skating (the non-hockey kind) and it was in these moments I felt the music REALLY saved it for me. A mix of 4 ethereal, covered pop songs and the kind of transformative, international, ambient original live score (sometimes even played over orchestral and vocal tracks) that we’ve come to know and love from Cirque, had me head bobbing and top tapping throughout. I actually looked up the album on iTunes (no dice) thinking it would be a great score to write, drive and/or fall asleep to.
The musicians too were TOP notch, nimbly moving from style to style and also executing skating moves. Yes, they were all skating. I mean come on, MUSICIANS ON ICE YOU GUYS! All four of the live musicians were extremely talented and entertaining, though I had a definite soft spot for the violinist; an impeccable performer in every sense of the word. He easily navigated duets with piano, clarinet and electric guitar as well as killed it on a variety of solos.
Sound mixing is extremely difficult and doubly so in an arena setting. Engineering it was an enormous challenge and while the volume and balance of the music components were overall excellent, there were spots of the spoken narrative that were unintelligibly garbled from where I sat. In the end I don’t think I lost too much and in some ways the audible narrative (what I could hear clearly at least) seemed to undermine the typically abstract and more interpretative storyline present in a normal cirque experience; almost spelling it out and dumbing it down perhaps in an attempt to make it a bit more accessible. No biggie one way or the other, but a noticeable misstep in my opinion.
Cirque has always been on the forefront of using, customizing and in some instances creating great tech to tell the best story in the best way. There’s some pretty stunning geekery in this show and while being treated to a special post show talk back, I acquired some most excellent nerd insights or nerdsights, one of which was a crash course in a spotlight tracking system called BlackTrax (so effing cool). With an already exceptional use of lights and projections (28 serious projectors I might add) mapping out complex and gorgeous luminous illusions on a scale of such magnitude that my jaw hurts from all the dropping, gasping and smiling, this behind the scenes look at something that addresses my own geek needs, was especially lovely.
I imagine a lot of “problems” arise during the creative construction of a show like this and how thinking big poses many challenges. The refusal to settle for anything less than the vision of your imagination is something Cirque does impeccably, and I wish a lot more industries and individuals would adopt it. We’re in an age where impossible is virtually nonexistent and limitations are only a matter of time and money. It’s to the organizations credit that they find or make a way to achieve the highest caliber, most magical result. So much of that magic making tech is invisible to an audience (intentionally so) and I admire the show all the more for the many moving parts we don’t necessarily realize are moving or were moved to make the finished experience.
Nerdsight bonus – one of the lead skaters was accepted into Engineering School at NYU and got the CRYSTAL cirque gig the same week. She chose to run away to the ice circus, because she freaking could. I love the message that clandestine tidbit sends and the fact that it embodies that layered, collaborative crossover at the core of cirque.
I think those who sing the praises of the figure skating blade will particularly enjoy this production, and those who’s adoration for skating revolves around a crush on SJ Sharkie will still be impressed and entertained with CRYSTAL. Splurge for the center floor section seats if you can (Section 105-109, rows 3 -20 are brilliant!) Bring a sweater, get to your seat at least 20 minutes early and see this show before it closes. 2018 has started off pretty rotten for me on a personal level, and these types of restorative, beautiful experiences, exceptional examples of what humans can achieve when they work together, take on a particularly sweet, scintillating sheen especially when contrasted against those dark shadows. A well-deserved 4 1/2 sparkling jewels out of 5 in the review tiara, for a superbly done, highly entertaining, high-tech spectacle… ON ICE. Cirque du Soleil’s CRYSTAL plays only through this Sunday, April 1, 2018 at the SAP Center in Downtown San Jose.