Nearly 20 years ago I entered LasVegas' Treasure Island casino and was transported. There, embraced in the mystical world of Mystère, I had my first inspirational encounter with the European-style surrealist spectacle known as Cirque du Soleil.From that first hallucinatory experience, I still vividly remember the swirling music, imaginative costumes, eye-popping effects and the breathtaking acrobatics.
What I can't honestly recall is any of the dancing. I'm certain there was choreography, but dance wasn't the focus of those early Cirque productions. I saw O to ogle the waterlogged set and revisited La Nouba for the fairy-tale characters, like the Green Bird and the Cleaning Lady. Dancing was always present in these performances, but as a background element supporting the stunts and slapstick.
That changed when I saw Cirque's Beatles-based LOVE at Vegas' Mirage in 2007. For the first time, sophisticated and passionate dancing was a co-equal element with comic clowning and aerial feats, blurring the line between the choreographic and circus arts. In the dozen shows Cirque has debuted since then, dance has played an increasingly important role, the currently touring Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour being the most prominent example of Cirque's shifting balance between circus skills and choreography.
Despite a few missteps – Presley tribute Viva Elvis is shuttering soon due to slow sales – Cirque's integration of classical and modern dance elements is here to stay. Perhaps this aesthetic evolution can be traced back to (or illuminated by) an experiment inaugurated in 2007. That was the year Cirque's Vegas outpost first engaged with the Nevada Ballet Theatre to present A Choreographers' Showcase. The partnership, which yielded a fourth presentation last April, has produced popularly and critically acclaimed events that stretch the artistic boundaries of both companies.
Orlando has long dueled with Las Vegas over tourism-oriented arts. For much of the 1990s, Vegas tried to ape us by adding theme parks and other family-friendly attractions. That effort reversed around the turn of the millennium, as Nevada's amusements were eradicated (like MGM's Grand Adventures theme park and Hilton's Star Trek simulators) and Florida's convention-driven market flocked to Vegas-style upscale dining (Wolfgang Puck, Emeril's) and shows (Cirque, Blue Man Group).
So it was satisfying but not surprising to see Cirque's dance showcase imported from the desert. On Monday, March 12, members of that company joined forces with Orlando Ballet for the second time in our own Choreographers' Showcase, subtitled "A Project Designed to Stimulate and Encourage Artistic Growth." This powerhouse pairing pulled a near-sellout crowd, overwhelming Cirque's facilities as ticket-seekers wrapped a quarter of the way around their Downtown Disney theater. Those $15 tickets ($25 for VIP seating) didn't just secure seats at a spectacle; 100 percent of the proceeds supported the Ballet's STEPS (Scholarship Training for the Enrichment of Primary Students) after-school program, which provides "at-risk" children with an opportunity to experience the positive benefits of performing arts through free dance classes.
As the Ballet's artistic director, Robert Hill, mentioned in his opening remarks (delivered alongside La Nouba's artistic director, Daniel Ross), this program was more of an experimental work in progress than a finished product. Nevertheless, Hill assured the audience that "considerable time and attention" was put into the evening by performers and choreographers from both companies, all of whom donated their time and talents. Indeed, the technical elements (bold lighting, powerful sound) were stunning, and several of the night's nine routines were inspiring in their blend of disciplines. "Prayer" (co-choreographed by Cirque's Yusuke Funaki and the Ballet's Chiaki Yasukawa) was a particular highlight, combining athletic movement with striking shadow puppetry. In "Runaway," Cirque's Ana Cuellar and Cheryl Ann Sanders stripped the surface of La Nouba's aforementioned Cleaning Lady character, revealing that you don't have to wear size zero to be a graceful dancer. And the audience ate up the show-closing "Swan Puddle," the Ballet's Anamarie McGinn's funny, self-mocking parody of their upcoming "Black Swan/White Swan."
I wish I could stop there, with a noble cause and appreciative attendees. But I'd be remiss not to mention the skill-level mismatch between these otherwise sympathetic organizations. Cirque's performers did an exceptional job emulating classical choreography, demonstrating the depth of their cross-training, but except for a few aerial stunts, they had little opportunity to share their unique skills. Conversely, Ballet members looked competent within their own idiom, but were awkward in ethnic or modern genres. Comic moments made clear that dancers are not clowns, while a couple of contemporary pieces felt uncomfortably like So You Think You Can Dance outtakes. If this partnership continues, I'd love to see Cirque elevate the Ballet, instead of simply dropping down to earth with them.