Cirque’s “Kooza” opens Friday — back to its roots, and blossoming

Cirque du Soleil has made its fortune by thinking outside the box. Now, it wants to go back in.

With Kooza, now in its third year and making its first appearance Friday under the traditional blue and gold Grand Chapiteau in Miami’s Bicentennial Park, Cirque has returned to its roots.

“For Kooza, we wanted to go back to the simplicity of putting the emphasis on the performers themselves,” said Luc Tremblay, Kooza’s senior artistic director.

Hence the name Kooza, a takeoff of the Sanskrit word koza, which means “box,” “chest” or “treasure.” Kooza, Tremblay’s fourth Cirque production (he also worked on La Nouba, Delirium and Ovo) re-imagines the concept of “circus in a box,” upping the clown and acrobatics quotient and dialing down the “grandiose staging,” Tremblay said.

The action happens on a round, simplified stage and — of course — the show contains one of those subtle stories Cirque loves to tell.

Kooza’s star is The Innocent, a loner searching for his place in the world. If this all sounds a little too reminiscent of Neil Diamond’s I Am . .  . I Said — not that there’s anything wrong with that — don’t fret. Kooza might be simpler in concept but it still has the fantastical covered.

As the show opens, The Trickster bursts onto the stage like a demented jack-in-a-box to taunt The Innocent. The two cross paths with an assortment of characters like the King, the Pickpocket, the Obnoxious Tourist and his Bad Dog (so-named because of his accidents).

“The story is very clear .. . about the duality or opposition between good and bad,” Tremblay explained in a telephone interview from his office in Montreal. “An innocent character encounters a trickster who is playing games on the innocent. He’s not necessarily a bad guy, but he wants to make the innocent change and become happier in his life. At the beginning, The Innocent is melancholy, and throughout the journey of Kooza he becomes enlightened.”

To help give Kooza its visual stamp and set it apart from Cirque’s 21 other shows now happening all over the world, writer/director David Shiner traveled to India to seek inspiration. Much of Kooza carries the music and colors of the region, with rich costumes festooned in jewelry inspired by India and Pakistan.

The show’s performing cast of 53 is truly international, with members hailing from 16 countries including Belarus, Brazil, China, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Romania, Sweden and Ukraine.

The United Nations nature of the performers and the potential for injuries and resulting quick cast changes can create logistical headaches as Cirque shows crisscross borders, Tremblay says.

“There’s always a challenge of how to deal with having to replace artists and to cast an artist of the same level or better. Immigration issues sometimes bring delays. You have to find solutions on a weekly or monthly basis, but we’ve found solutions for all cases.”

The entire bunch aims to drop some American jaws and elicit gasps — surprise being the true universal language — with acts like the Wheel of Death, a Cirque first. In this act, daring performers from Colombia venture into a large metal contraption with round cages on either end. A wheel spins, the cages spin and the jostled players inside hope they land right-side-up and alive when the Wheel of Death stops rotating.

Of course, there are trapeze acts and contortionists, too, plus jugglers, cyclists and dancers.

“What you remember most are not necessarily the striking images or the most grandiose, but they can be the simpler ones with that incredible level of control, precision and artistry,” Tremblay said.

“Miami is our last stop for the North American tour before we go to Japan in 2011,” he said. “The challenge is twofold: One is to maintain the overall show quality and to also make it some sort of evolution. If you had seen the show in Montreal and you see it now, there has been a tremendous evolution.”


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