Documentary Circus

The purists of Bravo’s Cirque du Soleil Fire Within.

Another opening, another show

For two months now, a cool, understated weekly series has chronicled the making of Varekai, the most recent production from Cirque du Soleil, which opened last August in Toronto. The series, Cirque du Soleil Fire Within (Bravo, Monday, 9 p.m. ET), tunes into the banality—and venality—of the lavish fantasy produced by the Cirque dreamweavers. At the same time, it provides a low-key reminder of the formal differences between documentary and reality TV.

In this show, the cast—circus performers, mostly—do not wear microphones. The big tent they pass through is full of irregular light and shadow, denied the warm pink-gold of studio lights. The performers are almost never presented in one-person “singles”; rather, they cluster in pairs or small groups. Interviews are conducted on the fly, with no styling. And, in the tradition of documentaries of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there are, it seems, no head slates—no clap to signal to the crew that a scene has “begun.” Rarely, if ever, does anyone appear to move in deference to the filmmakers.

The one to whom they defer is someone else entirely: Guy Laliberté, the fearsome founder and owner of the circus—the paradigmatic ring leader. Bald, with a formidable skull and a taste for breath spray, Laliberté decides, autocratically, which acts work and which fall flat. He spits, declaims, fires people. On Monday’s show, he presided over what the troupers call “The Lion’s Den”—a grueling preview of Varekai for Laliberté and his 500-person entourage of “Cirque insiders.” The show enters the Lion’s Den a mere 15 days before it premieres. Until this moment, Laliberté has seen the show in bits and pieces; tonight he gets the whole shebang. The impresario was expected to be ruthless in his judgment, and he was.

Since the first episode of Cirque du Soleil Fire Within, Varekai changed drastically in rehearsals. Acts were dropped; new ones were brought in; people were sent home. Gareth, a fretful gymnast, fled the circus for London, only to return and have his act cut—and then restored. Months into rehearsals, Adrian flew in from Romania to ululate. Raquel and Stella, the triple-trapeze girls, were fired—and then brought back with a new mandate. Throughout, Oleg and Tatiana, two lead dancers, have been the big top’s king and queen. But tonight, before Laliberté, the show’s stars may become its flops, and vice versa.

“It’s almost the feeling before sex, before this show. I feel the same in my stomach, right here,” Oleg gloats, pressing his fingers onto his unyielding abdominals. “It’s a nice feeling.”

The documentary then runs through smudged-looking fragments of the show, which is loosely organized around the legend of Icarus. As Dominic Champagne, the director, has explained earlier, in a speech that was only technically not in French:

A man is dying, and he’s sure he’s dead. And all the family around will remind him, no, it’s not the end of something. It’s the beginning of something else. This show is just about that. The lesson that everybody has to share with them is that something else is possible.

Icarus crashes down. Strange creatures gather, their bodies twisted. Lovers dance. People are thrown around in nets. Adrian makes strange sounds. Heaven, it seems, is loud and Gallic.

Ringmaster’s verdict on the show: Zzzzzzz

Midway through the episode, Laliberté renders his verdict: The show is boring. Out with sensuality—and in with what Michel Laprise, who begins instantly booking replacement acts, calls “danger.” Oleg and Tatiana are cut from the premiere. (“We are very upset, of course.”) Gareth and Ashley are demoted to supporting cast. And, finally, Adrian, a bearlike tenor among the young, ripped gymnasts, is told to leave town. A new singer is already on his way to Montreal.

The Romanian packs up to leave, sporadically addressing the camera. “The Cirque is an exceptional place to be for some people,” the big man mutters, as, in black silhouette before a broad window, he folds clothes, a cigarette hanging from his lip. He draws, then exhales, staring straight on—”But it’s a prison for others.” Un prison pour les autres.

We are far from The Real World or The Family. This is straight-up European psychodrama, but it takes little elitism and no dense Europhilia to enjoy it. Cirque du Soleil Fire Within is saturated with pathos, a story about earthbound people who produce spectacles in the air. In keeping with their show, their troubles are Icarian in nature: They fly, and they fall. There is hubris and comeuppance.

Still, because the series is so meticulously underproduced, voices get lost intermittently in ambient sound—the strange tent din of bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, wails, electronica, the grunts of acrobats. Visually, too, the old-fashioned vérité style takes some time to readjust to. With the costumes, the makeup, and the general chaos of the crowd, it’s hard at times to get a fix on someone. But Cirque du Soleil Fire Within is well worth watching—especially the last few episodes, as opening night approaches.

If Married by America and The Family have left you sure that real documentary is dead, let the excesses of circus showmanship—and purist filmmaking—remind you, as the director Champagne says of the show, that we’re not at the end of anything. This is Le Cirque: Jugglers can be booked. Or fired! Something else is possible!