Review: ‘Crystal’ brings signature Cirque du Soleil stunts into new icy territory

“Crystal” blends ice and acrobatics so flawlessly that one may never know it’s the first venture onto the ice for Cirque du Soleil.

The Quebec-based art circus premiered its frozen spectacle in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center Wednesday evening, scheduled to continue until Sunday. Directed by Shana Carroll and Sébastien Soldevila, the arena show has been touring the United States and Canada since October 2017.

“Crystal” fuses together Cirque’s signature circus thrills with figure and speed skating, as well as crisp visuals projected on an icy landscape. Its coming-of-age, girl-power plot and wintry backdrop may be reminiscent of “Frozen” — and it certainly aims to draw audiences of all ages — but the circus-meets-ice show brings enough artistry and emotion to stay true to Cirque’s identity.

“Crystal” incorporates four covers, sung by Quebec musicians, of contemporary pop songs by artists like Beyonce — a first for the French Canadian troupe. The musical experiment enhances the angst of the modern-day story as the titular teen character tries to find herself.

The two-hour show includes three musicians, 20 acrobats, 19 skaters and one comic character, whose standout performance executes hilarious slapstick stunts — and on skates, too.

The storyline takes an age-old trope — a misunderstood adolescent girl — and turns it into a poignant story of self-realization. Crystal, a creative young woman who feels stifled by her superficial family and peers, escapes to a frozen pond and falls through the ice. As she hallucinates, a bolder alter-ego appears and gives her a pen, encouraging her to use writing to explore her imagination without limits.

Crystal’s shadow self represents a bolder alter ego. Matt Beard Photography Cirque de Soleil

Crystal creates surreal worlds from her real-life memories, imagining robotic classroom and suburban settings to romping playgrounds and ballrooms, that serve as the sites for the skating and circus acts. The frozen stage, along with an ice palace, provide a canvas for light projections of eye-popping color and animation.

The English voice overs — sometimes helpful, sometimes unnecessary — represent Crystal’s inner dialogue and are a change from Cirque’s past use of invented languages for narration.

Viewers won’t see quite as many jaw-dropping, signature-Cirque stunts as they may expect in Act I, which focuses on skating and Crystal’s introspection.

But the “Home Swing” act stands out in the initial half as Crystal turns into a trapeze artist. She soars and flips on a large swing, as a cover of Sia’s lyrically appropriate “Chandelier” plays and her shadow self performs a beautiful ice dance below.

Act I also features a fun juggling routine, later closing out with an energetic hockey number. A playground turns into a thrilling amateur game as four speed skaters use ramps to flip and spin midair, with the music incorporating locker room chants to hype up the audience.

From a swinging pole routine of extreme jumps and landings to an exhilarating duo trapeze number, Act II brings more of the can’t-look, can’t-look-away stunts that viewers expect from Cirque.

There’s one moment when you might have to cover your eyes — an acrobat performs nail-biting balancing acts as he stacks six chairs on top of each other at a tortuously slow pace. As he completes the final handstand at the top of the precariously balanced tower, you can almost feel the audience collectively holding their breath.

But Act II doesn’t solely rely on these daredevil stunts. Perhaps the most moving piece of the second act comes from an emotional ballroom routine. Skating couples waltz together as Crystal wonders aloud if she’ll ever find someone to “meet my eyes.” Cue a poignant dual performance of trapeze and figure skating as an acrobat on aerial straps sweeps Crystal off the ice, the pair swirling together in a midair dance made all the more romantic by a cover of Beyonce’s “Halo.”

Crystal and her suitor engage in a midair dance combining aerial trapeze moves and figure skating. Matt Beard Photography Cirque du Soleil

The second act’s synchronized skating dance stands out as well — business people clad in suits and ties perform mechanical dances in a dull office atmosphere, using briefcases as props. They seem to be manifestations of Crystal’s fear of a monotonous life dominated by a 9-to-5 schedule.

The story comes to a close as Crystal, confident in who she is, breaks through the ice again and returns to her real life. The feel-good act brings audiences to their feet, as the entire cast dances to a cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day.”

In a technological first for the troupe, the show uses real-time video projections responsive to the performers’ motions on the ice. After the cast takes their bows, Crystal seems to magically spell out “The End” with her skates, in a final touch of artistry both fitting and altogether new for Cirque’s first ice spectacle.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday; 12 p.m., 4 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 p.m. & 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Spectrum Center, Charlotte

Tickets: Prices range from $50 to $149. For more information, visit https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/usa/charlotte/crystal/buy-tickets.

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