Cirque de Soleil zoomed into town this past week for a handful of performances of “Quidam,” a production the Montreal-based company is taking on a five-nation tour. The show, which was created 17 years ago, was presented at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which is less than a year old and has already broken records as the nation’s number 1 venue for ticket sales. Barclays Center has held 183 events, including 51 concerts with such draws as Barbra Streisand and Jay Z since opening on September 28, 2012.
Was “Quidam” the first theater piece at the Barclays arena?
That depends on whether “Quidam” is a work of theater.
Consult Cirque, and this is what they say about “Quidam”:
“Unlike any other Cirque du Soleil show, Quidam does not take spectators to an imaginary realm of fanciful, larger-than-life characters. Rather, it is an examination of our own world – inhabited by real people with real-life concerns.
Young Zoé is bored; her parents, distant and apathetic, ignore her. Her life has lost all meaning. Seeking to fill the void of her existence, she slides into an imaginary world – the world of Quidam – where she meets characters who encourage her to free her soul.”
That’s not what I saw. I saw about a dozen circus acts, nearly all of them mesmerizing. In one called “Statue,” a nearly naked man and woman lift each other up off the ground in ways that seem to contradict human anatomy and defy gravity. In another, a woman dangles mid-air from a piece of red silk hung from the (very tall) ceiling, twisting herself around the silk, climbing up it, falling down with it — the act is called Aerial Contortion in Silk. There are acrobats forming a series of human pyramids (Banquine), riding around as a human spoke in a giant wheel (German Wheel), skipping rope, juggling, balancing, using the Chinese yo-yo, jumping through airborne hoops, all in a spectacular way.
In-between the acts, a short adult dressed as a young girl silently walks the stage, accompanied by some eerie music. This is Zoe. She meets quidam. Quidam is actually a word in the English dictionary; its definition is “Somebody; one unknown.” I’m not sure what these interludes are supposed to be, but they are certainly not theatrical scenes in any traditional way.
The closest to a scene in “Quidam” is a comic set-piece. A clown plays a silent film director who calls for volunteers from the audience – he really just recruits people – to play out a melodramatic scene of a man discovering his wife embracing another man, and then shoots him. (I’ve seen this exact same scenario played out several times before — David Shiner in both “Old Hats” and “Fool Moon” — right down to the playful abuse of the recruits.)
“Quidam” is one of 19 shows that Cirque de Soleil performs in five continents, generating about a billion dollars a year in merchandise and ticket sales. While Cirque has been visited by tragedy and troubles of late, its shows remain a tremendous draw. I’ve seen various of their shows at Radio City Music Hall, in Disney World, and in Las Vegas, and have always been impressed by the acrobatic feats. I am also always baffled by those shows (Quidam, Zarkana) that try to impose some kind of vague storyline.
A more useful question than whether what Cirque de Soleil does can be called theater is whether the Barclays Center, home arena for the Brooklyn Nets and the NY Islanders, is a theater. Their calendar for August includes: Justin Bieber, Beyonce, the MTV Music Awards, and the Caribbean Fever Music Festival. The fall schedule features more concerts, a wrestling match, a few basketball games. The closest to theater is Sensation, “the world’s leading dance phenomena” in October, and Disney on Ice in November.
The theaters of Ancient Greece seated about 14,000 people, according to historians, who avidly attended the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes. Is it not possible 2,500 years later to find a tragedy or comedy or musical to fill the seats of the similarly-sized Barclays Center? It’s indoors, and theatergoers can popcorn and deli sandwiches during intermission.