A visually stunning hybrid between a Broadway musical and a traditional circus show, Cirque Dreams Illumination came to the University of Massachusetts’ Mullins Center stage for a two-hour performance on Sunday night, leaving audience members both laughing and gasping in wonder.
The plot of the show – which acted as more of a suggestion than as a coherent narrative – followed a singing news correspondent inspecting the lives of the everyday citizens in her home city. In Cirque Dreams Illumination, however, the citizens and the city itself were anything but ordinary: the policemen were a pair of acrobats; women who twist their bodies in unimaginable directions became stoplights and street signs; the local break dancers doubled as contortionists; and the neighborhood hobo was also a clown.
The story took place beneath an elevated train, with graffiti on the walls and a shoeshine station near the stairs to the train stop. As the reporter travelled through her day, the audience was taken on a journey into ordinary city life, seen through a lens of dream and illusion.
The opening number of the show introduced the city’s characters. A young woman danced ballet across the stage, followed by three agile admirers: a sailor, a soldier and a naval officer. A dashing couple waltzed and tangoed in one corner of the stage, changing costumes behind a silk curtain in the blink of an eye. In the next scene, a construction worker was called in to repair a downed wire; while doing repairs, he free-balanced on a rope, doing handstands, somersaults and cartwheels while five feet in the air.
The show then shifted to a construction scene, featuring the four contortionist women, dressed in caution tape, creating shapes with their bodies while hanging from the frame of a cube suspended 15 feet above the stage.
The next musical number featured the news correspondent singing about how busy the city is, and the stage swam with activity. Unicyclists swerved through the stage as the girl and her followers danced, the hobo clown played tricks on people, and all manner of construction workers, painters, and business men flipped, twisted, and flew across the stage in all directions. When the hobo clown pulled an imaginary plug on all of the action, everybody froze and a contortionist break dancer took center stage, surrounded by his crew of fellow street dancers in masks and colored sweat suits.
The show continued, with the sailor balancing and doing handstands on three, then four, then five stacked chairs. A 911 call brought the firefighters and acrobat police onstage to question bystanders.
Before intermission, the clown invited four audience members onstage to direct them in a hilarious production of love and betrayal. Instead of yelling at the impromptu performers, some of whom were timid with directions, the clown communicated purely by expressively using a silver whistle.
After intermission, the hobo clown and a man in a suit paired up to become a midget, dancing to radio tunes, including songs by the Dropkick Murphys and Michael Jackson. The break dancer rode onstage in an imaginary car with the contortionist women as wheels and continued to dance with them as they became traffic symbols. A train conductor swirled across the stage inside of a large silver hoop; the hobo clown slides across the stage with a bathtub.
The mood darkened for a period as the ballet dancer and her true lover performed around the bathtub brought in by the clown; her lover danced on a rope suspended above the bath to slow, soothing music. The tempo increased again for an acrobatic number featuring three men seemingly made of trash and three ladies in dresses of trash as backup dancers.
The show ended with an explosive finale of the news reporter’s cameraman balancing large metal corkscrews on his head, with a human ‘camera’ doing tricks at the top.
These acts happened in a lightning quick manner that made the entire show seem like a surreal dream sequence. The experience was blended together in an awe-inspiring act of incredible human feats and metallic, urban colors and images. The city of Cirque Dreams Illumination threw the idea of “normal” out the window and left the UMass audience with a feeling of having traveled to an imaginary time and place that exists only in the mind.
Lindsay Orlov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.