Simultaneously enchanting and perplexing, the new Cirque du Soleil show Iris is pretty much exactly what one would expect when you ask a French-Canadian circus troupe to interpret ”the world of cinema.” Appropriately stationed at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, this $100 million production attempts to explore the evolution of cinema via dazzling acrobatic feats. But the spectacle’s connection to film is so oblique at times that one wonders whether the performers saw any movies at all during those months of nonstop training.
We’re left with a show about cinema that’s only vaguely about cinema. Under normal circumstances, that’d represent an egregious shortcoming. But ”normal” is a word that has no meaning to Cirque. The company prides itself on conjuring psychedelic imagery to complement its daredevil stunts, and in that regard, Iris doesn’t disappoint. Like Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, Iris leaves you with so many striking visions that the show’s tenuous grasp of its subject matter becomes almost irrelevant.
Iris’ story — if you want to call it that — follows a diminutive composer named Buster (Raphael Cruz) as he chases the girl of his dreams, movie starlet Scarlett (Alice Dufour and Olga Pikhienko). The chase becomes a surrealistic journey through the history and genres of motion pictures. Before you know it, two twin acrobats (Andrew and Kevin Atherton) are soaring above the audience, each holding on to a single aerial strap with one hand. The act has virtually nothing to do with cinema, but it’s an astonishing sight nonetheless.
Iris then jumps from one acrobatic exhibit to the next, with forgettable comic interludes from a posse of clowns. Many of the circus acts, like those featuring a quartet of female contortionists or a flipping trapeze artist, are reconfigured routines from earlier productions. They’re still impressive to watch, but will be familiar to anyone with prior exposure to Cirque.
However, every now and then, Iris conjures an enthralling new trick. The highlight involves a row of seven small rooms, each equipped with a door that leads into the next room. A performer enters the first room, and as he opens the door and advances to the second room, another performer steps into the first room. Soon there are seven performers, and each one quickly replicates the actions of the guy in the adjacent room. The audience realizes that it isn’t looking at a series of rooms, but rather a filmstrip in which each room represents a single frame of footage. It’s hard to describe yet glorious to watch, and it’s one of the few moments where Iris successfully captures the magical aura of cinema. (Some advice: Do not splurge for seats in the front orchestra. Sitting farther back allows you to better appreciate the show’s carefully choreographed compositions.)
Holding Iris together is Danny Elfman’s propulsive original music, performed by an orchestra sitting in the balcony boxes. It’s a truly cinematic score that bounces and leaps in perfect harmony with the acrobats. And while Elfman occasionally borrows from himself — one snippet sounds dangerously similar to Black Beauty — his work here elevates the show’s film aspirations. The whole shebang might have crumbled had Cirque opted for its customary Enya-like yoga-perfect soundscape.
Cirque du Soleil hopes Iris will play at the Kodak for at least a decade (with a hiatus of several weeks each winter so the theater can host the Academy Awards). While the show’s actual longevity is an open question, Hollywood may finally have the hit live attraction it desperately needs. B+
(Tickets: www.cirquedusoleil.com/iris or 877-943-IRIS)