Review: Visceral beauty abounds in magical Cirque du Soleil ice extravaganza ‘Crystal’

After a fall through the ice, Crystal (Nobahar Dadui) goes on a journey of self-discovery, finding a world similar to the one she lives in. (Matt Beard photo)

The ice at SAP Center in downtown San Jose is usually reserved to big dudes with bigger beards skating very fast, with solid, frozen rubber spheres flying around the rink. Yet in the most recent incarnation of the wildly successful and artistic Cirque du Soleil show, entitled “Crystal,” which made a quick visit to the arena, a show rife with possibilities as a young girl awakens.

Crystal (Nobahar Dadui) is a bit of an outcast, a young girl who doesn’t fit into the mechanical world of her peers or family. While alone on a lake, she breaks through the ice and finds another in the form of her other self (Madeline Stammen), a form which guides her on a journey of self-discovery.

A journey, like all great Cirque journeys, is loaded with imagination, and this is no different. Crystal is bogged down with insecurity, with wonderful metaphors of glass and mirrors following her everywhere.

The show is staged with so much variation, a show that reminds those in attendance why a fossil such as Ringling Brothers ultimately went away. This show, the 42nd in the Cirque franchise and the first on ice, is on another level artistically, making the vast SAP Center feel intimate, cutting off hunks of the arena with black curtains, ultimately selling a fraction of the 17,496 seats.

Each of the various acts were loaded with plenty of joy but also a fair share of poignancy. Hockey fans who only see big fish flying around the “Tank” were certainly pleased with the clowning hockey players and their sheer speed as they gleefully shot off ramps in displays of power, grace and timing. In the shameless pandering department, but only in the best way, a Shark that fans might not have recognized, rocked a teal jersey with “Crystal 18” across the back. No doubt this allowed the crowd to throw in a nice hunk of civic pride.

The show also has much of its signature playfulness, led by the limber Nathan Cooper. The clown that tap-danced and skate-danced around the ice with the toughest lightbulb, one that hit the deck constantly. His dance with the light pole was tinged with a warm sadness and longing.

One of the most awe-inspiring but uncomfortable moments was some high-level chair stacking, while the audience held their collective breath. The tragedy that befell the Cirque du Soleil family only two weeks prior in Florida, where Yann Artaud passed away from a fall during a performance in a different show was certainly something that was hard to get away from. Yet in this show, and I do not know if every show does this, performers used safety cables at all times, which certainly put the audience at ease without compromising the spectacle of the show.

In probably the most exquisitely beautiful moments was when Emily McCarthy engaged in hand to trapeze, and the pas de deux between Dadui’s Crystal and Jérôme Sordillon. With the pulsating rhythms of the live band and Cirque’s original compositions, which Cirque does so very well, the number is loaded with risk and evolvement, the character finding her footing in the world, with love and adolescent growth ready to consume her.

All of this takes place with the highest degree of technical magic. The magnificent projection work which shared Crystal’s journey in more literal terms, and an absolute stunning sequence when Crystal bursts through the glass, is thrilling to no end.

To have had Cirque du Soleil, a company that does not sell entertainment as much as they sell an experience, make a hockey arena intimate and magical speaks volumes to the creators and their ability to feel the pulse of a crowd. And a show that provides the audience, especially young girls, with a message of empowerment is so needed in these modern times.

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