Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
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september 2007

by Karren Alenier

If there is one label that characterizes the town of Las Vegas, excess would be that tag. At the top of the list of commodities flaunted extravagantly in Sin City is not money, booze, sex, or violence but water. Located in the center of Vegas Valley, a desert region of about 600 square miles, Las Vegas has on average an annual 4.16 inches of precipitation. Luxury hotels like the Venetian feature such opulent displays as an indoor-outdoor canal with gondolas and singing gondoliers imported from Venice while the Bellagio Hotel sports dancing fountains, a frequent balletic display of streaming water set to music that oddly reminds a viewer of fireworks. And it is at the Bellagio, where "O", the most excessive water show in the world takes place exclusively.


To appreciate the lavish entertainment of Cirque du Soleil's world class show entitled "O" (pronounced exactly as the French word eau, meaning water, is pronounced), think of the grand scale of opera. If one is strong enough to open the Oxford English Dictionary, besides seeing that the big O of theater arts offers arias, recitatives, choruses, orchestral accompaniment, lavish scenery, ballet, dance, grand procession, and colorful costumes, one would also see that the OED lists extravaganza as a possible element to describe opera. At the root, the word opera means labor, pains, exertion, a work produced.

Premiering in 1998 and having attracted over six million spectators, "O" took three years to develop and twelve months of intensive rehearsals. All 150 technicians and 85 cast members are scuba certified. During every performance, fourteen technicians work under water in the 1.5 million gallon pool. A series of moving platforms changes the depth of water that the performers work in or completely covers the pool providing a dry landscape.


Technical intricacies aside, "O", a highly developed set of circus routines, combines a history of theatrical styles that include Commedia dell'arte, physical theater, melodrama, follies, pantomime, and Total Theater, an all inclusive grand style of theater often associated with the operas of Richard Wagner and his theory of Gesamtkunstwerk. "O" also brings to mind such experimental theater as Robert Wilson's
I la Galigo, and the productions of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and 500 Clown theater troupe.


Although fluidity defines "O"s landscape, music, and the performers' graceful movements, occasionally the action stops in a tableau vivant. The most brilliantly memorable of these stop-action scenes occurs when the contortionists (all of these performers are from Mongolia) wearing attractive rose- and lime-colored costumes form flowers like those found on a lily pond.


Live instrumental music and singing augment the visual richness of the show. Song titles predominantly express water or land subjects: "Jeux D'Eau" (Water Games), "Mer Noir" (Black Sea), "Remous" (eddy), "Désert, Terre Aride" (arid land), and "Africa." Two other song title categories emotion—"Nostalgie" and "Simcha" (Joy) and names—"Ephra" (a reference to the Lost Tribes of the ancient Hebrews), "Tzelma" (a Biblical reference to God's creation of man as an exact reflection of the Divine) and "Svecounia," add human content to the predominate elemental themes of water and land. "Gamelan" is the only song title with a musical reference and although this reviewer initially thought some of the music sounded like a gamelan concert, gamelan was not part of the orchestra. The final song "O" according to program notes indicates unity and possibly infinity.

Exotic instruments deliver a satisfying candy for the ear that equates to a seamlessly delivered world music concert. Instruments played include:

    The kora (a 21-stringed, West African instrument described as a harp-lute. The body is made from a calabash cut in half and covered with a cow skin). 

    Djembe (an African drum).

    Chinese violin.


    Crumhorn (a woodwind instrument developed in the Middle Ages with a distinctive buzzing sound).

    Shawm (a woodwind instrument developed in the Middle Ages related to the crumhorn that was used outdoors because of its capacity for loudness. It was a predecessor of the modern oboe.) 

    Tiple (a small, 10 to 12 stringed instrument with a mix of steel and copper strings. Smaller than the acoustic guitar and associated with the ukulele, it was originally developed in 16th century Columbia and is associated with the Andean region of Columbia). 


One should not discount the human voice as instrument in "O". Was that unusual sound throat singing? With his music, composer Benoit Jutras promotes an international summit of sound capped off by a made up language affectionately known as Cirquish. However, one should be aware Commedia dell'arte also used language that was gibberish to appeal to audiences speaking many different dialects and to avoid censorship. Generally speaking these made-up languages are known as grammelot. Cirque du Soleil typically attracts multi-lingual theatergoers.


What keeps "O" from just being an amazing display of physical agility and prowess by many performers who were Olympic Game stars—this includes a synchronized high dive by three athletes, breath-taking simultaneous launches by several "Russian swings," parallel bar work performed aerially from their airborne barge—are the many characters who thread through the show.


The somewhat hunchbacked man in 18th century attire who chases the girl in the tutu suggests a variation on the Commedia dell'arte character Pantalone, the miserly old man who still thinks he is a lady-killer. The two clowns who open the show—they interact with audience members—provide a story of down-and-out refuges marooned on top of their house in a flood.

One caution is that this reviewer would not recommend this show for overly impressionable children. While there aren't any overt displays of sex, booze, or violence, there is a man on fire reading a burning newspaper. The man treats the experience so casually that it's horrifying.


Like everything in Vegas, this experience with cost you. Are the best seats in the house, the colorful program booklet with visually arresting images, and the CD worth the money? Yes indeed. There is nothing like this show anywhere and the creators have woven together something that lingers in the mind long after you leave the theater built especially for this show. This reviewer spoke at length with a woman named Lucille who worked in housekeeping at the Bellagio who said, before she goes back to San Diego (she longs for ocean), she is going to pay the big bucks to see "O". Therefore, take your lead from Lucille and don't cheat yourself. Instead of putting your money down on a gambling table, invest in "O". It's the kind of excess in which you'll never regret indulging. It will make you fat with pleasure.


Cover Photo - Veronique Vial
All Photos - Costumes - Dominique Lemieux

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About This Article

©2007 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas

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september 2007

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