Las Vegas: Circus of the Sun

Alright, it’s been awhile, so here’s a bit about a place I’ve been:

Las Vegas

I’ve been going to Las Vegas since I was a kid. I was a child when Vegas was going through its “No, really! We’re great for families!” phase. White tigers, pirate fights, Nile river boat rides, all good times for a young girl too young to gamble. This was back when the machines gave out real money when you won. Mom was always willing to let me tally her nickels at the end of an evening. When they switched to paper print outs, she literally stopped gambling all together. She said the fun was gone. Though there are still great things for families to do in the City of Sin, the sin has come back in a big way with the advent of giant strip malls on the Strip, and a big nightclub boom.

When people ask me what shows they should see, I always tell them to catch a Cirque du Soleil show. There are other good shows, but Cirque du Soleil is such an unexpected Vegas collaboration. In a way it makes sense – Cirque shows are full of spectacle and special effects. But then it doesn’t – there’s a lot of metaphor and no stripping, two things which tend to appeal to the yard-long margarita crowd. Cirque shows feature classic clowns and mime. Few characters speak English, and there’s a kookiness which runs through productions which I love, but doesn’t seem like it should work in the superficial lies of Las Vegas. Yet they do – enough so that there are several shows to see. Here they are, and here are my thoughts on them. I’m starting at Treasure Island, and working my way along the Strip.

Mystere: Mystere was the first Cirque du Soleil show to come to Vegas, and it is the oldest, located at Treasure Island.  It was my first Cirque show, and after some difficult mental wrestling it remains my favorite.  I think it the best Cirque show because it is more classic Cirque –  no real plot, but a sort of desert theme. The acts – giant cube manipulation, silks, strongmen, Japanese drums (my Dad’s favorite), and bungie acrobats (mine) – all sort of flow into each other. It’s weird and wonderful, and is a great value for the ticket price. My nephew still doesn’t understand why there’s a giant friendly snail that appears out of nowhere, and he gets a kick out of the red bird dancer. Mystere is a show that gets a lot of “oohs” and “aahs!” from the audience, impressive after twenty (!) years of performances.

Love: The first of the “themed” Cirque shows in Vegas, and is located at the Mirage. A celebration of all things Beatles, it combines the symbolism of Cirque with the story of actual people. The result is transcendent. After Mystere, I think Love is my favorite Cirque show. Perhaps it’s because I also love the Beatles, and combining theater with good music is (probably) never a bad idea. Part of what makes Love such a treat is the joy of the production – there is a lot of energy in the performances. I find the costume effects of “Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite” to be especially mind-bending, and there are some cool tech effects as well.  Under all the color and familiar tunes is a rough history. The bombing of London, the trip to India, Beatlemania, and John Lennon’s loss of his mother are all expressed in beautiful musical touchstones. Also, by the end anyone who knows the music is singing along. It’s a show that succeeds in bringing an audience together, provided you’re willing to let go and enjoy.

O: It’s easy to see why O’s tickets are some of the most expensive Cirque tickets. The theater at the Bellagio is massive, and the entire show takes place on/in/over a giant pool of water. I got to go on the O stage during Cirque Week , and it’s squishy like a race track. I was told this is because it the material sheds water quickly, which is essential when the stage is going from submerged to dry and back again. O is a celebration of the aquatic, and so the bulk of the acts involve water – synchronized diving, swimming, high dives, acrobats on raining apparatuses. There are also some fire spinners, and an excellent set of clowns. If you go, please cheer for the scuba divers when they appear. Each is a Master Diver and is in charge of making sure performers get air when they “disappear” underwater.

Zarkana: Before Zarkana, the Aria held another Cirque show – Elvis. Elvis had some truly fantastic acts, but the narrative was odd and far too literal. In my opinion that’s why it failed to stick. Zarkana, it’s replacement, is a throwback to old carnival and freak show acts. Acts include an amazing juggler, the tight rope, and giant hula hoops. The plot, such as it is, is bare. There’s a ringleader and his pack of talented performers. He is looking for a woman, who he keeps meeting in different forms, and these provide the setting for new acts. Zarkana is weird, but I liked it a lot. It’s a bit heavy on two main singers, but then it felt old-timey and off-kilter in a good way. I will say that there is a giant animated, singing, dead baby in a jar effect, which might make kids uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable, till I remembered that at the old carnivals that came through my town there was always a tent or two dedicated to “grotesques.”

Ka: Ka is the MGM’s Cirque production, and it has a definite story. A good king and queen are murdered by a rival, and the twin brother and sister must enlist allies to take back what is there. Ka has a lot of martial arts, and my favorite music. In particular is the song in the forest, which has some fantastic puppetry to boot. It’s got a lot of actual fire in it, and certainly has a harsher story with people dying, and a breakdancing starfish for levity. It also has a crazy rotating series of stages. Ka is one of the more infamous Cirque shows, as the finale fight, which requires vertical climbing and jumping down a stage resulted in the death of one the performers. The show retooled and is back, just as strong.  It’s a sobering reminder that these gravity-defying actors are human.

Zumanity: Ah, the attempt at “adult” entertainment, Cirque style. Zumanity is at New York, New York, and attempts to explore sexuality through circus. This one was average for me, though I freely admit that seeing adult entertainment is not my cup of tea. There is also a tension in trying to be risqué while at the same time being super athletic. Just because a girl is doing a bondage act with the silks while a soundtrack featuring suggestive moaning plays all around doesn’t make the silks less of a feat. It’s hard to see the sexuality when being awed by the techniques required in some of the performances. They try to make up for this with goofy burlesque acts and a suggestive emcee, which only partly succeeds. Still, it’s a fun sort of romp, but definitely not for the kids.

These are the shows I have seen on the Strip. The two I have not are Chris Angel’s “Believe” and the Michael Jackson “One.” The former because I am not a huge Chris Angel fan, the latter because I’m not into Michael Jackson. At least, not his persona – his music was good.

The nice thing about Vegas shows is that there are always deals going on. If you are looking to see a show, call ahead of time and see if there is a dinner/show combo, a sale for the season, or a military discount. BE SURE TO CHECK BLACK OUT DATES. Each show has two days a week when it’s “dark” (or off), in addition to some holidays and rehearsal/tech breaks, so check out the websites ahead of time.

In my next post, I’ll go through some other worthwhile shows to check out. This one is all about Cirque du Soleil because I love what they represent and how they’re willing to expose audiences to new experiences through theater. Their music is live, not recorded, so there’s a sense of immediacy. This is even more present with the performers. It’s fascinating for me to see what happens when a landing doesn’t stick, or a grab gets missed. It’s a testament to showmanship that such mishaps don’t derail an act. It’s good for kids to see how to handle mistakes.

I had a vision of me singing the forest song in Ka, and rather than wish I tried to manifest that dream. I sent in a video audition to be a singer. They said I could reapply in three years. I bet I’m not the only one with that dream. Still, there’s a little Cirque in all of us, and I encourage you to see it unfold in an impossible city.  If you cannot, see if one of the touring show is around you. You will not be disappointed!

Enjoy the show, and bon voyage!

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When the World is Too Far Away

I’m hemmed in the Midwest with snow and work. Now that China is done for the time being, and Paris is back across the ocean, and half my family is scattered to the corners of the country like so much chaff, I have to settle down and make enough money to pay for my student loans and miscellaneous bills. It strikes me as reassuring and also terrifying that my health insurance payments will never stop. It’s like I’m betting every month on the strength of my heart and obscurity of my appendix.

When all you have to look at are sleeping fields and trees, brown and quiet and solemn in their repose, the landscape starts to blur together and get smaller. The far horizon line might just as well be right in front of you, for all that everything looks the same. The internet is a poor companion for the world. It gives us information, yes, but nothing tactile or stimulating to the body as a whole. My Pinterest boards are stuffed with photos of locations and landscapes. My Facebook wall is full of lists like “45 places that Actually Exist!” and “20 pools you will never find unless you own a diamond!”

Aside: The use of “actually” is beginning to bother me. Why wouldn’t they actually exist? How many lists are out there of places that in no way exist in real life? I would probably click on “45 places that only exist in your mind” because that would be intriguing. Saying a place actually exists is like saying you found a dog that actually barks. Of course it does!

It’s a blessing to find a moment of connection. I was cleaning and de-cluttering the hosue when I found my link to my life of travel – an old, old VHS tape.

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Belly dancing Slim Down – with Leena and Neena the twin belly dancers! Sensual music! Hip scarves with jingling bits of metal on them! Voiceovers that don’t quite match up with the actual choreography! I kicked off my sneakers, popped in the tape, and went back in time.

The ladies are good at what they do. I wish there was more narrative/guiding as to how I’m supposed to isolate my sternum, but the point is to have fun and so I do. As I shimmied and failed to be graceful, it put me in mind of my trip down the Nile. Again, since the goal of such a flimsy exercise tape is to escape for a little bit, I went back to Egypt. Before the campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, before the Arab Spring, Egypt was a fascinating place. There were remnants of Communism and Imperialism everywhere with the antiquities, and the people were friendly and seemed to think I was far richer than I was.

It was the first time I saw true poverty, the first time I’d been in a plane that failed to land on the first approach. It was the first time I got violently ill drinking water by mistake, and the first time I’d ever had to haggle for things that I liked. I was nervous at times, because 9/11 was still very fresh and I had never been exposed to Middle Eastern culture, save for PBS and books. I was a high-school student trying to make sense of a sudden need for caution when before there had been none.

I remember sailing down the Nile, looking for crocodiles (There are none because of the dam). I stayed at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, where my room had a canopy bed. Agatha Christie set one of her novels at the Old Cataract Hotel, and the old building was brimming with character and mood. My strongest memories of Egypt were from Aswan and the Nile – sailing in the boats, watching the dervishes and dancers at night, and the way the canopy bed glowed in the daytime…

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Then I trip over my feet because I forgot how to do the belly dancing hopping twist step, and I’m back in the cold sleep of the American Midwest. Outside my windows the birds are mobbing the feeders in a frenzy to stay fed, and the cats watch from the windows, tails twitching in frustration. I empathize with the tension of the window, which allows everyone to look, but not go.

And I dance.

Upon a tiny bit of research, I found that you can still buy Leena and Neena videos – upgraded to DVD!