Review by Samuel L. Leiter
Few types of performance are as universal, or, shall I say, as globalized, as those built around acrobatic circus acts. Language, of course, even on those rare occasions when it plays a role, is mostly unnecessary; children, as well as grownups, understand that the ultimate purpose of these shows is to celebrate the incredible feats the well-trained human body can accomplish. The gold standard, of course, remains Cirque du Soleil in its various manifestations, but even that high-quality, high-tech, and high-cost series relies on essentially the same indispensible mix of standard procedures as all the others, the principal difference being the imaginative ways these are reconfigured—or disguised—each time out.
This leads me to the current visit to the New Victory Theater of Cirque Ziva; like the more artistically progressive Canadian group Cirque Éloize, it appropriates not just an arsenal of conventional acrobatics but also—despite its origins in Heibei Province, the People’s Republic of China—the signifier “cirque” to heighten its cachet of international respectability. Apart from the presence of its twenty-two Golden Dragon Acrobats, Chinese culture gets little more than lip service, being reflected in some of the scenic backdrops, a number of costumes (designed by Angela Chang, who also did the choreography), Chinese opera-like poses, a lion dance sequence, and lyrics accompanying some of the generic music. As for the acts, you’ve probably seen variations on most of them before.
Cirque Ziva has visited the New Victory Theatre several times, but this was my introduction to it. Artistic director Danny Chang hasn’t provided any unifying theme (or comedy) to the show, most of which is superbly performed by uncannily flexible, jelly-boned acrobats whose sense of balance can make the most graceful of us feel like clods. We see, for example, acrobats spinning around within large and small metal rings; young women in bejeweled crowns standing one behind the other, manipulating their gold-spiked fingers like a many-armed Hindu goddess come to life; men diving and leaping through sets of hoops; and juggling acts in which reclining performers thrust their legs in the air as they blithely toss volleyballs about on their soles, or spin tables and large pots around on them. Awesome? Yes. Been there, seen that? Also yes.
Other standards include a lariat spinning act; a seatless unicycle routine; a number using diablos, those hour-glass items that spin on narrow, hand-held ropes; fancy flag waving; a bicycle ride with nine fan-holding performers climbing aboard; and a man creating a tower of six chairs so that, when he stands at their top, he can do presumably death-defying handstands. For some reason, though, he wears a wire, guaranteeing his safety and making his handstands look artificially supported.
Also on view during the two-hour, one-intermission presentation are gymnastics done by a woman while hanging from strips of cloth (like that Marriott commercial), an act strangely combined with a two-man strength and balancing act that forces you to split your focus. There are, of course, awesome contortionists, one of whom, the astonishing Ping Gao, does an arresting (but orthodox) number involving twisting about with tiered trays of wine glasses balanced on a foot extended straight up, and ending with similar tiers balanced on her other foot as well, not to mention her hands and head.
While adults will appreciate the performers’ skills (despite the occasional snafu), they’ll find little new or original here. Cirque Ziva, however, is really aimed at kids, few of whom will walk away unimpressed, unless they make a habit of seeing each new cirque when it hits the Big Apple.
Cirque Ziva www.newvictory.org
New Victory Theatre 209 W. 42nd Street NYC Through January 4