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Contortionists perform during the opening night of Cirque du Soleil's new production, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities, in Toronto on April 14.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

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  • Title: Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities
  • Written and directed by: Michel Laprise
  • Company: Cirque du Soleil
  • Venue: Ontario Place
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: To July 17, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: No mask or proof of vaccination required

In its most thrilling, death-defying feat of all time, Cirque du Soleil has survived the pandemic and a brush with bankruptcy. Tah-dah!

Now, nine months after the Quebec-based circus colossus under new ownership started to reopen its resident shows in Las Vegas, it is bringing back its biggest big-top hits across Canada.

Alegria, a show that’s been around in one form or another since 1994, recently opened in Vancouver, and Kooza, which first launched in 2007, is about to hit the stage again in Montreal.

Meanwhile, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities, a 2014 show directed and written by Michel Laprise, relaunched in Toronto in a tent set up on the grounds of Ontario Place last week. I can’t recall the company ever having its grand chapiteaux set up in the country’s three biggest cities all at once before.

Kurios shows the spell the company can still hold over spectators. It is certainly one of Cirque’s most gorgeously designed shows – with a steampunk look and an incomprehensible-but-who-cares story centring around an inventor that allows for all kinds of visual inspiration.

There’s one creature that looks like a giant bellows (Nico, the Accordion Man) and another who walks around like a human slinky (called Klara, the Telegraph of the Invisible).

Perhaps because the pandemic deprived me of my annual dose of Cirque, or perhaps because I brought along a child who was immediately agog, I was captivated by the sheer colourful spectacle of Kurios (especially the costumes by Philippe Guillotel) right off the bat as the performers chug-chugged into the tent as if a giant steam engine.

The circus acts in the show are, expectedly, impressive – but the deep integration of design elements elevates many of them to the level of art.

An aerial routine is, for instance, performed on a suspended bicycle rather than a trapeze – with performer Anne Weissbecker hanging off of its tires by her feet, and somehow pedalling it while spinning upside down.

Then there’s a hand-balancing scene that’s framed as a Victorian séance, where the main performer (Ukraine’s Andrii Bondarenko) stacks chairs on a table, higher and higher, while striking impossible poses atop the heap. The coup de théâtre, however, comes when a different performer appears upside-down at the apex of the big top, mirroring the same actions, but climbing downwards, chair by chair. It’s a true merging of circus and theatre.

While I’m unlikely to ever be fully wowed by yo-yo tricks (sorry, Chih-Min Tuan), there were enough terrific tumbling and trampoline routines in the second act to thrill me to my tastes.

Indeed, the show ends with a form of group gymnastics called the banquine that sees Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian performers throwing each other across the stage and catching one another.

Cirque du Soleil has stood by its employees of all origins – it hasn’t sent Russians back home as orchestras have – and I found something both heartening and a little heartbreaking about the show climaxing with this demonstration of the amazing things human beings can do working together.

The circus company seems, for now, to simply want to return to where it was before the pandemic. A couple of cracks did show, however, at the performance I saw.

Kurios marks Cirque's return after a two-year global hiatus of live events, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

For instance, Rima Hadchiti – who is one of the ten smallest people in the world – was out as a character called Mini Lili for “personal reasons” and there was no understudy to take her place. This led to the mystifying appearance of miniature sets with full-sized performers standing in front of them from time to time like some kind of otherworldly Showcase Showdown. (A Cirque spokesperson says of Hadchiti: “She is doing well and will be back in the show shortly.”)

The clowning in Kurios (by Facundo Gimenez) is also badly in need of being built back better.

First, in an “invisible circus” bit, Gimenez’s clown keeps sexually harassing miniature unseen performers – and getting slapped in the face. Funny? You decide. But I quickly tired of a routine so dependent on a mechanical set that it felt more like a window display.

Later on, the same clown returns for a really hackneyed bit, however – one that involves inviting a female audience member up on stage and then putting the moves on her. The twist here is that, after a brief bit of creepin’, the clown leaves the audience volunteer on his living-room couch and goes to get drinks – and then returns in character as a series of pets. Gimenez, for instance, pretends he’s a cat at one point and starts doing gross things like hacking up a hairball.

Where I felt the routine crossed a line was when the cat started chasing a laser pointer that was eventually pointed directly at the volunteer’s breasts. Making a young audience member blush by having a thousand people stare at her chest and laugh at the possibility she might get groped by a clown pretending to be a cat is just crass. Cirque rose to prominence claiming to have reinvented the circus; surely, it can excise a little sexism as it resurrects its shows.

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