Reviewing Cirque du Soleil is a bit like entering a scything contest against a combine harvester: so well-oiled is their machine, one's own stumbling efforts seem doomed to exhaust themselves before even a momentary, symbolic advantage can be won. The 25-year-old Canadian circus empire is invincibly popular, with franchises in Las Vegas, Tokyo and Florida; in Vegas alone they play to more than 9,000 people a night.
As performers they are, or at any rate they appear to be, disciplined beyond the fantasies of Yukio Mishima, executing their death-twitting feats with the efficiency of fry servers. And it would take a churl to deny that they put on a show. At its best, it is astounding. If you've never seen a woman sustain five hula-hoops, or a trampolinist swivel in the air across two spatial planes at once; if you've never seen a seven-man trapeze act unfold like some juddering pinball game; if you've never seen someone wrap their legs around their head while someone else handstands on their shoulders and does a geometrically perfect splits so that the resulting assemblage looks like a helicopter made of doll-parts, then run, don't walk, to the Grand Chapeau by Ibn Battuta Mall and prepare to experience that rarest of commodities, honest amazement. Such marvels are what Cirque du Soleil is built upon, and their Alegria show, playing in Dubai until April 5, is one of their most enduring successes.
On the other hand if you've seen all of the above, this roadshow doesn't have a great deal more to recommend it. The spectacular feats do, of course, come packaged in a lot of Soleil-brand side-business - flamboyant costume, unfunny clowning and the like. Yet as the decades wear on it becomes less and less clear why anyone would want this sort of garnish. The company, it is worth recalling, began in the mid-1980s as a way of redeeming traditional circus culture from its disagreeable associations with animal cruelty, waxed moustaches and leotards that sag at the middle. Throughout their years of expansion in the Nineties, they offered a vision of the big top that felt, odd as it now sounds, modern. They took the best in contemporary acrobatics and contortionism and dressed it in a timely style, one that combined aspects of cyber-hippy culture with the frothy art nouveau that found favour during the grunge years. Think of how the Smashing Pumpkins pastiched Méliès' A Trip to the Moon in their video to Tonight Tonight; that seems a product of the same currents that formed Cirque du Soleil. In other words, it's a Nineties look.
The clowning also seems rather dated. Kangaroo-like dowagers in fur leggings and white pompadours; a gloating ringmaster with spindly legs and prosthetic hump and gut so that he looks like a hairpin pushed through a bean: all these suggest the distinctive Le Coq-school style - elaborate, grotesque and wordless - which was ubiquitous at least in British fringe theatre at the turn of the century. The performances are engaging, of course, and there's a particularly nice lonely hobo mime who gets blasted by a crepe-paper snowstorm and who conjures a companion to embrace from an empty coat and hat. In these moments, corny as they may be, Alegria's aspirations to poetry have more than sheer athleticism to ride on. In the main, though, the theatrical conception of the show leaves one wondering when the circus can be due for its next revamp.
The music has fared better. A recurrent weakness for noodling, fretless bass solos notwithstanding, the Balkan gypsy aesthetic seems of a piece with recently popular acts such as Beirut and Gogol Bordello. The playing is solid and there are some discreetly charismatic vocal performances. Alegria's soundtrack, by the way, has sold more than half a million copies since it was released in 1994, which is remarkable, as I can't now recall a single tune from it and can as little imagine hungering to hear it again. Someone must, however: you don't rack up numbers like that without hooking people.
But big numbers is what Cirque du Soleil does best; this Dubai run is intended as a preface to some more permanent outpost of their Vegas empire, a plan which is currently being hashed out with Nakheel. They have touring shows circling almost every continent on the earth. It isn't for me to tell them their business. Still, even seemingly unstoppable machines can come to look tired after a while. Here's hoping the troupe's stay in Dubai gives them some fresh ideas, and us a circus fit for the coming decade.