Unlike New Coke or Sprite Remix, Cirque du Soleil improves on its original without losing the essence of what made it great.
Dralion contains all the expected circus elements: clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists -- but with unexpected twists. The air-conditioned Grand Chapiteau is a far cry from most sawdust-laden, bleacher-filled Big Tops: the seats are comfortable and the tent has enough lighting, hydraulic and electrical equipment to match any current Broadway production. But this is not Broadway or avant-garde theater -- it's performance art, gymnastics, rock concert and athletic competition rolled into an uncategorizable event. Even the clowns are not quite what you'd expect ("it doesn't look like your ordinary clown," a young voice commented next to me). Wearing no white-face makeup and speaking no English, the clowns were nonetheless completely understandable (some humor is universal) and began the show in a fairly traditional way -- heckling the audience and providing broad physical comedy.
The clown act transitions seamlessly into the show. Each traditional circus act, outstanding in its own right, is surrounded by spectacular costumes, accompanied by live music and extensively choreographed. Most remarkable of all the excellent individual performances is Victor Kee's juggling -- working up from three to seven balls, he displays amazing body control and clever new versions of traditional tricks. The musicians create a collage of world beats, from Euro-pop jazz to a Latin-influenced guitar piece to a hint of bagpipes. Perhaps the most bizarrely satisfying confluence of musical styles and cultural performance comes when Chinese drum players join the band in what I can only describe as a techno-hoedown while performers wearing "dralion" (combination dragon and lion) costumes do acrobatics on a large ball. This is mind-blowing multiculturalism.
Thought-provoking images often follow each other with no time for contemplation. A silly clown duel ends with a bizarrely sorrowful ascension of the dead clown to the heavens, followed by an eerie ballet where the female partners float through air, suspended from strings and manipulated by black-clad male dancers like inverted puppeteers. This gives rise to a haunting aerial pas de deux performed by Colette Morrow and Igor Arefiev. Their languorous dance is the most traditionally theatrical part of the production, using the characters and plot of a love story. Whether suspended by flowing purple sashes and moving together in a breath-taking coupling in the air or rolling in the fabric on the ground, their compelling performances held us spellbound.
The finale proved again why Cirque du Soleil can charge such high prices for their product: where else can you see jump-roping turned into a highly athletic and aesthetic event? This is not playground activity -- this is one-hand jumping, whole-body jumping, human-pyramid jumping amazement.
It's emblematic that Cirque de Soleil invented its own language for the vocal accompaniment to the show, given their creation of a new performance genre. The production is filled with enough symbolism to satisfy the most meaning-hungry audience member: elemental characters represent earth, wind, fire and water (or possibly four landmasses: Asia, Africa, India and Europe) -- but you don't really need to think about any of that to enjoy the production. Dralion succeeds because it amazes and surprises in satisfying combinations, creating its own world of wonder, peopled by outstanding creative artists from around the globe.