Frozen Cirque

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Wednesday March 28, 2018
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It's been 20 years since Cirque du Soleil introduced its reputation-crowning production O. That spectacle, still running at Las Vegas' Bellagio, augmented the company's earth- and air-bound traditions with a new performance medium: water. Now, within a month of Adam Rippon gliding into the fantasies of many a gay man, drama queens delighting at the arrival of Disney's Frozen on Broadway, and Alison Janney winning the gold as Tanya Harding's own Mama (F)Rose, Cirque du Soleil returns to the Bay Area with what seems like an inevitable next iteration of its trademark stagecraft: Crystal: A Breakthrough Ice Experience.

The touring show, which opened at the SAP Center in San Jose last night and runs through the weekend, has demanded the development of new skill sets by veteran Cirque performers - who have added skating to their acrobatic repertoires - and by athletes drawn not only from figure skating, but from speed skating and extreme winter sports like Ice Cross Downhill.

Like the competitive synchronized swimmers who suddenly had new career opportunities opened up to them by O, Crystal offers ice athletes a chance to extend their skating careers if they are willing to take on new challenges.

"I think it's fair to say that we are asking for more from the skaters than from the acrobats who have been in circuses before," said Artistic Director Fabrice Lemire in a recent interview. "Especially for the ones who are not figure skaters, it can be very challenging to take something they've been trained to do as athletic competition and to rethink it as a performance for an audience. You can't be self-absorbed. To play in Cirque du Soleil requires emotion as well as technique."

A native Parisian, the openly gay Lemire first came to North America as a dancer at age 23, and made his home in San Francisco from 1996 to 2000, performing with the SF Opera ballet, Alonzo King Lines, and other troupes. With Cirque du Soleil since 2008, he toured the world with four different productions prior to putting his career on ice.

Lemire points out that Crystal distinguishes itself from the ice-show competition - Disney on Ice, with its appeal to small children; and Stars on Ice, a tour by the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team, including Rippon (coming to the SAP Center on May 13) - through the elaborate, immersive staging and dialogue-free narrative that are Cirque du Soleil hallmarks.

"Crystal tells the story of a girl who feels that she doesn't fit into society and is an outsider, but eventually comes to have a sense of pride and self-confidence," explains Lemire. "I loooove this story. Especially right now, it has a great resonance.

"I hope," he says, "that the audience gets so caught up in the movement and the journey of the show that they sometimes don't even think about the fact that this is all being done on ice."

Among the stunning production elements are video projections that transform the surface of the ice rink with color and pattern, a forest of gleaming metallic trees, and an enormous illuminated "ice" castle.

Skating fans will discover no shortage of axels, Salchows, lutzes and lifts, but for most spectators, the show's more unorthodox elements - including downhill skating on enormous ramps, juggling while skating, and acts that seamlessly elide ice choreography with aerial acrobatics - will prove its most memorable.

While Lemire assumes that gay men will make up a significant part of the Bay Area audience for Crystal, he knows that the gay community everywhere has a special attraction to ice skating. "I think that skating combines two ideals that gay men have a special appreciation for: physical power and aesthetic grace.

"Also," he notes, "Whenever you show some muscle tone in the butt, that's appealing."

Cirque du Soleil, Crystal: A Breakthrough Ice Experience, SAP Center, San Jose, through Sun., April 1. Tickets ($56-$150):