Cirque du Soleil’s ice show Crystal is in Chicago for a scant three days (Nov.16-19 at Sears Arena in Hoffman Estates) before they roll up the ice and head off to their next town. It is perhaps as much a breakthrough experience for the main character Crystal, who falls through a frozen pond to find herself in an Alice in Wonderland-ish world, as it is for Cirque du Soleil, which is trying something completely new with their first-ever circus/ice skating show. The end result is a remarkable, crystalline gem of movement, music and ice-breaking work.
Crystal is an artistic daydreamer who doesn’t fit the flow at home and school. In her fantasy, she skates herself into an alternate reality where everything is slightly familiar, but just as nonsensical for her as her other reality just on the other side of the ice. What the story line lacks in nuance, it makes up for in youthful ebullience and romance as a classic coming-of-age story. Although, as is often the case with circus, the thin plot and the simplistic characters are more of a device to hold the various acts together than a comprehensive story, it hardly seems to matter, because of the charming ability Cirque du Soleil has perfected of pairing drama with action and artistry in just the right ratio to make us feel for the main character—in this case as she goes through the simple motions of rejecting mundane life before inevitably realizing she has to grow up and can still maintain her original spark. Add to this the flowing medium of ice and it only improves the emotional impact of the performances. Bonus, it also allows for pleasant audience/clown snowball fights, which were delivered by the quintessential clown Nathan Cooper as he warmed up the audience before the action started.
The acrobatics in the show were original, crossing genres and apparatus and often inspiring gasps and spontaneous applause. For example, in a twist on Chinese Pole and Russian Swing, several acrobats swung to and fro, gaining momentum until they flipped through the air across the ice to land on an air mattress held aloft by their skating brethren. Abstract dance choreography was cleverly woven throughout the show and often used to shuffle the main character through her upside-down world, and to pull her into interactions with the other characters in their solo acts. Another example of the coalescence of aerial to ice acts was Ballroom, an aerial strap number where Crystal skates around and is sometimes swept up into the air by her spinning suitor (Jerome Sordillon, France) and Reflections Clump, a hand-to-trapeze act by Crystal (this time played by the fluid powerhouse trapeze artist Emily McCarthy, UK).
Thanks due in large part to the vision of director Shana Carroll (7 Fingers), the show shines in its ensemble work, which was highlighted frequently and seemed to flow seamlessly between ice and circus, almost always blending the two until they were difficult to distinguish from each other. Jugglers skate, trapeze artists flow from the ground to the sky, ice skaters run up and down stairs, breakdance, skateboard, flip and tap dance on the ice. No less stunning is the sound track, which seems to follow no rules and veers from live klezmer music, to Irish music and back to contemporary techno style music—all suited simply to fit the energy and tone of the scene at hand. Projections were also a key element in the overall production value of the show, although their use was sometimes heavy handed, as with the narration from the character of Crystal, which was grating. The projections on the ice themselves were often gorgeous and subtle and added to the overall sense of wonder.
Clearly, Cirque du Soleil was willing to experiment with this new art-form hybrid and it is a good thing they did, thereby proving that ice shows do not have to be cartoon remakes, but they too can cut in to the dynamic territory of contemporary circus—an art that is known to play well with the other arts. The evening ended with a standing ovation as the cast jubilantly cut up some ice in their final number, Breakthrough, the scene where Crystal returns to reality. Though her dream of the upside-down world imparts much about the absurdity of human ways, and insight into her own character, it is the show’s entire cast that reveals the magic humans are capable of when working together to make something beautiful.
Tickets start at $30 and the show runs for just three more nights!