Cirque du Soleil's 'Kooza' -- Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

On its 25th anniversary, Cirque du Soleil returns to its roots with "Kooza," combining the circus traditions of acrobatic performance and the art of the clown.

For the crowd, other Cirque traditions are honored as well: gasping, shrieking, laughing, wonderment and the nagging feeling that, geez, you have just got to get back in the gym.

Cirque, with its familiar blue and gold tent pitched in the shadow of the Santa Monica Pier for a scheduled run through November, is back with its brand of intimate performance art on the circular stage. As with the other shows before it, a good time is guaranteed.

Writer-director David Shiner incorporates many of the circus staples: trampolines, a high-wire act, stilts, somersaults, unicyles, bicycles, a trapeze lass that would make Burt Lancaster proud, jugglers with bowling pins, etc. What, no elephants?

But as one has come to expect, Circue takes everything up a notch. The high-wire performance features four men working two wires, 15 and 25 feet above the stage. In one display, there's a man standing on a chair ... which rests on a pole ... that's perched on the shoulders of two other guys ... who are each straddling a bicycle on the wire.

An piece called Contortion features three rather pliable ladies locked into one another like kittens on a cold night. It becomes a thing of beauty, strength and the stuff of every man's dreams. One moment, a dancer runs around herself while her chin rests on the stage. That's about the best way to describe it.

And then there's the never-before-seen 1,600-pound Wheel of Death, where two artists run inside and outside two counter-rotating steel cages flying round and round. This one, the heart-stopping center of the three-hour show, has you fearing for the safety of the performers.

The laughs come from a dog who needs some house training, the clowns -- one looks like the Burger King wearing throwback Denver Broncos leggings, another is a flamboyant British pickpocket -- and the folks from the crowd who are dragged onstage as uncomfortable, unwilling "volunteers." The brass-filled orchestra, sets and costumes are up to the usual standards.

As with all Cirque shows, there's a great Zen moment. This time, a serene, sinewy fellow with zero body fat does a handstand (as in one hand) atop a 23-foot-tall tower of chairs (the last one is askew, of course) in a remarkable display of muscle control.

I really need to get back in the gym.

Venue: Parking lot adjacent to Santa Monica Pier (Through Nov. 29)