Among other things, Iris is the name of an alt-rock song by the Goo Goo Dolls that you couldn’t avoid hearing at the end of the 20thcentury. You’ll still find its most famous angst-ridden, Baudrillardian lyric floating around on many a Facebook profile today: “When everything feels like the movies / yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive.”
Iris, more relevantly to this review, is also a permanent, movie-themed Cirque du Soleil show that recently celebrated its birthday in Los Angeles, the first year of a planned 10-year run in the same block as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and Madame Tussauds wax museum on Hollywood Boulevard.
Written and directed by French cineaste and choreographer Philippe Decouflé, Iris – like the Goo Goo Dolls song it is not named after – explores questions about where life, or live performance, ends and movies begin. The answers it gives aren’t simple.
Though it takes place in a regular theatre, Iris is what you’d call site specific. It draws on the audience’s knowledge that the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak) is the spot where the Academy Awards takes place every winter, an event where the movie biz celebrates its best and brightest by, paradoxically, making them go up on a stage and perform live.
Indeed, in one of the more amusing comedy routines that keeps the audience awake while Jean Rabasse’s elaborate, early Hollywood-inspired sets change, the show’s clowns give out a best-actor award to an unsuspecting audience member who must then prove his worth by seducing the camera.
Iris contains your typical Cirque feats of acrobatics and daring, such as a pair of Eastern European Tarzans swinging out over the audience on aerial straps. The best bits are a trampoline act inspired by rooftop chases in gangster movies and a juggler’s very simple but beautiful manipulation of a push broom.
But what distinguishes Iris from its many Cirque cousins around the world, especially in nearby Las Vegas, are Decouflé’s cinema-inspired scenes that are more dance and movement than circus. My favourite sequence took place in and around seven small rooms sitting side by side, like frames of a film strip. Dancers in each of the rooms move about, one after the other, in order, like a slowed-down movie. Next, the clowns – one dressed like Clark Gable, another closer to Jim Carrey in The Mask – record themselves live and then interact with their projected images. One will, for instance, bend over in front of a camera, then run through the rooms kicking himself in the bottom.
Iris must certainly be the busiest production ever orchestrated by Cirque du Soleil. Its central number takes place on an ersatz movie set where a jungle epic is being filmed in the back, while a flurry of circus routines, comedy acts and Busby Berkeley-style numbers obscure it downstage.
Set to Danny Elfman’s frenetic score, this controlled chaos – 62 artists all doing their own thing, only occasionally synching – becomes a dizzying live-action adaptation of Where’s Waldo. Can you find the stagehands catapulting into the air off of a teeter-totter? The Buster Keaton lookalike tumbling off a ladder? The anthropomorphic, remote-controlled movie camera that looks like Wall-E’s film-school brother?
Decouflé is not incapable of creating focus, however. In the stunning scene that follows, his riffs on classic movie shots glide past a series of apartment building windows showing us the residents within. Using solid black curtains to form a lens, he blocks out all but a rectangle of the set, then pans and scans, zooming in and out, to show us parts or all of the action.
What Decouflé does in these two scenes is, entertainingly, demonstrate the essential difference between live performance and film. In a theatre, each audience member is his or her own director – and that is both freeing and a little frightening. (After Iris ended, I immediately wanted to watch it again to see what I had missed.)
Elsewhere, Iris delights in blurring the lines between the projected and the physical, showing us backdrops that turn out to be animated, moving shadows that turn out to be puppets, and even a skirt that doubles as a zoetrope.
In the theatre, mixed-media is still considered avant-garde – see Robert Lepage or Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre – even though film and theatre have been combined since Sergei Eisenstein’s live experiments in the 1920s. The worlds have always been close and now are more than ever: Sony Pictures Entertainment has recently followed in the footsteps of Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal in beginning a Broadway division. Meanwhile, amid a stream of live opera and theatre broadcasts moving to movie theatres, Cirque du Soleil is about to try to break into Hollywood (again) with the James Cameron-produced 3-D film Worlds Away, coming this Christmas.
Iris may be being marketed as a live trip through cinematic history, but what Decouflé really does in this wild and unwieldy production is show us that the two worlds have been engaged in a feedback loop for the past century.