In the opening voiceover of Cirque du Soleil’s “Crystal,” the narrator speaks of a world that she recognizes but does not understand — a world that is familiar, but tilted in a surreal, disorienting way. It’s the same world audiences enter each time they attend a show produced by the innovative circus company, and “Crystal” at the SAP Center in San Jose is certainly no different.
Every Cirque du Soleil show has its own overarching narrative; in this icy outing, our protagonist Crystal is a young girl whose head is always in the clouds. No one can get her to pay attention to the real world, and she constantly feels as though she’ll never fit in. She decides to flee her claustrophobic life and takes to the ice, only to plunge through the frigid water beneath, into a world that’s equal parts extravagant and bizarre. Crystal’s journey is molded with the aid of a pen and paper, crafting her own self-empowerment.
Most attendees at Wednesday’s performance of “Crystal” have likely watched enough Olympics to feel that they’ve got a pretty good sense of what a person can do on ice.
They’re wrong. Or, at least, they aren’t thinking big enough. Triple axels are only the tip of the iceberg.
Crystal’s story moves through several acts, each one centered around a different theme and featuring skating, acrobatics, choreography (they even tap dance on skates) and more — the show never wavers in its dazzling quality. Just as you begin to wonder how on earth Cirque du Soleil managed to find someone who can catch a hockey stick in midair while skating up and down two skateboard ramps in time to music, you’ve realized that they’ve found not one, but three people who can do it — and one of them just did a backflip on skates.
Cirque du Soleil is obsessed with outdoing itself. The audience would clap just to watch acrobats effortlessly scale enormous poles swinging from the ceiling, and then it would “ooh” and “ahh” as one acrobat leaped from one pole to another swinging several feet away, catching herself with only her thighs. But this would never be enough for the Cirque du Soleil team — the performers wouldn’t go home until the audience burst into an uproarious cheer after two acrobats climbed onto the swinging pole, backflipped off of it and landed on their feet on a small mattress that had been placed only moments before.
And if doing a handstand off the legs of a chair vertically stacked on top of four other chairs wasn’t already a nail-biting experience to watch, Cirque du Soleil pushes the envelope, bumping it up to eight chairs. During suspenseful moments such as these, you could likely hear a pin drop — it’s likely that audiences were especially nervous, given the press Cirque du Soleil has received lately related to one acrobat’s tragic death while performing a new stunt.
The same aspects that make a Cirque du Soleil show so mesmerizing also make it difficult to critique. After all, there’s simply nothing else in the world to compare it to, except other Cirque du Soleil shows. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t noticeable flaws.
For one, the story of “Crystal” isn’t Cirque du Soleil’s most elaborate, and it may even be called cliche. The narrative is driven by occasional voiceovers from Crystal, which tend to border on the melodramatic and might induce some eye-rolling. Additionally, Cirque du Soleil incorporates covers of pop songs as accompaniment for the first time since “The Beatles: Love” and “Michael Jackson: One” — a decision that can, at times, take us out of the moment.
To the show’s benefit, the music in “Crystal” adds a touch of creative playfulness as well. Clarinet, saxophone and guitar players skate among the performers, exploring colorful solos as they glide across the ice. While a violin player offers up similarly gorgeous accompaniment, for some reason, violin guy never skates, only stands. The people want you to skate, violin guy!
But these issues hardly detracted from the show’s overall wow factor; one audience member confessed that her only disappointment with the show was that nobody on the Cirque du Soleil team thought it would be cool to have glow-in-the-dark skates. It’s a fair point.
Fortunately, most attendees should have been able to put aside the egregious lack of a skating violinist and the excruciating absence of glow-in-the-dark skates. If you found yourself at SAP Center to check out all that “Crystal” has to offer, just remember — don’t try any of it at home.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].