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Review: Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Kooza’ Flies Gloriously High in Laguna Hills

A highly trained daredevil stands inside the doomful "Wheel of Death" in Cirque Soleil's "Kooza." Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

After the beatific effervescence of Corteo, which came through the Southland last year, Cirque du Soleil has returned with Kooza (technically spelled Koozå), a touring production since 2007 that predominantly finds its beauty by going back to the basics — with more clowns, acrobatics, and music that sends inspiriting shivers down the spine. Embedded in this banquet for the senses is a vintage Cirque arc that examines the search for individual purpose and growth through the lens of unabashed guilelessness.

“The Innocent” and “The Mad Dog” in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

The Québec-founded troupe of 54 performers has taken residence under the famed Big Top at the Laguna Hills Mall, where it has already begun drawing the astonished breath out of guests who have until Sunday, Aug. 4th to experience it in Orange County (a few months later, the Santa Monica Pier will be home to the extravaganza from Oct. 19th through Dec. 1st).

Written and directed by the percipient David Shiner, Kooza is derived from the Sanskrit word for “box” — and it is an apt title indeed as the captivating odyssey begins with an unveiled red box, delivered as a package. Suddenly, a magical scepter-wielding “Trickster” emerges before “The Innocent,” a fearless, albeit naïve boy enamored with kites and amusement. This segues into a mystical and exploratory expedition to an underworld characterized by incredible feats and laugh-out-loud tomfoolery.

A tumbler steadies herself during the “Charivari” routine in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

As the adventure progresses, and The Innocent meets the droopy-tongued “Mad Dog,” the under-the-stage robot “Heimloss,” two mirthful Clowns, and their clownish King (of fools), the slapstick and outlandishness rise to deliciously comedic levels. Certainly, not to be forgotten in the topsy-turviness of these idiosyncratic personae is the hijinks — both in the minutes leading up to and during the official festivities — including when audience members are summoned to improvisionationally participate in the royal revelry.

The band in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

An immense chunk of the 2,000 tons of equipment fitting into Kooza’s 70 traveling trailers comprises Stéphane Roy’s circular thrust set, the centerpiece being a mobile “Bataclan” tower that functions as an entrance from which the characters appear, houses the musicians on the second tier, and slightly modifies the orientation of the acrobats’ playground by simply being moved forward. It’s easy to take the well-functioning stage for granted, but it’s patently obvious that significant work has gone into it. Not to mention, the views of Roy’s creation are sensational, as they manage to be ominous, yet inviting.

Three contortionists hold hands tightly in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

Like its Cirque analogues, Kooza reaffirms that one is likely to be inspired by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt’s costumes and Florence Cornet’s makeup just as much as they are by the textiles during Paris Fashion Week or the creative applications in a cosmetics trade fair. The fact that there are 175 custom-made costumes would be enough to drop anyone’s jaw, but what about the painstaking efforts taken to create skeletal Vegas showgirls with lushly ornate feathers? Or, the surrealistic eyeshadow and painted flames accentuating the impishness of the Trickster, and the sharp lines and polychromatic tendrils drawing attention to the eyes of the silk aerialist, contortionists, chair balancer, and other artists? The aesthetics are delicately crafted, but the materials aren’t too vulnerable, either, ensuring that the performers can comfortably whirl and swivel in them.

The “Trickster” and cast in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

An underrated attraction of Cirque productions is the score, which affects observers as profoundly as the athletic marvels do. Jean-François Côté’s music is a colorful amalgamation of different sounds, though its foremost muse is Indian music, brought to aural life by a sextuple of musicians, inclusive of “Spirit” and “Soul” vocalists who sing with verve. There are two dozen tracks in total, but the ones that ring in the eardrums long after the two-hour show concludes are “Kooza Dance,” “L’innocent,” and “Don’t Be Afraid” — an empowering anthem the young and old can identify with. Credit should also be afforded to sound designers Jonathan Deans and Leon Rothenberg who broadcast the music in a resounding clarity.

An aerialist performs the “Silks” act in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Sagar Pathak and Dr. Russell Preston Brown

As well-produced as Cirque’s anthology of entertainment is, make no mistake about it: Kooza enthusiastically reinforces what we already know, which is the fact that nobody challenges physical limitations quite like this company. Over 2,500 attendees per engagement couldn’t be more delighted that everyone’s favorite circus is here to stay — following a pandemic-induced bankruptcy scare — because of poetic stunts and stories that leave one continually transfixed and sometimes squealing ecstatically.

Here, acrobatic performance designer André Simard and choreographer Clarence Ford have teamed up to present nine acts. At the outset, in Charivari, a multitude of aerialists are launched without hesitation off a a round outstretched fabric acting as a trampoline, with one thrillingly diving into the bullseye of the collaboratively held rug.

A triumvirate of clowns entertain the audience in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

Subsequently, the art of Contortion is embodied by a dazzling trio in Earth-toned leotards supporting the weight of their fellow cohorts coincident with bending their spines so far back that their heads comfortably rest against their own glutes; needless to say, it is an exquisite sight of core strength and pliability. The Balancing-on-Chairs spectacle similarly underscores the rigorous patience and discipline of a male artist who all-too-easily performs aerial splits while ensuring the chair he’s using to support himself — and the countless chairs underneath it! — don’t abruptly topple over.

The unicycle duo performs a stunt in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

A Silks routine emphasizes the heroine spirit of the female persuasion as one nimble performer with magnetic stage presence swings to and fro from the ceiling, spinning gracefully as an upside-down top, and at each point reasserting her complete control over gravity using only a long red silk. Another solo female Cirque all-star makes a superlative statement with a Hoops Manipulation exhibition that is a masterful display of adroitness and fast-twitch muscle fibers as she twirls hula hoops using all four extremities simultaneously. Notwithstanding that, the highlight is seeing her become a human slinky in a visual that is uniquely enchanting.

A quartet of wire walkers establish their footing in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo by Cirque du Soleil

For many Cirque professionals, the outcome isn’t always in one’s hands particularly when partners, who are entrusted with their colleagues’ safety, are involved. The Unicycle Duo, an opposite-sex pairing, reminds of the importance of this shared accountability when they flit across the stage, in utter balletic harmony, on an unsteady wheel. Amplifying the stakes are illustrations of otherworldly equilibrium as the spotlighted lady gymnast sits and stands on the head of the undisturbed gentlemanly rider.

A gymnast balances himself on a column of chairs in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

A unicycle turns into bicycles in the stunning High Wire demonstration, but not prior to gasp-inducing wire walking (and running, hopping, dancing, and sword-fighting). Two wires as much as 25 feet above the stage are the only highways on which exceedingly focused tacticians traverse from one end to another on wobbly wheels. This elicits incredulous wonder, especially when a triad forms a triangle as two parallel bikers precipitously support a third above them. The Teeterboard, too, is contingent upon life-or-death timing to ensure that the successive series of catapults — acting as the launching pad for Olympic-grade somersaulters, even on stilts — happen rhythmically, without delay, and with amazing accuracy.

An artist manipulates a series of hoops in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Bernard Letendre

The main event, regardless of where it might be positioned in the show, is the Wheel of Death — which is every bit as formidable as it sounds. Imagine the wheels of a bike with the spokes and handlebar removed, except these wheels, or rings, have been super-sized to accommodate adult males pedaling their feet inside of them, like two hamsters (if rodents could be trained to such a spectacular degree). Now envision the participants also steadying themselves on the wheels’ outer rims as they leap and miraculously land on the massive apparatus that is rapidly descending en route to its next rotation. That is the Wheel of Death, for which even the aformentioned explanation doesn’t do the in-person optics justice; in fact, it’s such an attraction that it’s also among the repertory of acts in one of Cirque du Soleil’s newest productions: Mad Apple at the New York New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Augmenting the wild roller coaster is Martin Labrecque’s lighting, which really shines here (no pun intended) with a crimson pall suspended over the nail-biting proceedings.

Two intrepid acrobats negotiate the notorious “Wheel of Death” in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

All in all, as Kooza so categorically proves, no other brand of fun offers what Cirque du Soleil brings to the table. With lavish scenery, costumes, powerful tunes, and the world’s greatest athletes oftentimes risking their lives, an audience can’t help but be filled with immense gratitude voiced via exuberant cheering. And inasmuch as Kooza unspools a tale about purity, intrepid inquiry, and personal development, the experience is mainly a tip of the hat (or crown, as one will observe in this offering) to Cirque du Soleil’s roots.

Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza runs through Sunday, August 4th in Laguna Hills. The show will migrate to the Santa Monica Pier in the fall where it will run from October 19th through December 1st. For more information on the production, and to purchase tickets, visit cirquedusoleil.com/kooza.

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