Cirque du Soleil takes off on the ice with the show ‘Crystal’


They’ve done it in the air, they’ve done it on the floor of a stage, they’ve done it on big walls and underwater. They even did it (tastefully) naked in an adults-only residence in Las Vegas. Now they do it on the ice.

“They,” of course, is the sprawling Montreal company Cirque du Soleil, which started in 1984 and is now the biggest circus producer in the world. The company has done over 30 shows of which seven are currently operational.

This particular show at the Agganis Arena is called “Crystal,” and the focus on ice skating is something new to Bostonians, if not the Cirque itself. “Crystal” ascended four years ago — and took the required pandemic break — but debuted in the region on June 1, the first of 15 performances that run through June 12.

It was spectacular and a joy to watch from start to finish. And, in many ways, a new joy. The catch with Cirque is that, as dazzling as the shows are the first times you see them – and I’ve seen almost everyone who’s been here – eventually the flower falls from the rose. As in “Wow, that was awesome, but I was there, I saw that.” The physics and artistry may not vary in quality, even if the fantasy “plots” differ, but often the takeaways – expectations met – lead to a curious sort of fantasy-but-meh duality.

Not here. Or, as art director Rob Tannion told me beforehand, “Acrobats on ice, clearly a game changer.” Their challenge? “How can we get them to return safely? With specialized shoes and gloves. And before that, a whole acclimatization to feeling safe throwing someone in the air and catching them.

Cannes artist Amber van Wijk trains as Cirque du Soleil sets up shop at the Agganis Arena. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
As Cirque du Soleil prepares to present "Crystal"  at the Agganis Arena, Hjordis Lee, who plays Crystal in the production, swings on a trapeze above the ice.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
As Cirque du Soleil sets up to perform “Crystal” at the Agganis Arena, Hjordis Lee, who plays Crystal in the production, swings on a trapeze above the ice. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

So, yes, there are trapeze artists on specialized skates. On the ice one moment, in the air the next, and back. The skates stay on most of the time, except for a few handstand tricks for three people and such.

One of the extreme skaters, Scott Smith, trained at the Boston Skating Club when he moved to Boston at the age of 20. He is now 40 and one of the “businessmen” in suits and ties who try to outdo themselves with stunts. “The most dangerous thing I do is backflip another person,” he said. “It definitely takes practice to perform safely over and over again, four weeks.”

The plot – usually the convoluted and/or beside the point element in a Cirque show – has more coherence and resonance here. The scene is a town square next to a frozen pond. Young, red-haired Crystal is a misfit teenager, yearning to write, to use her pen and her imagination to create something beyond the mundane. At first, in a small dining room set high on a tiered quartz wall, she sits arguing with her parents about being creatively smothered. The other members of his family were seduced by the comfortable numbness of the television.

Crystal goes skating on the pond. In no time, she smashes the ice, the music soars, and the multimedia video projections create the illusion, as she descends from the room ceiling on a cable, lands on the ice (representing an underworld fantasy). sailor) and meet these Alice in Wonderland type characters. characters, those she may have imagined and created. “My thoughts became their actions,” she says. “I can write my own joy.” Crystal also has a doppelganger or shadow—at first one, later three—that either acts as a consort or clashes with her as they skate and dance.

Cirque du Soleil artists during a production of
Cirque du Soleil performers during a production of “Crystal”. (Courtesy Matt Beard/Cirque du Soleil)

The mirror and the side wall become projection canvases. The action from the 44 cast members is near-constant and, to us, feels like a mix of grace and danger. Speed ​​skaters using ramps soar through the air, narrowly missing each other, a held-high acrobat performs a slow, one-handed 360 degree turn, a plethora of business men and women carry all briefcases, sporting stoic faces, zooming in all directions, accompanied by a fast and murderous version of “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone (pre-recorded voice). The skates are sometimes micro, so you hear the sharp swoosh when you see the ice chips scatter. There is a live full-scale pinball match. Shortly after, a hockey game breaks out – Crystal is a Bruins fan (here at least), sporting a B jersey, her name and the number 22 on the back. (This is the retired number of Bruin winger Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player.)

In two acts, there are solo works, duets and pieces where everyone is on deck. Pole numbers, juggling, clowning – it’s all part of the mix. As is another concept of Cirque Forever: whatever the main act in front of you, there is almost always a body of charismatic performers on the periphery, providing an almost equal rush. Yes, you’re going to miss something – you can’t help it – as your head swivels from side to side in an attempt to keep up. There’s a hypnotic piece called “At the Office,” where a multitude of skaters mimic robotic office workers to a click-clack typewriter soundtrack.

Cirgue du Soleil performers in a production of
Cirgue du Soleil performers in a production of “Crystal”. (Courtesy Matt Beard/Cirque du Soleil)

The music? As always, a juxtaposition of world music, from dramatic propulsive throbbers to klezmer to finger-snapping jazz, sizzling fiddle, Dropkick Murphys-esque Celtic rock and more. One of the highlights is a gorgeous, full-throttle rendition of Sia’s “Chandelier” (pre-recorded vocals) with Crystal high in the air, swinging majestically on a trapeze. (Ignore the lyrical theme of alcoholism; get lost in the sweeping sound and image.) The music is by Montreal composer Maxim Lepage. The covers of pop songs are a first for a Cirque show.

“It’s like a live movie score,” said bandleader Conrad Askland, a 2017 graduate of the Berklee School of Music’s online undergraduate program. throughout the show only when it comes out for different parts.. I’m running a live broadcast on a computer with multiple screens. In my mind, if the music is well done, you don’t necessarily notice the music at all times , like a good movie.

Backstage in the musicians' area, conductor Conrad Askland and sound technician Splash prepare for a performance of
Backstage in the musicians’ area, bandleader Conrad Askland and sound technician Splash prepare for a performance of “Crystal” at the Agganis Arena. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It’s not all thrills and chills. At one point, Crystal finds love and romance through courtship and ballroom dancing numbers. And that bit about Crystal rejecting her family at first? It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say there’s a reconciliation, as Crystal smashes through the ice and, at the end, a grand finale featuring an ensemble cast of acrobats and skaters.

Opening night drew only around 2,000 people, a third of the house. I hope my enthusiasm here bolsters that number. In a world long devoid of live entertainment — let alone multilevel live entertainment — “Crystal” delivers two hours of jaw-dropping, smile-inducing fantasy. It transports you to another world, familiar, but surreal and surprising. Oh, and if you go, dress warm. It’s cool in there.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Crystal” runs until June 12 at the Agganis Arena.


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