Toyota Center through Sunday
By JOHN DeMERS
Yes, as I remember well, The Beatles created the original notion of the “Magical Mystery Tour.” But I’ve always thought the words applied perfectly to anything and everything I’ve seen produced by Cirque de Soleil.
Somewhere in the middle of every act, every illusion, every remarkably bizarre skill on display in a Cirque de Soleil performance (including the production of Saltimbanco at Houston’s Toyota Center), there’s a basic circus trick developed in Europe or Asia over many generations. But Cirque de Soleil generally does two things with that trick. 1. It performs it better, more complicatedly and probably at a higher speed than you’ve ever seen it before. And 2. It surrounds the physical action with enough costumes, makeup, lighting and mythology that it seems to take on the deepest (if most ambiguous) of meanings. Thus, every show put on by the Canada-based troupe really is a Magical Mystery Tour.
The Saltimbanco visiting Houston after a whistle stop in Cypress is something of a first for Cirque de Soleil – or at least a first for Houston. In Las Vegas and handful of other high-end casino destinations around the country, Cirque has created shows within a defined permanent space. But as far as Houston has been concerned, Cirque de Soleil was a show in a tent. Well, not just a tent, mind you, but a solid blue-and-yellow fantasy that appeared overnight in fields and parking lots, wherever the producers could find to put it. The tent was, for all lovers of Cirque de Soleil, an essential part of the show. At the very least, it was a “pre-show” in the Disney sense, a clear announcement that we were passing from one level of experience to another. Perhaps at a level we’d never experienced before.
This is not to say Toyota Center does a poor job of hosting Saltimbanco – quite the contrary. Any venue that can host Madonna in the past and Britney Spears in the future can host Cirque de Soleil. In fact, from a production standpoint, the shows probably aren’t all that different. It’s simply a matter of seeing magic in a place most in the audience have been before – surely for a Rockets game, if for nothing else – held up against seeing magic in a place explicitly designed to seem magical. Perhaps the “arena show” Cirque de Soleil is the version of the future. I will always be there, but they can’t make me like it.
Also, unlike other Cirque shows in memory, Saltimbanco lacks a storyline, or at least a theme. These storylines were always purposely vague – except maybe for Corteo, in which a man who’s dying revisits the people and places in his life, to discover (of course) the magic and meaning he’d missed the first time around. As best we can tell, Saltimbanco carries no such storyline. It’s simply an excuse for a company of amazingly talented and almost universally buff men and women to do things we can’t imagine humans being able to do. They do these things, as always with Cirque de Soleil, to live music, including one or more operatic-ish singers performing in a tangled language unknown to mortal man. Someone should do a study of this “Cirque language” someday – and count just how many versions of the word “dream” turn up. Any song that talks about il sogno and le reve in the same sentence must be, well, pretty dreamy.
Considerable magic weaves its way in and around the live music and the endearing efforts of an Italian-style clown/mime (Amo Gulinello) to make us laugh till we cry. He is especially effective in ACT I as a man who gets stuck in a restroom stall as it fills till the water’s above his head. Other Saltimbanco highlights include juggler Terry Velasquez (who handles more balls more quickly from more directions than can possibly be good for him), “boleadoras” Elisabetta La Commare and Luis Lopez (who use South American bolas in ways no Texas cowboy who values his masculinity would ever dare swing a rope) and the two-man muscle act called simply Hand-to-Hand. In this excruciatingly slow showcase of physical skill and strength, two men lift and turn and extend each other’s full weights in a kind of ultra-macho yet beautiful pas de deux.
Photo of Chinese Poles: Olivier Samson Arcand