Cirque du Soleil's Varekai at the Edmonton Rexall Place arena
Thursday, June 18, 2015 to Sunday, June 21, 2015

A review by GRAHAM HICKS

There’s nothing quite like a Cirque du Soleil show.

There really isn’t.

Start with the notion of the old-fashioned circus – a series of animal, acrobatic and clowning acts, usually contracted, without any thematic connection other than the clowns  who create the bridges between acts.

Drop the animals, create an overall theme – a story, a narrative, in which each “act”  is a component.

Don’t contract circus performers – hire some 50 of the world’s best acrobats, trapeze artists directly, teach them how to act, teach them to be even better at their craft, and put them into one, big unified show.

Don’t stop there. Make sure you have the best lighting and audio systems to be had, light and sound being just as important to the overall show as the people on stage.  Ditto for mega set-design, other-wordly costumes and props.

Don't stop there. Hire the most versatile, wide-ranging musicians you can find. The music accompanying those in the spotlight is all live,  an eclectic, chaotic but divinely inspired score that somehow fits with what’s being watched.

Don’t stop there.  Bring in the best creative teams on the planet, to create and execute the story, to plan every detail of a show intended to dazzle and delight arena crowds in the 5,000 to 10,000 range.

Which just begins to describe a Cirque du Soleil show.

Which just begins to describe a unique phenomenon, one of the few brand-new art forms of the 20th century that has incredibly found a global audience in the hundreds of millions without “selling out” the art form in any sense of the word.

Varekai, playing at Rexall Place through Sunday, is a quintessential Cirque du Soleil show.

It has a theme – sort-of.  An Icarius-like human (the Greek myth of a youth who makes wings, but flies too close to the sun, melting the wings and plummeting to the earth) falls into a world of exotic creatures speaking their own language. He hangs out rather nicely even though a bad guy has taken his wings, falls in love and then by the end has become some kind of prince.

Whatever – the theme is really nothing more than a device to give the show some shape.  The beauty and the pizzazz of Cirque is in the “circus” performers, exotic creatures all who take turns outdoing each other in breath-taking acrobatic solos or ensembles, all within the rhythms and motions of dance and music.

Just one example of Cirque imagination: You know how those unfortunately individuals with very limited leg mobility use crutches to get around, awkwardly swinging their legs to keep up with the step of the crutches?  In this dance/acrobatic piece, a Cirque performer takes those motions and with extraordinary physical dexterity turns such human weakness into a powerful acrobatic dance.

Another characteristic of a Cirque du Soleil show is pacing.  They are geniuses in knowing when to insert humour, when to lighten or darken the mood.  And the humour always has a bit of Quebecois in it – very physical, very charming, much kidding. One part had the “clown” – not dressed as a clown but in suit and tie – totally unlike the sentient beings usually on stage -  chasing the spotlight to the upper reaches of the arena. Charming and very funny!

What didn’t work in this show were the interactions of the two main characters in the strange swampish world into which Icarius (or whoever) has fallen. One’s a  dumb but harmless fisherman, the other a kind of clown-evil leader.  I suspect they were inspired by Mump and Smoot, the clowns from Hell, but to be frank, they were supremely boring.

Everything else in Varekai deserves all the uncritical acclaim that it will receive.

I know the ticket prices are steep for a family – they start around $60-plus – but it’s worth it.  Your kids should see Cirque du Soleil, should see what the very best of art and popular culture and physicality can do on one stage.