Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana: The Summer’s Great Stage Show

With the official premiere of its new show, 'Zarkana,' Cirque du Soleil has finally found its ideal home: New York City's Radio City Music Hall

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Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images

A preview of Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on May 24, 2011

Since its inception in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has taken its intoxicating mix of acrobatics and theatrics around the world. The Montreal-based troupe has staged tent shows in every major North American city, traveled Europe and Asia and built permanent shows — all-time marvels like O and — in Las Vegas, Orlando, Tokyo and Macau. This week, with the official premiere of its new show, Zarkana, Cirque has finally found its ideal home: New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.

The Art Deco cavern-cathedral, designed by Edward Durrell Stone and decorated by Donald Deskey for its opening in 1932, is a wonder even when it’s empty. But fill its 144-ft.-wide (44 m) stage with 70 elastic performers and a panoply of oversize theatrical and video effects — and pack the hall’s 6,000 seats with gaping visitors — and you have the perfect union of site and spectacle.

(See TIME’s review of Cirque du Soleil’s Koozå show.)

On either side of the stage, two Pierrots pound plangent chords at the “Mighty Wurlitzer” organs, out of which sprouts metal piping, fancifully twisted like a Ted Geisel Seussaphone. Then the show begins, and behind the radiated arches of the hall’s proscenium we see the two interior arches that Cirque’s Stéphane Roy has designed to frame this episodic fairy tale. The frames’ ornamentation suggests winding tree rots at one moment, writhing snakes at another. And soon the stage is peopled with dozens of brightly plumed figures (costumes by Alan Hranitelj) in a teeming rain forest, a Noah’s Zarkana of exotic creatures. Later, five men holding umbrellas will ascend at a stately pace, but upside down, from the floor to the flies, like a Magritte painting in seductive slow motion. The message to the audience: abandon all laws of physics and probability, and surrender to the gorgeously alien planet of Cirque.

Written and directed by François Girard, whose movie work includes Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, the new show purports to have a plot. I quote from the Zarkana website: “The story follows Zark [Garou], a magician who has lost his powers, and the love of his life, in an abandoned theatre populated by a motley collection of off-the-wall characters and incomparable acrobats. He runs into the Mutants, four sirens as sinister as they are fabulous, who are determined to divert him from his quest.” It’s not essential to know what Girard thinks is going on — which is just as well, since anyone who is not a mind reader or a member of the crew won’t get the narrative drift — because this, like virtually all Cirque spectacles, is a series of acrobatic feats encased in heavy Euro-pop music and elevated by sumptuous theatrical mystification.

(See TIME’s review of Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis show.)

In that sense, Zarkana is a more sprightly sibling to the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. In the early stages of that show’s elephantine birth agonies, director Julie Taymor was trying to duplicate the surreal grandeur and technical legerdemain of a Cirque Vegas event. (She briefly consulted a few Cirque wizards on the mechanics of flying.) Zarkana boasts a spider woman, in its lead chanteuse Cassiopée, plus mammoth web designs and lots of flying. Nick Littlemore, an Australian protégé of Elton John, provides some sonorously lugubrious pop-opera songs that Garou declaims in a rich rock-star baritone, and which have a smidge more melodic heft than the ones Bono and the Edge composed for Taymor. And whereas her show had the insect goddess Arachne hover over Peter Parker’s travails, Zarkana one-ups Taymor in the creepy-crawly sweepstakes by summoning a legion of snakes to complement its spiders.

Ellen Chen, finger painting in sand on a light table whose images are shown on a large screen above her, opens Act 2 with artful portraits of a spider in its web and a mermaid with a snake’s tail. During one number, Cassiopée, who throughout the evening sports costumes that even Lady Gaga might deem a tad outré, rises slowly above the stage while undulating in a 30-ft.-long (9 m) snake torso. Animated snakes appear to hiss their approval at the climax of one acrobatic display. Back in the arachnophilia department, Zarkana recalls Spider-Man‘s aerial trickery and then tops it by sending one of its clowns soaring on invisible wires 20 rows into and above the audience — just to show how it can be done with grace, humor and no medical bills.

The customers may be sitting in a theater two blocks from Broadway, but they aren’t here to see an improved riff on Spider-Man; they’ve come for the death- and gravity-defying exploits of performers who turn bodily movement into works of kinetic art. Cirque du Soleil is, au fond, a circus, and that includes a clown act — an apparently essential vestige of Cirque’s street-performer days that, in this incarnation, lacks the magical wit of the rest of the show.

(See TIME’s review of Cirque du Soleil’s .)

The other routines in Zarkana fall in the medium-high range of the company’s rich history — and a dazzling trapeze act that may be Cirque’s all-time finest. Di Wu and Jun Guo perform an intense rope duet, she appending glamorously from the thick strand, he swinging the low end of the rope and eventually joining her to form an intimate airborne pas de deux. The trio of Ray, Rony and Rudy Navas Velez prove that a high wire is just the place on which to balance a man, on a chair, on a board, on the shoulders of two other men. Ray and Rudy return in Act 2 to clamber over the Wheel of Death, a pair of humongous wheels held by a steel belt that spin deliriously as the men execute leaps and somersaults like daredevil hamsters. Familiar from Cirque’s and Koozå shows, the act never fails to thrill. On opening night, the Navas Velezes performed flawlessly, as did the rest of the eccentrically, supremely gifted Cirqueans.

On earlier forays into New York City theater venues, the company stubbed its artistic toe: with the kids’ show Wintuk and the vaudeville-style Banana Shpeel. This time, it is back to glorious basics. Zarkana will play eight times a week through Oct. 3, after which it will head for Madrid and Moscow. In its New York City home, it will offer families a grand seasonal treat: the show of the summer in the Showplace of the Nation.