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Poetic Realism in Las Vegas

Surrealism is not a foreign concept to Las Vegas. In the arc of a twenty-minute stroll along the strip one encounters the most revelatory combination of environments from a circus big top to a circle of wagon trains to a pirate battle raging on a seaside inlet. The latter includes a cast of villagers, pirates, and a newly arrived contingent of sirens (to give the performance what it had formerly lacked in sex appeal). At a mere fifty-foot distance lies Venice, complete with an ersatz Saint Mark’s Cathedral, lagoons, and gondolas. A faux Venetian palazzo houses the Guggenheim Las Vegas in deference to Peggy’s penchant for things Italian. Paris, ancient Rome, and Egypt await as the visitor makes his way through a sea of gamblers past islands of neon and gin wedding matrimonial chapel shoals.

But where most of Las Vegas succumbs to kitsch, the Cirque du Soleil’s O transcends it, while sharing interesting affinities with the Poetic Realism of Jean Cocteau. Its stage, discreetly contiguous to the gaming rooms of the Bellagio Hotel, consist of a 1.5-million-gallon pool of water. In Jean Cocteau’s 1932 surrealist film The Blood of a Poet, the poet passes through a mirror into a state of poetic consciousness. For O Director Franco Dragone, a grand pool of Narcissus lies at the boundary of ordinary life and the fantastic.

Still from Le Sang d’un Poète by Jean Cocteau, France, 1932.

While seated in the theatre (which resembles a European opera house), the public is introduced to clowns who sport tattered umbrellas, insufficient to protect them from cascades of water that hail from the ceiling. The clowns are followed by fairies and warlocks from a netherworld who make their way through the seated audience, cracking whips against the aisles and disappearing into fissures in the vast red curtain that still obscures the stage. In an instant, what appears to be a single curtain, flies off in myriad diaphanous pieces in as many directions, reveling a vast pool of water.

A headless woman, in Elizabethan garb, is slowly lowered into the pool on a rope, surrounded by the legs of swimmers poised upright in the water. Like the eye of Luis Buñuel’s Andalusian dog, cut with a razor, the wound of this headless woman invites us to a place where our rational mind no longer reigns over the senses. Like the swimmers, or Cocteau’s little girl who walks on walls in The Blood of a Poet, gravity and all laws of physical nature are defied. The acts that follow are as disparate and compelling as the rooms into which Cocteau’s poet wanders.

Still from Le Sang d’un Poète by Jean Cocteau, France, 1932.

Descending from the sky to the water, celestial acrobats dive into the pool, swimming in synchronized constellations like a Buzby Berkley choreography. A skeletal ghost ship appears in the sky manned by a crew of men and women who, through the movement of their bodies, cause the vessel to sway back and forth like a great pendulum. One by one the sailors abandon ship, casting themselves from dizzying heights into the pool below. Then the stage is cleared, save for a burning clown, seemingly unaware that he is aflame, inscrutably seated on a chair on the surface of the water. In an alchemical marriage of opposites, this man walks amid implacable flames upon the water of the stage and then disappears. The burning clown is followed by dancers with flaming batons, who create mesmerizing trails of light with their movement. An African shepherd now enters the stage singing a traditional song. Dancers from the troupe cajole a man from the audience to enter the stage, where he is made to climb a one-hundred-foot rope ladder to the catwalks only to plunge, head first, back into the pool along with other players who had awaited him on high. Mongolian contortionists enter the stage, moving and folding their bodies with the grace of a medusa in the sea.

Scene from O, by the Cirque du Soleil, Bellagio Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Perhaps the most extraordinary performance of O is the “Russian Swing.” For this act the set becomes a boiling, turbulent pool framed by disintegrating ramparts of what appears to be mud and straw. Water nymphs bear their king out onto the water on a suspended, swinging throne, crowned by a great bronze bell. To stage right and left issue divers, with swinging platforms on either side. As many as three standing men and women ride the swing at either side of the pool, rocking back and forth. Whenever either swing reaches its highest point above the pool, the diver springs off of it, soaring one hundred feet toward the opposing side before entering the water in a graceful dive. No sooner does one diver soar into the water but another leaps onto the rocking swing from behind. From left and right divers fly into the water under the stern gaze of a bell-crowned Neptune.

Scene from O, by the Cirque du Soleil, Bellagio Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Part of the allure of O lies in its music. Original music composed by Benoit Jutras accompanies “O,” played live by musicians in a booth beside the stage. Peppered with African, Middle Eastern, and Klezmer influences, the music enters into dialogue with the players to great effect. The vocals of Roxane Potvin compliment the clarity and depth of the watery stage. African musician Toumany Kouyaté also provides a suggestive rendering of a traditional song to the accompaniment of the kora, an African lute.

Scene from O, by the Cirque du Soleil, Bellagio Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Cocteau in his experimental films was proud to be an “amateur” and realized his works with an economy of means and prodigious creativity. Despite its high production value, Cirque du Soleil’s O retains a sense of improvisation and collaboration between the director and cast and the inclusion of audience members brings the production still closer. When the performance was at an end and I filed out with the rest of the audience into the casinos of the Bellagio, I realized how completely O had taken hold of me. Like the Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of A Poet, O genuinely and seemingly effortlessly, evokes the spirit of fables and myths.

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O by Cirque du Soleil, is performed nightly at 7:30 and 10:30 at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. Dark Monday and Tuesday. For ticket information call 800-392-1999
or 702-796-9999.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2004.

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