KOOZA written and directed by David Shiner. Presented by Cirque du Soleil at the Grand Chapiteau (port lands on Cherry). Opens tonight (Thursday, August 9) and runs to September 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Friday-Saturday 4 pm, Sunday 1 and 5 pm. $65-$100, stu/srs $58.50-$90 (weekdays only), child $45.50-$70, VIP Tapis Rouge package $157.50-$225. 1-800-361-4595, www.cirquedusoleil.com. Rating: NNNNN
Even though inspiration for Cirque du Soleil's latest touring show draws from writer/director David Shiner's background as a clown and mime, Kooza is not all rubber chickens and floppy shoes.
"When we put the pieces together and saw the show as a whole, it was heading in a really dark direction," explains choreographer Clarence Ford, a slick, feline man who looks like he could out-jazz-hands anyone, even in a headstand pose.
Though it's not surprising that a show based on clowning, with its roots in satire and social critique, ended up on the sombre side, Kooza is a classic, straightforward tale about an innocent manipulated into dual worlds by a trickster.
"David has turned the darkness around and made the show entertaining for everybody," explains Ford.
And what could be more entertaining than contortionists, gymnasts who scale a 7-metre wall of chairs and a 725-kilogram Wheel of Death, powered by the very acrobats who can be slaughtered by it?
"I wanted to create a language of movement," explains Ford, who was responsible for ensuring the acrobats keep time as they evade the jaws of death.
Ford's challenge was to coach non-dancers to create a new style of movement within Kooza's dual worlds of stark hopelessness and Vegas bawdiness.
"Whatever I give a dancer, that's what they do. But that's not so for acrobats, who will interpret a move differently. Someone might fall trying a step, for example, and I'll think 'I like that, it works.'"
While the spontaneous quality of Cirque keeps performers engaged, the many concepts, styles and - dare we say it? - cultural misappropriations sometimes fail to captivate more critical audiences, who argue that Cirque is low culture with a hefty price-tag, disguised as high.
Kooza's musical composer, Jean-François Càté, appears aware of the world beat, concept-heavy mishmash factor that occasionally pushes Cirque into the realm of kitsch.
"I wanted to avoid the world beat kind of thing, which didn't interest me much," says the gentle Montrealer, who cites everything from Guy Maddin to 60s American trash TV as inspirations. "I thought it should be more pop: drums, electric guitar."
Càté also embraces the clichés of the archetypal themes in the new show.
"Clichés work when they are de-contextualized, but they are also dangerous, and you have to tread a fine line. If I have some kind of cliché sound, I put something else right after so it's almost that cliché but not quite."
Using East Indian songstress Tara Baswani in contrast to the very time-specific American soundtrack, Càté, the band leader of Cirque's previous shows, O and Mystère, admits he is challenged by writing music that cannot follow a traditional pop-song format.
"Once a musical idea is expressed, you need to keep building on it: acrobats are climbing upwards, so the music has to do the same. You can't simply de-crescendo."
Though the soft-spoken Càté worried that the show's music would be overly simplistic, he always knew it had to be exaggerated.
"We knew we weren't going to be silly - we needed to be really silly," he jokes.
As for Ford, he argues that the death-defying performances of Kooza define the very essence of circus as a medium and a culture.
"It's not a modern dance piece," he says. "It's people risking their lives for the sake of a great live act. That's what the circus is."