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Cirque du Soleil's Kooza is rooted in classic circus performances.MATT BEARD/CIRQUE DU SOLEIL

  • Title: Kooza
  • Written and directed by: David Shiner
  • Company: Cirque du Soleil
  • City: Runs under the Big Top in Toronto to June 18; in Calgary from Aug. 25 to Oct. 8; in Vancouver from Oct. 21 to Dec. 31. For precise locations, visit

Critic’s Pick

Cirque du Soleil is back in Toronto in classic circus form with Kooza.

This 2007 touring big-top show that was rebooted in Montreal last summer, and which heads to Calgary and Vancouver next, features throwback aesthetics and a framing narrative that’s timeless.

The Innocent (Cédric Bélisle), a childlike clown in striped pyjamas and with a Rudolph-red nose, wanders the stage trying to fly a kite at the start of the show.

A jack-in-the-box is delivered to him – but, when it pops open, the stylish jack hops right out of the box. This jack (dubbed The Trickster in production materials) leads the sweet naif off to a magical land, located somewhere between (Little Nemo in) Slumberland and (Alice in) Wonderland.

As you might expect, The Innocent discovers a lot of spiffily costumed circus acts on his journey.

First, he encounters a contortionist trio (duo at some performances) that is most notable for a moment where one of the women in it somehow make her legs run laps around her head. Then, he witnesses an aerial silks performance that turns another woman into a human yo-yo. This is followed by a fellow with a diabolos doing, well, actual yo-yo tricks with his big fancy yo-yo.

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Kooza's Wheel of Death performance is certain to make you exclaim 'wowza'!MATT BEARD/Cirque du Soleil

All of these acts are performed with polish, but if you’re a jaded regular Cirque goer such as this occasional circus critic, they might feel more like filler than proper thrillers.

The act in Kooza that most makes you go “Wowza!” is the Wheel of Death.

If you’ve never seen this routine before, it involves a contraption that looks like two hamster wheels connected together by a long crank. But rather than the hamster wheels spinning, the whole machine does, the weight of performers making it go around in dizzying circles like feet pushing the pedals of a bike.

Two daredevils (Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Ronald Solis) run in these wheels as they spin through the air in order to stay upright. Then, things get scarier as they jump in the wheels as they fly through space and move in a way that seems to defy gravity. Then, suddenly, the performers are on top of the wheels jumping rope while zipping around – a trick on top of a trick.

While Ringling Bros. rebranded its version of this act the Wheel of Steel a long time ago, Cirque du Soleil uses the classic name that captures the sheer terror (with a cherry of guilt on top) that an audience feels watching this seemingly extremely dangerous circus routine.

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Kooza's Contortion routine is one of the more notable moments in the show, particularly when one of the performers somehow makes her legs run laps around her head.CIRQUE DU SOLEIL

When one of the performers tripped on his jump rope while whizzing by the top of the big top on the afternoon I was at Kooza, I screamed and then thought I might faint for a second. You can’t beat that for entertainment.

The Wheel of Death appears in Kooza as part of a longer segment that involves dancing skeletons and made me think of an old 1929 Silly Symphony cartoon that starred Mickey Mouse – one of a number of parts of the show that have an old-timey feel. The costumes designed by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt – and the mish-mashy score composed by Jean-François Côté – also nod toward Indian cultures from time to time; viewed from another angle, they’re examples of authentically Québécois kitsch.

David Shiner, the well-known American clown, is the writer and director of Kooza, which accounts for the elegance in concept and execution of its overall arc.

There’s an extended riff on the old mime glass-box routine where the King character and his two minions are trying to get to a crown on the other side of an invisible wall that had my four-year-old son in absolute stitches. (Ok, me too.)

Last year, Cirque du Soleil set up shop in Toronto at Ontario Place until it was chased away by the Honda Indy.

This year, it’s set up its big top on a site further west that used to be Mr. Christie’s cookie factory (2150 Lake Shore Blvd. W.) in the Humber Bay Shores neighbourhood.

A warning and disclosure: It took me longer to drive to this location than I thought for a 4 p.m. Friday show, so I looped back on Saturday to catch the first 15 minutes I had missed in order to write this review. A nice benefit of the new site, however: There are restaurants by the lake within a few minutes walk if you want to grab dinner beforehand or afterward.

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