The Canadian-based circus troupe Cirque du Soleil is not the stereotypical circus, with tigers jumping through hoops and clowns in floppy shoes. Far from it: a Cirque du Soleil performance is more like a cross between a modern dance recital, a gymnastics exhibition, and a surreal fantasy film. Each performance has a loose thread of a story, or at least a theme, which connects all its separate acts. In the case of Varekai, the story begins when a young winged man falls into a fabulous forest world populated by strange creatures.
Cirque du Soleil: Varekai is visually very impressive. The world of this performance is a phantasmagoric, surreal one, populated by strange beings who seem inspired by the creatures of myth. Much more so than the other Cirque du Soleil performance that I've seen (Dralion), Varekai has a cohesive visual feel, with the costumes, sets, and choreography all part of a pleasing and harmonious whole. A few of the performances (particularly the comic ones involving the modern-looking clowns) seem a little jarring as they don't fit with the theme, but by far most of the performances are smoothly and naturally integrated into the overall tapestry of the production.
The performances include a wide variety of acts, highlighting both the physical talent of the Cirque du Soleil performers and the creativity of the choreographers and designers. Some of the highlights are the Icarian Games, with the performers doing amazing flips and tumbles while braced on each others' feet; the Georgian Dance, with the traditional Georgian style of dance adapted to the Varekai theme; "water meteors" performed by three talented children; a beautiful "triple trapeze" performance; and a number of other interesting performances, including juggling, Russian swings, and a short hand-balancing act.
The cinematography is handled well here, almost always giving an excellent view of the performances. The use of changing camera angles is lively enough to add some visual interest but it's never distracting, and some well-chosen instant replays are used to highlight particularly impressive stunts.
Cirque du Soleil: Varekai is a two-DVD set, packaged in a slim two-disc keepcase.
Varekai is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Filming a live performance certainly has its challenges, and the transfer handles them quite well. The image looks excellent in close-up and middle-distance shots, though longer-distance shots become blurry. Colors and contrast are top-notch throughout the program, with the bright costumes and dramatic lighting of the sets shown to good effect. The print is clean and free of noise and flaws. The bit rate averages around 8 Mb/s, with peaks that go up to 12 Mb/s; the level of compression varies, with quantization figures ranging from 6 up to 12, which is very high. Overall, I'd say that this DVD will please Cirque du Soleil fans.
Three audio tracks are included: DTS 5.1, Dolby 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 (which is the default). The DTS is, unsurprisingly, the best choice, although the 5.1 track is also excellent. Both the DTS and the 5.1 offer nice use of the surround channels and a rich, clean sound; the DTS has a greater depth and fullness. The Dolby 2.0 is, in comparison, very flat, although it is also a clean and clear track.
On the first DVD, the special features section gives viewers the option to watch three different scenes with multi-angle feature. This sounds great in theory, but in practice it's a flop. We see the scene from one angle (above), with three other angles show in small picture-in-picture boxes to the side. This gives us the opportunity to watch the scene from a constant perspective, but the "above the performers" angle is not the one that I'd have chosen for the standard angle; making things worse is the fact that it's not possible to switch views. The alternate angles in the small boxes cannot be selected as the main view, and even on my big-screen TV, the images in the inset box are much too small to see any detail.
The second DVD is entirely devoted to special features. The first section, "Meet the Artists," is a collection of short introductions from the various performers, with each giving his or her name, age, and place of origin. There are 14 sections in all, grouped according to their act in Varekai, with five of them (the lovers, hand-balancing, the characters, the Icarian Games, and the Georgian Dancers) also including longer in-depth interviews with the artists commenting on their work and experiences. A separate section of in-depth interviews is also included, which focuses on some artists who are not represented in the other interview section. These interviews are moderately interesting, somewhat diluted by the liberal inclusion of clips from the show.
The next special feature is a substantial documentary on the making of Varekai, "The Making of an Angel." It runs 45 minutes long, and is in anamorphic widescreen. We get interviews with the various people involved in the design and execution of the performance, and we get to see the process by which the show goes from idea to final product; it's quite a substantial piece and Cirque du Soleil fans will find it very interesting.
A 23-minute preview for the television mini-series Fire Within is the next special feature; this takes viewers backstage to witness some of the struggles of the performers to succeed in Cirque du Soleil. It's an odd piece, halfway between a promotional piece and a stand-alone documentary. Lastly, we get several trailers: one for Varekai and two for Cirque du Soleil in general.
This nicely presented two-disc set of Varekai is a clear must-buy for Cirque du Soleil fans, with its entertaining performance, solid transfer, and excellent selection of special features. It's also a reasonable starting place for viewers who are interested in seeing what the Cirque du Soleil is all about. Recommended.