Given that Cirque du Soleil is just about the only internationally-renowned circus troupe that the average Joe Bloggs could name, the company must be doing something right. After seeing Zaia, Cirque du Soleil’s resident show at The Venetian hotel in Macau, I have some idea what they are doing right – but also, plenty of what they’re doing wrong too.
Scoring a unique and exclusive Cirque du Soleil show is a major coup for Macau, a city desperately trying to turn itself from ‘humdrum island offering gambling 24/7’ to ‘Las Vegas style entertainment-destination offering gambling 24/7’ with varying degrees of success. The Zaia theatre was custom-built for the show and the results are spectacular – I daresay there’s not a bad seat in the house and the performers utilise the space to within an inch of its life, with performers floating and flying overhead throughout. Coupled with an equally impressive stage that sees colourful characters and intricate sets emerging from just about every direction imaginable, plus the trademark Cirque du Soleil flamboyant costumes and make-up, it’s a visual feast. Sometimes too much of a feast; when dancers are even strutting their stuff in the sound booths, you know there’s perhaps too much going on!
The story is practically summed up in the show’s advertising leaflets – a girl’s voyage of discovery through mysterious and beautiful galaxies, peopled (coincidentally, I’m sure!) with folk that just happen to boast a wide array of astonishing circus skills. The people I went to see Zaia with complained that they didn’t see much of this so-called storyline, a plot that would barely be enough to sustain a television commercial, let alone a 90-minute stage show. It’s basically an excuse for Cirque du Soleil to wheel on various sets and performers, strung together with a clunky narrative thread that sees the girl (the eponymous Zaia) ferried across the auditorium various times in a balloon as she watches these scenes. There are occasional appearances by a polar bear (explainable only for the cute merchandise opportunities he offers) and a clown tiresomely touting a giant egg – when the thing finally cracks at the end, the sense of anticlimax was palpable. Let’s just say J K Rowling probably won’t be on the phone to Cirque for new story ideas.
The acts range in quality and, sadly, competence. I wasn’t fussed about seeing some guys juggle for far too long, even if they were using glo-in-the-dark equipment. A potentially great trapeze act was marred by the acrobats spending more time in the net than they did flying through the air; by the end, we weren’t sure who was falling off intentionally and who just wasn’t very good. A trampoline act takes ages to set up but didn’t meet expectations whilst a troupe of fire-dancers are similar to the ones in Hong Kong Disneyland’s Lion King show, except the latter perform with a lot more enthusiasm and the bonus of catchy Disney songs to accompany their flame-twirling. And you know there’s gotta be more interesting things to watch on stage than the bloke whose main skill seems to be the ability to ermm… skip really really fast.
Sometimes less is more. The best performance came right at the beginning, with a breath-taking acrobatic display by a couple hanging from a pole dangling precariously from the ceiling as their only prop. They pulled shapes I couldn’t even manage on a flat surface. There’s another graceful pair of Arctic-looking acrobats who balance on each other in an impressively fluid series of figures that move seamlessly from one pose to another, and an aerial dance between Zaia and a glitter-encrusted lad that soars above in an expression of love.
These latter acts were the only ones that came anything close to evoking an emotion in me, capturing some element of sensuality and romance coupled with wide-eyed wonder at their athletic prowess. There’s also fun audience interaction at the beginning, as performers mingle with the audience in good-humoured skits but it’s light relief that’s over far too soon. The rest of the show is too po-faced by half, a sombre display of ‘aren’t we good?’ acrobatics, scored by Enya-lite warbling in a made-up (and frankly, irritating) language.
In Asia, where your elderly next-door neighbour could bust out a cartwheel on demand and the only special occasion needed to unleash pyrotechnics is that it’s a day of the week ending in ‘y’, there must to be some major wow factor on show for Zaia to really impress. Although it has this in terms of its aesthetic values, there are only fitful displays of true jaw-dropping acrobatic excellence whilst a compelling story or emotional depth, which could have set Zaia apart from its more mechanical competitors, are not dished up in plentiful portions either.
Overall Zaia, though nowhere near as phenomenal as it believes itself to be, provides a solid night’s entertainment and a welcome diversion from Macau’s grubbier charms. However, with similar attractions opening soon, it’s not one I have any desire to sit (or snooze) my way through again. Zaia may find that her ‘voyage of discovery’ in Macau doesn’t last nearly as long as she was hoping.
UPDATE: Rach proved right! Zaia closed early in February 2012. Check out my review of Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour here.
Zaia is on at The Venetian Hotel, Macau, every night except Wednesdays at 8pm, weekend matinees at 5pm. Tickets cost $388-788, matinees $188-588, with discount packages available.
Photos from Cirque du Soleil’s Zaia website.