For over two decades, Cirque du Soleil has made a living by gussying up the circus, leaning on their French-Canadian roots to transform the American big top into their more pronounced “grand chapiteau.” The steampunk aesthetic of Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosity provides a clear and winning way in which to wring magic from the old, and features several stunning illusions, many of which—like a whimsical cardboard cutout of a train that weaves through the aisles before chugging onto the stage as an elaborate, gigantic costume—seem like a live-action homage to Georges Méliès.
Perhaps you’ve seen a cradle act before, where a strongman attaches himself to a central frame and proceeds to essentially serve as the trapeze bar for his swinging partner; here, the magic is enhanced by the way in which the set unfolds around Roman and Olena Tereshchenko as if they were the stars of a pop-up book. Any circus or gymnastic enthusiast has surely watched a dazzling athlete on the rings, but in Kurios those rings are the wheels of a bicycle, which allows Anne Weissbecker not only to hang in a wider variety of poses, but to playfully ride the contraption as it swings around the circumference of the stage. It’s not unusual to see contortionists working in unison to make complicated figures, but those poses are shown in a new light as Imin Tsydendambaeva, Bayarma Zodboeva, Ayagma Tsybenova, and Serchmaa Bayarsaikhan rise from an iron gauntlet like squiggling fingers.
Nowhere, however, is the conventional made more unconventional than by Facundo Gimenez’s so-called Invisible Circus, a thing “you’ve never seen before and will never see.” On a miniature and elaborately wired model of a traditional circus, the Argentine-born clown goes about narrating and sometimes miming the actions of five classic acts. It’s pure imagination as much as pure clowning, and when his lion-taming act goes awry, audience members nonetheless leapt back in their seats at the nonsensical non-sight of the lion coming their way. Another transformation of the familiar occurs late in the second act, as hand puppeteer Nico Baixas utilizes a video camera and his own nimble digits to take viewers on an unexpected adventure.
Given these new twists on old curios, it’s a bit disappointing that Kurios still relies so heavily on uninspired mainstays like the banquine (human springboard) and aerial straps. That’s not meant to insult the impressive acrobatics of those acts, or of the high-flying dead drops of the so-called acronet (super trampoline), but they’re likely to feel too familiar, especially to longtime fans. In the new world of the storytelling circus that Cirque du Soleil helped pioneer, it isn’t enough to simply feature Chih-Min Tuan’s gravity-defying yo-yo skills: Without an aesthetic attachment to the rest of the show, the presentation feels cheap and unfinished. By comparison, Gabriel Beaudoin’s juggling is literally elevated by the safety harness that suspends him and his three pins high above the stage.
At its most stunning, Kurios seamlessly combines its steampunk stagecraft with its performers’ technical feats, all while finding new variations on a familiar formula. In the traditional rola bola, James Eulises Gonzalez Correa would simply place his balancing board atop an increasing number of rolling cylinders. Here, he begins by aviating onto the stage aboard a small, old-fashioned propeller plane, seemingly conjured out of thin air by the flickering light of a film projector. This aircraft then unfurls into his set, on which he performs a three-tier balancing act, standing on a board perched on a cylinder riding atop a swing precariously positioned in mid-air.
Such breathtaking one-upmanship is matched by only one other piece, the so-called Upside Down Diner. As with the rola bola, this performance starts simply enough, as Andrii Bondarenko steadily stacks chairs atop a table, attempting to reach a faulty chandelier. Just as he nears it, it floats out of reach toward the table’s mirror image; no longer is this a mere balancing act, but an inspired illusion in which two teetering towers converge toward the middle of the theater. It’s the perfect visualization of the defining line between a performer and an artist, the sort of curiosity that kills anyone doubting the staying power of the circus.
See Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities at Randall’s Island, New York through November 27.