Cirque Du Soleil: Varekai – Review – Leeds Arena
By Barney Bardsley, February 2017
Cirque du Soleil is less of a circus, more of a cultural phenomenon. Starting out in 1984, with 20 street performers in a small town near Quebec – does everything quirky and cool originate in Canada? – it has grown into an international institution, with 4,000 employees, and 1,300 performing artists now working its shows, in 50 countries around the world.
For when the circus juggernauts into town – its trailers stacking up end to end this week, in the city streets around Leeds Arena – then the people are drawn from every direction, like moths to a bright, bright flame.
Cirque du Soleil is all about colour and bravura – and the astounding possibilities of the human body, in movement and in flight. Varekai, its 2002 production, currently touring the UK, is a glowing example.
Varekai means ‘wherever’ in the Romany language, and is billed as an “acrobatic tribute to the nomadic soul”. Indeed, it is packed full of loud music, commanding vocals, high flying aerialists, sinuous, floor-based gymnastics – and a liberal dollop of clowning, to help the whole thing go with a laugh and a swing. And just enough chaos lurks beneath the well-oiled machine, to allow the “nomadic soul” to be called forth, in spectator and performer alike.
“Pure, unadulterated spectacle”
There is some notion of a storyline in Varekai, at least to begin with. The wounded, angelic figure of Icarus falls to earth – where he stumbles among strange and miraculous creatures, from jungle and swamp and ocean, before finally meeting his beloved, and realising he needs his wings no longer… Love is here on the ground.
But honestly, Cirque du Soleil has very little concern with narrative: it is pure, unadulterated spectacle. And it is breathtakingly good. The circus is reknowned for its top class athleticism, and none of this fails to impress. But the real magic comes, when physical prowess and the simple “wow” factor, are transcended by moments of sheer artistry.
This happens early on in Varekai, in the ‘Fall of Icarus’ sequence, when our wounded angel, played by Puerto Rican artist Fernando Miro, loses his wings and is swept up to the sky in a white mesh net, and proceeds to twist and turn and leap and swoop through the air, trying to escape his captivity, with a grace so consummate it felt like the visitation of some strange spirit, as well as the immaculate art of a truly gifted performer.
It has always been a human wish – to escape the earth, to fly like a bird. For a few heartstopping moments in a blockbuster two hour show, it really felt as if this were about to happen. And it was an unforgettable experience.