CRYSTAL – Cirque Du Soleil’s Breakthrough Ice Experience

 

performer hanging from trapeze by his feet, holding onto one leg of female performer hanging beneath him and bringing other leg up to head
Image Credits: Matt Beard

[AD – Press]. Complimentary tickets in exchange for review.

Before we say anything else, it’s worth acknowledging that attending Cirque du Soleil’s latest production as press is something still almost incomprehensible to me. Having grown up with a love and appreciation for Cirque right at the core of my being, and finally being able to see my first full production in 2017, it’s genuinely mind-boggling to believe that this is where we are, three years later. Cirque holds such a special place in my heart, and I truly believe they’re one of the finest artistic establishments on this planet.

Each of Cirque’s productions are unique in their own right, but from the get-go, it was clear that CRYSTAL, a performance shaped around the artistic possibilities of ice, would be something completely bespoke. Combining skating, acrobatics, comedy and movement, as well as dazzling visual projections and an original score of music, this particular show ventures into previously undiscovered artistic territory, and it’s safe to say the company really made the most of it.

on screen projection of red-haired character Crustal, tumbling through ice
Image Credits: Matt Beard

The story puts the audience in the shoes of title character Crystal, a quirky and imaginative young woman who feels at odds with the world around her. In frustration on a particularly difficult day, she ventures out onto thin ice and finds herself falling underneath the surface, sinking into an upside-down world. Here, she’s able to interact with Crystal’s Reflection, her inner self, who shows her how to harness her frustrations and turn them into creative energy; Crystal is handed a pen and left to see where her mind takes her.

The bulk of the production sees us explore Crystal’s perceptions and experiences in this alternate universe, before Crystal’s Reflection causes her to realise that this version of herself exists deep within her and can also be channelled back in her real life, rather than in this make-believe world. With this realisation, Crystal fights to resurface back through the ice, taking all that she has discovered back into her waking existence.

Featuring an array of dazzling numbers, each act is relatively fast-paced and genuinely unpredictable. Beginning with banquine acrobatics and hand-to-hand tumbling, Act One incorporates artistic figure skating and ice dancing, extreme juggling, artistic trapeze, and concluding with heart-stopping stunt skating, featuring multiple cast members tackling ramps at speed and effortlessly twisting through the air in perfect synchronicity.

skaters performing acrobatics on playground scheme, featuring swing set
Image Credits: Matt Beard

Act Two kicks off with ensemble synchronised skating, an unbelievable blend of pendular poles and Russian swing technique, a unique ‘tap dancing’ number with microphones attached to performers’ skates, interpretative dance and choreography, extreme chair-balancing, and a stunning skating pas de deux combined with aerial silks. The performance concludes with further group skating complimented by special technical effects, duo trapeze combined with hand-to-hand ice technique, and finally, the coming together of the entire cast for a performative number featuring the classic ‘pinwheel’ formation, paying homage to traditional ice shows of the past.

As you can tell from even just a brief description of the acts the show entailed, the Cirque cast and crew have naturally upheld their reputation as the fearless visionaries whose creative bounds are limitless. However, for me, I do feel that something was missing from this production… something inherently ‘Cirque’ didn’t quite seem to be there.

The only way I can think to explain my opinion is to draw upon Cirque’s existing productions. The thing that makes this company so innovative and unique, in my eyes, isn’t only the quality of the acts; it’s the innate artistry ingrained in every second of every performance. Each production is so carefully crafted to be not only a breath-taking spectacle, but a metaphorical visualisation of much bigger, and more abstract concepts.

crystal character hanging upside down by the feet, arms drifting down beside her
Image Credits: Matt Beard

With Crystal being a more contemporary production to begin with, already with a concrete storyline, I expected the more metaphorical elements of this particular show to flow even more naturally and be easier to interpret than in other productions. And whilst on reflection there were some really lovely and poignant moments that paid homage to the central themes, I personally felt that the overall narrative and transitions between each act lacked cohesion. Even as an audience member who was attuned to and anticipating quirky and abstract representations, I did struggle to follow where we were headed, and how each individual act played into the overall themes and storyline. Even though I could find truly brilliant and innovative nods to select themes within each individual act, as well as appreciating the spectacle of them on the surface, I just couldn’t perceive how it all fit together.

With that in mind, this particular production seemed, to me, more on the level of a variety act: don’t get me wrong, a completely stunning variety act, but one that just didn’t quite hit the mark of having that world-renowned Cirque quality. However, once I’d come to terms with that fact and sadly let go of some of my initial expectations, it’s important to make clear that I did still love and appreciate the performance for what it was.

Every single performer on the ice gave insightful and nuanced interpretations their character, and, of course, their multiple skills and talents were completely off the scale. Performers are often required to learn diverse and completely new physical skills for Cirque productions, and yet each seemed to be of the highest calibre in every single discipline they encountered.

Not to be outshone, the creative and production team offered similarly bedazzling work, pulling out all the stops to create a complete visual spectacle through the use of special effects. I particularly loved the artistic projections on the ice itself, perfectly complimenting the mood and ambience of each particular scene. With such a vast expanse of ice to fill, such staging and effects could easily have looked as though they fell short, and yet the crew undeniably utilised every inch of the performance space and transformed it into the ethereal world of Crystal’s subconscious.

cast members holding up females in backbend position, with skaters dancing underneath the arches their backs make
Image Credits: Matt Beard

The musical score is such an iconic element of every one of Cirque’s productions, and the cinematic and emotionally-stirring composition of CRYSTAL was no exception. I was, however, really surprised to hear multiple covers of popular pop songs (including Sia’s Chandelier and Beyoncé’s Halo) incorporated into this show. Whilst of course beautiful, and a fitting accompaniment to what was taking place on the ice, I again personally struggled to find the significance of such choices and how these played into the overall work. As I’m writing this review, it’s beginning to seem more and more as though this production was crafted around individual pieces and ideas, almost as if a story was being somewhat forced to be built around them, rather than everything stemming from an intrinsic creative vision.

It’s clear then, that this particular show didn’t quite meet my (admittedly high) expectations. It didn’t make my heart sing and my inner-being burn with emotion like Varekai did, and although all my other frames of reference come from videos I’ve watched online, I don’t feel that this production resonated with me the way I believe others would. However, I do maintain that there’s something for everybody in CRYSTAL, especially for those with a particular interest in skating and ice performance, and I’d still argue the show is worth seeing. Believe me when I say there’s nothing else quite like this particular production, and there are multiple moments that really will have you on the edge of your seat, heart in your mouth and yet still wanting more.

Above all else, though, I’m a hugely reverent of the overall themes of CRYSTAL: finding the bravery to venture onto thin ice, breaking out of societal norms, learning to harness your uniqueness and individuality, and turning your quirks into creativity. It’s a take-home message that I personally feel the world needs right now, and I hope the power of this production continues to be enjoyed and appreciated by audiences all over the world.

And now, if you don’t mind me, I’ll be popping off to Ice Sheffield to see if they’ll let me attempt some extreme on-ice acrobatics with my wheelchair. I’ll be waiting for my casting call, Cirque…

male and female performer hanging onto each other with legs raised, suspended in the air by red silk
Image Credits: Matt Beard

[AD – Press]. Complimentary tickets in exchange for review. Thank you so much to Cirque to Soleil’s press team for making a complete bucket-list dream come true! You can find out more about CRYSTAL and book your tickets on the Cirque du Soleil website here.

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