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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cirque Du Soleil: Anniversary Collection
Cirque Du Soleil: Anniversary Collection
Columbia/Tri-Star // G // December 6, 2005
List Price: $135.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted December 4, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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In 10 Words or Less
21 years of art and circuses in one box

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Cirque du Soleil, "La Nouba"
Likes: Saving money, the circus
Dislikes: Clowns
Hates: Missing out on extras

The Story So Far...
Founded back in 1984 in Canada by a band of street performers, Cirque du Soleil has grown into an international phenomenon and a pop-culture staple. Hailed for its creativity and high-energy stage shows and mocked for its over-the-top artistry and French-Canadian heritage, the group has developed a wide-range of shows that mix traditional circus acts with drama, music and comedy. One of the best and most unique aspects of the troupe is its ability to transcend culture, generation and language in creating its art.

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:

Dralion Journey of Man
Alegria Dralion (Superbit)
Varekai La Nouba
• Fire Within
Aaron Beierle
Francis Rizzo
Midnight Sun

The Shows
Every kid loves the circus, even if the clowns freak them out at times. Between the high-flying acrobats, the majestic animals, and the sights and sounds under the big top, there's something about a circus that's unlike any other live event. There's nothing like a Cirque Du Soleil show either, and there's not a pile of elephant poop in sight.

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 DVDs
Sony did a nice job with the packaging for this set, changing everything from the original keepcases to clear ThinPaks, with stylish double-sided covers. Each spine, with the exception of the "Bonus Disc" "Midnight Sun", follows the same style, with the Cirque Du Soleil logo and the year of the show printed at the bottom and on the front cover. The 12 ThinPaks are packed in a cardboard slipcase printed on shiny foil. The case could be less flimsy, but once a slipcase gets this big, they all tend to be a bit "soft." The overall package looks rather substantial when placed on a shelf.

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.

The Quality
The quality has not been improved any from the previous releases, so that's not a reason to pick up this set. Early shows ("La Magie Continue," "Cirque Reinvente," "Nouvelle Experience," "Saltimbanco," and "A Baroque Odyssey") are all presented in full-frame, with some of the first discs looking no better than VHS. Soft, grainy images are the norm, with color bleeds and a severe lack of detail. Age is a part of the problem, along with the quality of the recording, but they just don't look very good.

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.

The Extras
La Magie Continue
A pair of trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam" are included.

Cirque Reinvente
The same pair of trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam" are included.

Nouvelle Experience
Hope you like those trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam."

Take a guess. I bet you're right.

A Baroque Odyssey
A three-hour documentary on the history...oh, wait...it's just those trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam" again.

Holy hell...there are actual extras here! The disc starts with two featurettes that go behind the scenes of the show. The first, "Fiming 'Alegria'" is a 13-minute look at how the filming was done, while the second, an Australian TV special titled "A Journey to 'Alegria,'" spends over 40 minutes with the show's cast and crew.

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.

That friggin' "Dralion" trailer returns, this time joined by "Journey of Man".

La Nouba
All of the extras, which had been on the second disc of the original release, are gone here. We don't even get trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam."

There's a few bonuses here, including an interesting 23-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that shows the work that goes into making the show, along with some background on Cirque Du Soleil and "Dralion." If you've seen "Fire Within," this isn't groundbreaking, but it's slightly different subject matter.

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
Remember that pair of trailers for "Dralion" and "Quidam"? They're back.

Once again, this set drops the bonuses that were found on the original's second disc, though this time, at least there was one extra on the first disc. Three acts, the Icarian Games, Russian Swings and Handbalancing on Canes, are presented in alternate views, over-head, stage and close-up, controlled with your remote. Again, this would be good for the entire show.

Midnight Sun
According to the packaging, this disc is supposed to be a bonus unto itself, but I fail to see what makes it any different than the other discs. On this disc, in addition to the promo piece that's found on every one of the troupe's recent DVDs, there's the show's encore, a four-minute song that's repetitive and really kind of boring, and a photo slide show, set to music from the show, that runs just over a minute. The pictures change rapidly, so there's plenty to look at, but the photos aren't of the highest quality.

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
If you don't own any of the shows in this set, or maybe just a few, and would like to get into Cirque du Soleil in a big way, this set is the easiest and most affordable way. To buy all the shows separately would easily cost you $250, as well as a big chunk of shelf space that this set's design spares you. On the other hand, you are missing several extras that were originally included, as well as the DTS audio track on the "Dralion" Superbit release. For those who own the originals, there's no need to upgrade to this set, unless you are truly desperate for more room on your shelf.

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.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter

*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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