Review: ‘Luzia’ at Cirque du Soleil in Tysons

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For a Cirque-head such as myself, anticipation of a new Cirque du Soleil show coming to town kicked in months ago. It had been two long years since Cirque last pitched its Big Top here, with Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities, a show I praised to the tent top:

Kurios’  marvels will not only wow one’s inner kid-at-the-circus, as all Cirque shows do. Kurios’ artistic achievement will also enchant adventurous theater folk with its sophisticatedly trippy mix of imagery from cinema and steampunk.

Four years ago it was Amaluna, which Cirque conceived as “an ode to femininity and renewal” and brought in Broadway legend Diane Paulus to direct. In my rave review I quoted her:

“I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it, something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.” And wowza, did she ever.

Now comes Luzia, easily one of Cirque’s sunniest and loveliest shows—a sensuously dreamy mix of imagery from an imagined Mexico layered over performances so spellbinding you will enter a whole other reality.

Running Woman scene from Luzia. Photo by Laurence Labat. Costumes by Giovanna Buzzi. © 2016 Cirque du Soleil.

Like nearly all Cirque titles, the word Luzia is Cirque’s invention: It combines the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia), key components of the show’s stunning look. Luzia transports us visually and viscerally to a garden of marigolds, a rousing fiesta, a leafy forest, a cactus-strewn desert, a summery seashore, a solemn scene of votive candles, a boisterous dance hall, an old-time movie set, and beyond. Unlike even the most immersive movie, Luzia’s illusions are present to us in the very moment we share with the people we see on stage.

I don’t know for a fact that other fans of the Montreal-based entertainment brand call themselves Cirque-heads, but I am certifiable: Of the 21 current productions, I have seen ten (plus six that have been retired). So when I say that with its touring production of Luzia Cirque has upped its production game stupendously, that comes with some cred.

Back in 1993 Cirque branched out from touring its phenomenally popular performances and began mounting shows for long runs in permanent locations. Ever since there has been a perceptible difference between Cirque’s tent shows and Cirque’s resident shows—not in terms of the stellar artistry and mythlike mise-en-scène (a seamless synthesis of music, circus acts,  choreography, stage design, costumes, acrobatics), but in terms of what production effects can practicably be achieved. For instance in Las Vegas, which now boasts seven Cirque installations, O is played in a huge water tank, and the stage floor in tilts vertically.

Aeral Straps scene from Luzia. Photo by Matt Beard. © 2017 Cirque du Soleil.

Luzia features breakthrough production effects that Cirque has never trucked from place to place before. The stage is made of two concentric turntables. Early on there’s a massive double treadmill upon which birdlike acrobats fly through hoops in motion on motion. Then there’s rainfall in which aerialists, trapeze artists, and ring dancers perform wet—as in slippery when… And in the middle of the stage is revealed a circular water tank into which a supple strap artist spectacularly dips and splashes while it rains.

There’s no way to encapsulate the whole enthralling show, and Luzia is definitely something one has to experience oneself to appreciate and even to believe. But here for first-timers and fellow fans are a few teaser features.

Jaw-dropping circus acts have been a fixture of Cirque’s shows since the beginning, each new production showcasing never-before-seen displays of daring and dexterity. Some involve apparatus, like the two huge swings between which acrobats are flipped through the air while somersaulting. Or the oversize hoops within which dancers spin and pivot in the rain. Or the big fixed trapeze that an artist swings in a full 360 degrees as high as the upper rigging. Or the twin poles upon which a very built gymnast balances on his hands, does pushups and other stunts of strength, as the wobbly poles get higher until it’s so risky he needs a safety wire.

Football Dance scene from Luzia. Photo by Matt Beard. © 2017 Cirque du Soleil.

Equally awe-inspiring are the acts that involve a minimum of equipment but physical agility to the max. Three men fling a young woman into the air every which way, catching her with trust and precision while she performs dance moves aloft between their thrusts. Two adorable young people dressed in street clothes and each with a soccer ball perform astounding tricks solo, then become beautifully moving in their leg-over-leg teamwork, which they sustain in the rain. And a young contortionist who balletically puts his arms and legs where you would think no human body could can also, literally, sit on his own head.

As always in Cirque, there are sophisticatedly silly clowns. Luzia features a terrific one who’s a one-man running gag. We see him tumble out of a plane opening a parasol when his parachute fails. We see him trying vainly to fill his empty canteen from rainfall that always shuts off just when he needs it. And we  play along during his whistle routine when with but shrill trilling tweets he gets us whooping and hollering.

Prominent also in Luzia are a lot of supersize creature puppets: a metallic horse that gallops after a running woman with butterfly wings, an armadillo, a snake, a cockroach, cacti, a cougar. These figures, visibly operated by humans, blend into the action surreally and delightfully.

Dance hall scene with puppets from Luzia. Photo: Matt Beard © 2017 Cirque du Soleil

Curiously one performance in the show—among the many that that elicit gasps of awe and wonder—is not a human one; it is a technological and hydraulic coup de théâtre. It happens when the water falls as a rain curtain in which appear images—birds, fish, flowers, leaves—generated by tiny valves that open and close faster than a blink and have been programmed to send stenciled shapes shimmering down.

There’s a clever slogan that performers say in a fascinating video series of episodes from the show called LUZIAself—pronounced “Lose ya’self.” Truth to tell, that’s what really happens. You do lose yourself at Luzia. And for theater lovers of all ages, it is an enrapturing experience like none other.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

Luzia plays through June 17, 2018, under the white-and-gold Big Top at Tysons II, 8025 Galleria Drive, Tysons, VA 22102. Tickets are available online. For booking assistance call (877) 924-7783.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.