Judge Steve Evans isn't afraid of clowns, but contortionists give him the howling fantods.
Our reviews of Cirque Du Soleil: Corteo (published April 24th, 2006), Cirque Du Soleil: Fire Within (published January 18th, 2005), Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man (Blu-ray) (published June 18th, 2011), Cirque Du Soleil: La Nouba (published January 18th, 2005), Cirque Du Soleil: Midnight Sun (published March 21st, 2006), Cirque du Soleil: Solstrom: The Complete Series (published September 21st, 2005), and Cirque Du Soleil: Corteo (Blu-Ray) (published September 23rd, 2008) are also available.
"Let's dress up and put on a show."
Cirque du Soleil celebrates two decades of acrobatic magic in this 12-disc retrospective of the troupe's finest performances throughout the world. Hours of charming entertainment wait inside this boxed set, brimming with wondrous feats of acrobatics, athletics, dance, contortion, and sly street performance, presented with stellar production values. Cirque enthusiasts will notice that the Canada-based troupe began in 1984 with relatively simple shows. But with rapid financial success, the group's performances soon evolved into elaborate events with stunning stage designs, pyrotechnics, incredible light shows, and other special effects to complement the gravity-defying acrobatics.
Describing the varied acts may be an exercise in futility, rather like dissecting a butterfly in an attempt to understand its beauty. Better to let each performance unfold before fresh eyes. Like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Cirque show is essentially a nonverbal experience. Viewers who approach these performances as mood pieces can expect an evening of superb entertainment.
That said, as with other Cirque DVD collections on the market, this set plays best when savored over time, in measured doses. Yes, exciting as these shows can be, a little Soleil goes a long way.
This big box of 12 DVDs contains nearly 16 hours of programming. Bonus features are spread across the collection rather than confined to one disc.
Most of the shows are presented in widescreen anamorphically-enhanced video with aspect ratios ranging from 1.85:1 to 1.78:1, while the earliest performances are presented full frame. The first four shows in the set (through 1992) are full frame with Dolby 2.0 stereo. Going forward, all of the programs except A Baroque Odyssey (1994) were recorded in Dolby surround, either 5.1 or 5.0. Video is impeccable, with uniformly crisp cinematography. Some of the performances are presented in high definition, delivering deep blacks with no noticeable artifacts or annoying pixilation. The box is expensive, but the quality is undeniable.
Subtitle choices vary across the 12 discs in the box, but usually include English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Some performances also offer subtitles in Thai and Korean. Still, these language options are all rather moot, as Cirque du Soleil from its inception has been a sensory experience that requires no translation. Perhaps that is part of the group's enduring appeal. The Cirque message roams free of language barriers to reach directly into our minds and hearts.
The set opens with La Magie Continue, Cirque's sophomore outing in 1986. This 50-minute show provides proof positive that the initial rave reviews were no fluke. Clearly, here was a performance troupe whose talents would soon impress the world while breathing new life into formerly rigid concepts of what a circus should be. The following year saw the world tour of Cirque Réinventé. A passion to reinvent the circus resulted in a 1987 Emmy® for that televised production.
Nouvelle Expérience followed in 1991, featuring eye-popping contortionists, seemingly magical acrobatics, and internationally-flavored set pieces such as the Korean Plank and Russian Bar.
In 1992, Cirque presented Saltimbanco, intended as "an antidote to the violence and despair typical of the 20th century." The 78-minute show is a kaleidoscope of color and light, centered on gravity-defying stunts that stretch imagination.
Two years later, Cirque du Soleil performed Alegria to an appreciative audience in Sydney, Australia. "What if anything were possible?" the troupe wondered, then answered their own question by transforming kings into clowns, by changing the old into youths. Bonus features on this disc include a behind-the-scenes featurette, multi-angle viewing options, and talent interviews.
By 1994, Cirque was ready for a 10-year retrospective that resulted in A Baroque Odyssey, which is essentially a 56-minute fullscreen documentary of the troupe's greatest work. There are some interesting reminiscences, but greater wonders are yet to come.
Quidam followed in 1996. Here, the Cirque performances begin to reflect a deeper thematic concern—beyond the perfectly noble desire to entertain an audience. The show blends performance and technology into the fable of a young girl who has seen everything the world has to offer and despairs of finding any meaning in her life. Only through her anger does she break through to the universe of Quidam, where anything is possible and everything is potentially dangerous. Quidam is a rallying cry against the danger of complacency during our fleeting existence. Bonus features include Cirque promos and production notes.
La Nouba took Cirque to Walt Disney World in Florida for a 1998 gig captured in high definition video. Billed as "a waking dream," La Nouba derives from the French expression "faire la nouba," which means to live it up. The 90-minute performance features raucous clowns, ballerinas, and an astonishing set-piece featuring BMX bicycle stunts.
Dralion represented a shift for Cirque, as the troupe in 1999 developed a fusion of their own talents with ancient Chinese circus traditions to create a show both spectacular in performance and stunning in design. The costumes alone are worth the price of admission. The 89-minute program includes a making-of featurette that takes viewers backstage for a fascinating glimpse at how these elaborate productions come together.
That same year also saw the production and release of the 39-minute IMAX film, Journey of Man. This set chronicles the stages of human development, from birth through maturity, with each phase represented by a Cirque act. Presented in full frame, an opening explosion of light and sound signifies the creation of the universe, setting the tone for a luxurious sensory indulgence that feels much too brief.
Varekai followed in 2002. Filmed in hi-def before a live audience in Toronto, at 115 minutes this is the longest program in the set. A young man parachutes into the magical world of Varekai, situated at the base of a volcano. There he encounters a riot of phantasmagorical creatures. Extras on this disc include a multi-angle feature that lets the viewer follow the performance from several stage positions—very cool.
Midnight Sun from 2004 closes out the set. Filmed live in one night at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, Cirque presented a mind-blowing fusion of music and circus performance before 200,000 spectators. This show includes almost every aspect of the Cirque du Soleil mystique, from surreal costumes and makeup, to stunning acts of acrobatic magic. The contortionists always make an impression with their ability to astonish (and occasionally induce a bit of nausea) by twisting their bodies into unnatural positions. A glorious finale is nearly topped by the encore. The performers, exhausted, bask in the adulation of a massive, adoring audience. Extras include a photo gallery and featurette.
The pricey box (suggested retail runs north of $135) also includes a set of 5x7 mini-posters featuring artwork from each of the shows in this collection. Minor quibble: While the individual DVDs are packaged in slimline cases, thereby conserving shelf space, the set itself fits within a rather flimsy cardboard sleeve. For the price, collectors could reasonably expect a sturdier box to contain the full set of discs. But the quality of those discs is simply unimpeachable. Cirque fans (and they are legion) should not hesitate to add this box to their collection. Although not an exhaustive catalogue of Cirque performances, this set includes most of their best work through the years.
Curious and casual viewers might do well to explore one of the many smaller box sets of Cirque performances before investing in this mammoth anniversary package. Cirque du Soleil: Solstrom: The Complete Series, which is equally enchanting and more reasonably priced, is a good place to start.
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