Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Crystal.’ (Photo: Matt Beard)
By Jim Gladstone
In the wake of the Winter Olympics, the arrival of Disney’s Frozen on Broadway, and Alison Janney’s winning the gold as Tanya Harding’s own Mama (F)Rose, Cirque du Soleil is now on tour with a refreshing new approach its trademark stagecraft in Crystal: A Breakthrough Ice Experience.
Seen at the SAP Center in San Jose, California earlier this week—with local legend Kristi Yamaguchi in the audience—Crystal introduced a welcome new element to Cirque du Soleil’s now familiar acrobatic extravaganzas.
While the company’s recent touring tent shows Kurious and Luzia have leveraged steampunk and Mexican aesthetics to gussy up its core specialties—tumbling, aerial acts, hand-balancing, contortion, juggling—even the most fantastic visual design (or the borrowed interest of Michael Jackson or Avatar themed productions) can’t quite overcome the inevitable sense of déjà vu that begins to creep up on repeat attendees.
It was 20 years ago that Cirque du Soleil added water to its traditional mix and created the reputation-crowning production, O—still running at Las Vegas’ Bellagio. It’s almost surprising that an icebound iteration took this long to arrive. In any case, Cirque on the rocks proves a potent concoction, capable of leaving even ooohed-there, ahhhed-that aficionados newly tipsy with pleasure.
Crystal adds an exciting array of skating-based performance specialties to the Cirque repertoire: speed skaters take big air, leaping from ramp to ramp; figure skating pairs perform intricate pas de deux; and rather than featuring two-person teams, ice dancing incorporates a veritable corps de ballet, at times filling the entire rink with color and motion.
There’s also an amped-up degree of difficulty when circus staples take to skates: juggling, balancing, and even playing instruments seem to pose far more of a challenge—and reveal far more complicated skill sets— in Crystal than in prior productions. The Crystal troupe’s skating violinist (Stepan Grytsay) and clarinet player (Camilo Motta) are elegant, gliding grace notes throughout the production.
Among the show’s highlights are moments that integrate the fresh and the familiar. An airborne strap acrobat appears all the more elegant when mirrored, with remarkable precision, by a skater below. And when overlapping skill sets allow a performer to release her grip on a descending trapeze, then exquisitely extend her motion by skating across the ice, witnessing it feels like a privilege.
Because the hockey arenas that Crystal is touring have surrounding raked seating, the entire rink becomes a gleaming canvas for lighting designer Éric Champoux and video designer Johnny Ranger, who make the most of the opportunity. During one act, an acrobat dangles from the ceiling while aerial footage of city rooftops is projected onto the ice and skaters with surreal, cloud-like headgear drift across the middleground. The ingenuity of the stagecraft rivals anything to be found in a Broadway musical.
Music and book, on the other hand, remain a perpetual Cirque du Soleil weak spot (Save for the Michael Jackson and Beatles themed shows in Las Vegas). The original score here—by Maxim Lepage—delightfully integrates Celtic and klezmer sounds, but the decision to shoehorn recorded cover versions of hits by Sia, U2 and Beyonce into the proceedings feels craven, not creative.
And the vague outline of a plot—a misunderstood girl flees her annoying parents and schoolmates and falls through the ice on a frozen pond, only to find herself in… well… a Cirque du Soleil ice show. This, of course, provides her with a transformative personal journey toward confidence and self-acceptance. “Crystal” is the lead character’s name, but it also seems like a nod toward the hippie-dippy New Age nonsense that Cirque du Soleil should really give up on already.
Quibbles—and dramatic overreach—aside, Crystal excels as a quiescently frozen confection for audiences of all ages. The show sparkles with fresh energy and imagination. Even if you’ve grown Cirque du Soleil-blasé in recent years, this one will give you the chills.
Crystal (select upcoming cities)
Portland, Oregon: April 4-8
Spokane, WA: May 2-6
Youngstown, OH: June 27-July 1
Jim Gladstone is the theater critic for San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter and a freelance creative consultant.