21 years of art and circuses in one box
The Story So Far...
16 DVD releases have captured Cirque's live shows, as well as documentaries and TV series. There was also a film, Alegria, based on the Cirque show of the same name, which is now out-of-print. DVDTalk has reviews of several of the DVD titles:
The first two discs in this collection show the promise of what Cirque's shows would eventually become, capturing the group's second and third tours. That the first tour isn't included is a slight disappointment, but these shows are early enough in the run to not have the polish of later specials. The shortest of the live shows at under an hour each, they include some of the troupe's classic acts, like handbalancing, equilibriste (balancing on canes) and cycling, but also have a good deal of repetition, as the show hadn't grown much yet. The shows are pretty dated as well, looking as old as they are.
"Nouvelle Experience" is much closer in feel to the current incarnations of Cirque du Soleil, looking smooth, with tight choreography and good music. The show is a bit heavy on arial acts, but it does include one of the most impressive bits, the umbrella act, in which a woman juggles a folding oriental umbrella with her feet. It's something to behold. The group took a big leap forward at this time, creating "Saltimbanco," which tightened up the whole package, and added the dazzling Chinese Poles and Bungee Ballet. The troupe's ability to adapt advances in technology into art will enable the Cirque to stay relevant for a long time.
The first wave comes to a close with "A Baroque Odyssey," a 56-minute documentary produced at the time of the creation of "Mystere," the Cirque show at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. Looking back at the group's first 10 years, it's a decent, if slight retrospective of the troupe. I would have preferred a DVD of "Mystere," but what can you do?
Anyone with an image in their head of Cirque du Soleil had it put their by the second wave of Cirque. Starting with "Alegria," the show simply took off. Going back and forth between genius and just simply a good time, the group created three signature productions in "Alegria," "La Nouba" and "Varekai." There's nothing particularly wrong with "Quidam" and "Dralion," besides the age of the transfers, but they are just a very slight cut below the other shows.
"Quidam" brings in some of Cirque's greatest acts, including the adorable and incredible Diablos, young girls who whip a yo-yo around the stage, the German Wheel, and the Arial Contortion in Silk, but as this is early in development of these acts, they look much better in later shows. "Dralion" on the other hand stretches the boundaries of the group by introducing influences from Asia and Africa. The ballet on lights is certainly striking, and the return of a more polished Umbrella Act is welcome, but overall, it feels too much like previous shows.
"La Nouba" and "Varekai" are impressive in the way the music and action tie together, and the lighting and set design enhance everything. It's in these shows, one a resident show at Disney World, the other a touring group, that Cirque has struck the perfect balance of all its ingredients. "La Nouba" builds its strength in its acts, including a perfected performance by the Diablos, a nice BMX demonstration, and an outstanding acrobatics display including trampolines that is amazingly choreographed, while "Varekai" is masterful at creating atmosphere with a dark, dramatic set and beautiful costumes. Ironically, despite the very dark feel, some of the most entertaining parts of this show are the clowns, who provide two of the best clowning performances seen in this collection.
The Anniversary Collection is filled out by a pair of discs that aren't the usual live performance Cirque DVDs. First is "Journey of Man" a very short 39-minute film narrated by Ian McKellan. Originally seen as a 3-D IMAX film, it looks good on DVD, but is a bit heavy-handed as a representation of life via the troupe's stunts. This is the only performance piece in this set that wasn't shot live in front of an audience, and it has an entire different look because of the chance to light scenes for the camera, as the series "Solstrom" showed.
The final disc is "Midnight Sun," which presents a special one-night-only live performance by the Cirque at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2004. Performing on a massive outdoor stage in downtown Montreal, the cast delivers a music-focused set that is the second-longest of all 12 discs, second only to "Varekai." Though some of the old favorites, like the silk scarves and the German Wheels, are included, the show is mostly about the songs, and as such, doesn't have the same appeal as the other shows.
Anyone who has been to a live Cirque show will tell you how much of a feast it is for the eyes, as more happens on-stage than the main action. Thus, it can be very hard to capture the show for home video. These discs do a decent job, but too often, the editing needed to cover the action can create an erratic viewing experience akin to sitting with a hyperactive channel surfer. Nothing can match the feel of sitting in a live Cirque audience, but until every show hits the road, there are plenty of people who can only experience their performances on DVD or TV. For them, and for those who want to relive the experience of the show, this is the best available choice.
On a side note, the box says this is the Anniversary Collection, with the dates 1984 to 2005. By my count, that's 21 years, which is an odd choice for an anniversary. Why release it now? Why not last year when it was 20, or in four years when it will be 25? Plus, the set doesn't include the latest DVD, "Ka Extreme," which would have actually brought the collection up to the 2005 date on the box. These issues don't affect the overall quality of the set, but they are kind of annoying.
Note: For more detailed reviews of some of the individual discs, see the The Story So Far... section.
The discs, for the most part, are the original releases, as indicated by the studio logo, with most coming from the now-defunct Columbia/TriStar. But some have been given a new print run with the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment markings, including "Varekai," "La Nouba," and "Journey of Man." These are either formerly two-disc sets (see The Extras) or very old releases. The content within doesn't seem to have changed any through.
Like the shows themselves, the discs grow and improve as the years pass, though the growth is quicker here, as the first discs were only released in 2001. The first five discs in the set, as well as "Quidam," "Dralion" and "Journey of Man," feature simple, static full-frame menus, while the rest of the set features the well-designed, animated, anamorphic widescreen menus that Cirque DVDs have become known for, with the exception of "Midnight Sun," which is something of a disappointment in terms of design.
All 12 discs offer a choice of scenes, and language options where available. Subtitles are available on "La Nouba" (English, French, Spanish and Portuguese), "Alegria" (English, Spanish and Portuguese) and "Quidam" (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Thai and French), while "La Nouba" also has closed captioning. Oddly, the disc with the most speech, "Journey of Man," has neither for the narration.
"Varekai" is the only show to feature a DTS 5.1 track, while the first five discs have only Stereo 2.0. The rest of the DVDs contain a mix of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo, though "Journey of Man"'s multi-channel track is 5.0.
More recent shows, starting with "Alegria" and moving forward, show an increased level of quality in the anamorphic widescreen transfers. Though there are plenty of issues when it comes to bright colors and the troubles inherent in filming live performances featuring so much action, these discs tackle them well, with problems like softness and blurring kept to a bare minimum. These discs are solid in terms of the detail and everything is presented beautifully. Out of the second part of this set, only "Journey of Man" is full-frame, and it might be the clearest and cleanest of the bunch, thanks to its status as a staged IMAX film, lit for the camera, instead of a live performance.
As far as sound goes, the early shows' stereo mixes are serviceable, mainly because there's nothing all that great about the recordings. Once you get into the 5.1 mixes of the later shows, you get to hear the rich sound of the group's music. Dialogue isn't much of a concern when it comes to Cirque shows, but crowd noise is smartly fed to the surround speakers to put the viewer in the middle of the show. Nowhere is that clearer than during the DTS mix on "Varekai." I don't know if I've ever heard a clear, more enveloping live sound experience than this. It truly feels like you're in a seat at the show, as the sound moves around you and the music fills your ears.
A Baroque Odyssey
You can get more in-depth with "Meet the Artists". Integrated into a DVD menu format, it's over 15 minutes of interviews with the performers in the show. You can view the cast in one large group or individually, as each segment shows the person in and out of make-up, with footage of the show playing on-screen at the same time. It's really very well designed and interest as well.
The performances get the spotlight in the remaining extras. "A Different Perspective" is almost six minutes of slow-motion montage footage, while two acts, Fast Track and Aerial High Bar, are presented from four different points of view, which are selected via your angle control.
A commercial for the groups' soundtracks wraps things up.
Four segments during the show are presented in three alternate angles, close-up, medium and full stage, accessible through your angle control. If you'd rather jump right to them though, they are provided in a menu in the special features. It's too bad they couldn't do this for the entire show.
The ever-popular trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam" make yet another appearance, along with one for "Riverdance: Live in New York."
Journey of Man
Also included in this box set is a packet of six thin, oversized postcards, just smaller than a DVD case, featuring cover art from the more impressive-looking discs, including "Saltimbanco," "Alegria," "Quidam," "La Nouba," "Dralion" and "Varekai."
The Bottom Line
As far as the shows themselves, the more recent titles are easily the most impressive, and get the best presentations. Cirque du Soleil has built upon its successes, and as a result, there are a number of acts that are seen several times, each time better than the last. Because of this, the set might be overkill for the non-diehards and completists. For casual fans, the individual releases for shows like "Varekai" and "La Nouba" should satisfy your need for artsy circus fun. Sadly, this set neglects two of the best Cirque DVD releases, "Fire Within" and "Solstrom," which are made for viewing at home. If you do or do not pick up this set, make sure to check out these other titles.