Review: ‘Cirque Spooktacular’ at The Kennedy Center

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Like The Nutcracker at Christmastime, Cirque Spooktacular, the NSO Pops’ Cirque de la Symphonie Halloween Extravaganza, is bound to become a seasonal tradition at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It’s plenty scary, as daredevils dangle from serpentine ropes or blood-red scarves 40 feet above the stage with no apparent safety plan.Costumes evoke freaky clowns, superheroes, princesses – even get-ups that could spring from the “sexy” section of those adult catalogues.

And the kids eat it up.

Conductor Stuart Chafetz and 90-plus musicians weave a powerful spell, starting with The Phantom of the Opera overture by Andrew Lloyd Webber, arranged by Calvin Custer. The music is crisp and refreshing as fall; the percussive, glockenspiel-like synth played by Lisa Emenheiser rattles nerves, in a good way. The strings attack with staccato quivers.

No one misses the chandelier, because suspense waits in the wings – and eye candy to spare with an eight-member Cirque de la Symphonie troupe.

First up, way up, is rope aerialist Christine Van Loo, who bends herself to Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse macabre, Op. 40.” In a flaming-orange leotard, she braves vertical splits, hangs from her ankles in a loose hangman’s noose, twirls, somersaults and slides head first as if down a firehouse pole landing inches from the stage. The evening’s thrills are just beginning.

But one can’t help wonder: Is symphonic music not thrilling enough on its own, especially for those generations weaned on music videos and overstimulation? Chafetz admits to the audience the spectacle above and behind his back is nothing compared to the entertainment he gets, watching top-class musicians play while their focus does loop-the-loops following the acrobats. The pairing of circus and symphony is genius – lofty and aloft, among the greatest arts on Earth piling on. The Concert Hall should be packed with admirers. What’s with all these empty seats?

Contortionist Elena Tsarkova (in the white leotard). Photo courtesy of Cirque
Contortionist Elena Tsarkova (in the white leotard). Photo courtesy of Cirque

On stage, elbow room is at a premium. Vladimir Tsarkov is a heavenly host as a harlequin clown, mime and juggler with endless tricks up his sleeve – including fun friction with the conductor. Tsarkov doubles as stage hand and assistant to quick-change artist and contortionist Elena Tsarkova, who performs sheer magic and, in candy-swirl leggings, assumes alien life forms while balancing on stools. Meanwhile, Irina Burdetsky strikes the perfect note of nostalgia with a dizzying number of Hula Hoops that appear to slice right through her, before she morphs into a human Slinky.

Van Loo encores later in a breathtaking aerial pas de deux with Alexander Streltsov – who flies, thrusting himself over the audience, awakening every childhood fantasy. Talk about executing lifts – at one point Van Loo, tangled up in scarves, lifts her beefy partner by one arm while squinched in an upside down split. We wince.

Streltsov also creates optical illusions, dancing and twirling giant geometric shapes, his “spinning cube” act against festive moody lighting. But most would agree Vitalii Buza one-ups him with the Cyr Wheel, a giant steel ring he rides like a gyroscope. He looks like Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” or a real-live dreamcatcher. He later flies like a hybrid Superman-Peter Pan to John Williams’ cinematic “Flight to Neverland” from the movie Hook. His strapping strength seems unmatched. 

That is, until we encounter the musculo-skeletal perfection of strongmen Jarek and Darek. This bronze-painted Polish balancing duo, accompanied by an organ-less Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” is jaw-dropping. You want headstands? There’s a hunk of a man balancing with one hand atop the other’s head! They proceed to fold into synchronized sculptures painful to watch and erotic at the same time. (Don’t worry, that aspect sails right over the youngsters’ heads.)

Jaroslaw Marciniak and Dariusz Wronski, otherwise known as strongmen Jarek and Darek. Photo courtesy of Cirque de la Symphonie.
Jaroslaw Marciniak and Dariusz Wronski, otherwise known as strongmen Jarek and Darek. Photo courtesy of Cirque de la Symphonie.

It’s a relief that the kids in attendance at times must use their imaginations, as the acrobats don’t appear during every haunting hit. Works deemed dramatic enough on their own include Musorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt and the crowd favorite, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas. Conjuring the Disneyfied image, the musicians’ bows become the bewitched brooms; the halting, loping rhythms had one child squealing with delight and anticipation Mickey might emerge – all the better to be reminded how thrilling live music and cartoonish spectacle that’s not canned can be.

There’s plenty for adults to squeal with delight about, too, including a smokin’ solo by Concertmaster in the fourth movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol” suite, her fingers contortion artists all their own.

The NSO Pops simply pops with personality. I entreat: Plan a stop at our national fun house. This supreme Halloween treat is not to be missed.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Cirque Spooktacular runs through October 15, 2016 at the John F. Kennedy Performing Center for the Arts’ Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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