January 2023


'Twas the Night Before Christmas
 Cirque du Soleil's Re-Imagining

Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house….. Every small child learns to recite the fifty-six lines of this late 19th century limerick (of disputed authorship) and probably carries with them into adulthood the quaint story of St. Nicholas' midnight ride to deliver gifts throughout the world.  My own earliest memories of the poem involved a Christmas Eve phone call with my uncle, then living in Detroit, when I insisted on reciting the entire poem while my mother  tried to dissuade me from running up a long-distance bill! 

The charming traditional tale has inspired many a dramatization, song, or visual offshoot story over the years, so it is no surprise that the mega entertainment franchise, Cirque du Soleil has created its own version of the story.  The eighty-minute, one-act retelling was part of the company's 2022 holiday touring program, and I was able to catch a recent performance at the Wang Theatre in Boston.

Cirque du Soleil originated as a street performance troupe called Les Echassiers (The Stilt-Walkers) in Quebec City in 1984 and rapidly evolved into the theatrical, character and narrative-driven approach of its current productions.  Notable are the absence of animals and the cohesive use of story, music, and circus skills to tell the tale.  Currently, the largest contemporary circus company in the world, Cirque du Soleil is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, employing almost 5,000 people and fielding multiple shows simultaneously worldwide. 

The formula is classic. Into the framework of a simple plot line – preferably that of a familiar story or a well-known  character – enhanced with live (or recorded tracks on tour) music, again chosen from existing repertoire, given a lavish visual production with colorful, glitzy costumes and as many special effects in lighting and stage magic as the venue will permit, the signature circus acts are inserted, each performed by artists who "own" that particular act.  The ensemble features artists learning their circus trade, performing simpler acts and "apprenticing" to learn starring feats or even to create their own act one day.

Cirque's 'Twas the Night Before is the company's first-ever Christmas production.  The libretto takes a slightly different twist on the familiar tale with Isabella, a jaded young girl, wandering away from her father into the night to search for the meaning of Christmas.  The soundtrack uses well-known carols and holiday songs, while the choreography applies the eight core circus performance routines to interpret lines of the poem. 


The program starts with the duo straps performing an intricate aerial pas de deux of dazzling lifts that suggests the child, Isabella's fascination with the snowfall and the magic of the night. The seeming weightlessness of the pair and their effortless, airborne balletic grace launches the air of wonderment.  The ensemble of elves provides the next interlude with dancing, juggling, and flying sparks of light.  Next the company continues with a funny group act on the Acro table using tumbling and other gymnastic acrobatics to suggest the rambunctious children not in their
beds, but very excited for Santa's arrival.

Then comes another master solo act: the hotel cart.  An aerial bellman's cart serves as a very elusive platform for the artist portraying Ava, a spoiled starlet, who discards the presents she disdains one by one. 


Her choreographed piece includes head stands in mid- air, arabesques, and triple axles – all in the precarious confines of the cart.  She is followed by a duo on roller skates who suggest a dance on a frozen lake.  Their virtuosity and perfectly timed feats conjure up their trust and love.

Another ensemble piece provides the segue.  In Diabolo, a quartet of young men toss and juggle glowing diabolos that complement the verses about the merriment and twinkle in Santa's eyes.  Then Isabella's father, who has come in search of his daughter, doffs his long robes and performs choreography on the aerial lamp. 


The metallic disc soaring across the stage suggests the moonlight "on the breast of the new fallen snow" in the poem.  Together with the next act, a woman performing an aerial balletic solo that allows her to use her arms and legs freely because she is attached to the flying pic by her hair, are perhaps the most breathtakingly lyrical of the show.


A fast-paced ensemble performance of hoop diving through a pillar of five hoops high and ending in limber somersaults follows. The antics of the eight gymnasts are meant to embody the frolicking of the reindeer, as Isabella and her father are reunited and reopen the story book with the poem they began at the start of the evening.  Santa appears, and the company all bring the performance to its joyously exuberant dancing conclusion.


'Twas the Night Before is Cirque du Soleil served up in holiday garb, and yet there is an indisputable magic all its own.  There is comfort in the very predictability of the story, music, and the circus acts themselves.  The audience can focus its attention on the dazzling virtuosity of the performers and marvel at the danger-defying choreography they execute.  The aerial acts summon a sense of otherworldliness, while the acrobatics return us to earth, albeit with a sense of superhuman strength and suppleness.  Time races by – helpful in sustaining the illusion and the tension.   For less than two hours, we become part of an experience that defies gravity and human limitations.  The fearlessness on stage is contagious, and we are inspired to imagine ourselves travelers in a brightly colored world of infinite possibilities.


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Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2023 Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold
 ©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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