Usually I don't come away from a theatrical performance feeling that I've just been exposed to a marvelous philosophy of life. But usual and Cirque du Soleil aren't words that belong next to each other.
Last Friday my wife and I journeyed up to Portland (Oregon) to see Kooza. It was our first Cirque du Soleil experience. And surely not the last. We loved the show, including the Tapis Rouge pampering that we ended up getting at no additional cost.
I found Kooza deeply moving.
Always eager to fire up my philosophical neurons, I've spent the past few days musing about what I enjoyed so much about Kooza's amazing blend of acrobatics, clown'ing, artistry, music, and -- as one of its creators emphasizes in a video -- fun.
Watching Kooza, I was inspired by men and woman who were able to make their bodies do amazing things at the edge of human capabilities. Yet there also were clowns who represented the commonplace, albeit with an appealing edge of a different sort.
They made fun of themselves. They made fun of other clowns. They made fun of people in the audience. The clowns were equal opportunity debunkers of seriousness.
Religions, of course, are deeply serious.
They don't like to be laughed at, because they've got important dogmas to defend. Popes, imams, preachers, rabbis, gurus, and the like rarely are seen laughing uproariously at their own pretentiousness.
In the world of Kooza, though, there are no sacred cows. Good-natured clownish teasing is interspersed between the Oh, my god! acts of physical prowess.
I came across a good description of the Cirque du Soleil philosophy in a newspaper article, "What makes Cirque Worque? Unlocking the enduring phenomenon of Cirque du Soleil."
It's all about openness, diversity, willingness to change, flexibility, creativity, individualism -- polar opposites of religious fundamentalism.
But Naum notes the longstanding importance of openness to difference and diversity in the company's philosophy. "It's part of what made Cirque du Soleil what Cirque du Soleil is. It's part of what circuses are," she says. The unusual, the offbeat, the strange, has traditionally been valued in the circus; it's what keeps the audiences coming in, that thing that they've never seen before.
Cirque extends that concept beyond the novelty of an act to an appreciation of what every individual, every culture, every creative idea, can contribute to the whole. "Learning to be open to difference is part of the process" of becoming a member of this circus community and one of the ways in which "Cirque really takes good care of its people."
That openness may be the single most significant key to the Cirque phenomenon. You see it informing the operation of the organization on all levels and at all points in the life of a production. When a new show is being conceived, the Cirque creative teams are supposed to open their imaginations to new ideas, new visions, new approaches.
You might think that the larger Cirque du Soleil gets, the more it has at stake and thus the more inclined it would be to stick with what works and just recycle its successes. But Cirque resists that kind of repetition, Naum insists. "For sure, when you look at the different shows of Cirque du Soleil, there is a signature," she says, "but I cannot say it's a formula."
Each show is driven by its own distinct creative vision, and whether it's water as in "O", birds as in Alegría, gypsies as in Varekai, or the Beatles, it's that vision that opens up the possibilities for the artists on the production to explore new concepts, move in new directions. Cirque's openness to reinventing the form has always been at the foundation of its success, and each new production shows that it continues to be.
The principle of openness extends through the life of a production. It's integral to the development phase as the members of the creative team discuss, debate, and occasionally fight over the ideas being brought to the table. Every contribution must be carefully considered in the context of the whole.
That's a process that requires time, and Cirque is open there, too: allowing for dozens of months to work out all the details of a production and to train the performers and fully integrate them into this imagined universe. And even when a production has proven successful and been on the road for years, Cirque is open to change in it.
It's no wonder that my churchless psyche was so attracted to Cirque du Soleil. After many years of treading a straight and narrow religious path, I'm now attracted to exploring fresh territory where the wild things roam.
Here's videos of some of my favorite Kooza acts. The three female contortionists were breathtaking.
These Wheel of Death performers were way over on the macho side of the yang/yin scale.
And for some feminine yin'ness, I loved this sensual hoop dancer.
Nothing metaphysical here. Nothing other worldly. Just magical. In the most natural sense of the word.