After Three Decades, Cirque du Soleil Is Still Limber

For the entertainment company’s 30-year anniversary, our writer goes on an odyssey to see all eight Vegas shows—with mind- and body-bending results


Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The long hallway from the casino to the entrance of Mandalay Bay’s One Theatre throbs with humanity. Multiple creeds, shapes and sizes pile into the massive cement tent. Eyes dart from one side of the stage to the other, as giant monitors display iconic images of the King of Pop ’n’  Tabloid. Faux Michael Jacksons walk the aisles, garbed like paparazzi, warming up the audience with Cirque du Soleil’s meticulously branded interactive pre-game show. The lights dim as a thousand guests prepare to be dazzled. Then, like a bolt of gold lightning, she appears, stunning and statuesque, halfway down the left ramp. Toting an electric guitar, sporting wavy blond locks and 8-inch platforms, she fires up the crowd with smoldering riffs like a blowtorch on a cannon’s wick. It doesn’t matter, who’s wrong or right, just beat it! The wrinkles leave my boxers and the crowd roars as the 90-minute mind blow commences.

The masked metal maiden, or “muse character” as the program proclaims, is named Gina Gleason. She hails from Philadelphia and fronts the all-girl tribute band Misstallica. We’ve been exchanging Facebook messages for weeks. She read my 2006 memoir, Life on Planet Rock, and helped inspire this piece, or at least gave me a hella good excuse to see the shows and pay my own brief homage to the 30th anniversary of the greatest live entertainment company on earth.

Truth be told, I’ve had Cirque on brain and in heart since revisiting The Beatles Love on February 9. It was the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. My love for Love is as eternal as the group who set me on my music-loving path five decades ago. It’s but one beautiful link in Cirque’s sparkling Las Vegas chain; I set out to see the other seven shows in four nights. Go guerilla, I mused to myself. Doubleheaders. Magnifique! 

Night One of the first double bill started with the grand dame Mystère. The Canadian circus’ desert empire began in December 1993 with this tribal acid trip, which stands in eternal residence at Treasure Island. Lizards, birds of prey, black widows, an aerialist simulating anti-gravity coitus with a giant metal cube, trampolines and trapezes transfix and titillate as the taiko drum ensemble tells the tale. You can hear the cast members’ hootin’ and hollerin’ with each miraculous movement. Everyone looks to be having so much fun—testing their limitations, exalting their skill sets, hitting the marks. So awesome, but the night’s gonna get better and wetter. No time to catch my breath, it’s off to Bellagio and the late performance of O.

My sister Michelle was a synchronized swimmer in college. If she hadn’t blown out her knee, she might have made it to the Olympics. I saw O 16 years ago when it opened, but that was another lifetime. Kevin Costner had his Waterworld; I’ve had mine. As the miracle creatures splash, bend, twist, dive and fly, I experience my own ocean of emotion. The sold-out room rises to a standing O in rapturous appreciation as my eyes turn damper than the liquid stage.

Night Two and Zumanity at New York-New York. Got my vintage Bowie Ziggy Stardust era tee on. Upon entering the red-bordello-hued theater, a hallway-dwelling castmember mumbles under his breath, “Wham bam, thank you ma’am.” I pause, smile and feel instantly at home. Sexuality is celebrated with playful exuberance as a jolly mammoth-busted temptress wraps her ample breasts around the head of an elated guest. Edie, the Mistress of Sensuality, emcees the ribald proceedings, which shamelessly exalt the ecstasy of human contact. When she beckons a timid tourist from Columbus, Ohio, to take part in faux orgy, he transmutes before our eyes, surrendering into horizontal bliss among the half-naked cast members. How many times in your life have you felt absolutely liberated? And acted out as such? Zumanity reminded me of my youthful, free-wheeling years as an associate editor of Hustler. And of what I had since lost—the absolute joy of naked, fearless expression.

Dancers perform a "Billie Jean" routine in "Michael Jackson ONE"

Dancers perform a “Billie Jean” routine in “Michael Jackson ONE”

Night Three, and it’s about to get more sensational. is the company’s most expensive production, and that’s evident the moment you step foot into the jaw-dropping MGM Grand theater. In the center of the stage stands a 50-ton manmade monolith called the Sand Cliff Deck. This mechanical marvel is equipped with circular elevators to bring performers in and out; 80 “rod actuators” sprout from the floor surface, enabling performers to maneuver toward the ceiling. Video-projection floor tiles allow computer-generated images to appear on the performance surface. In the show’s most heart-wrenching sequence, warriors sink gracefully into the black sea as echoing tongues chant farewell. My brother took his wife, Lynda, to see on their recent 30th anniversary. They’ve lived, loved and worked in Las Vegas since the early ’80s. “Wow,” he texted me. “I’m speechless. And I bought the soundtrack.” Speechless, yeah, that says it all. Enchanted and exhausted, I make my way up the Strip to Aria for the nightcap.

Mad scientist, juggling redhead, elfin ballerinas, clown tamers and snakes—Zarkana is a robust reptilian wonderland that rocks hard—an Alice Cooper-meets-Jules Verne freak parade. Back in the day, when I was at the editorial helm of RIP magazine, I would’ve assigned a cover story on this phantasmagoria and asked Alice to write it.

With each Cirque adventure, I leave the theater in a slightly altered state, vibrating like a gently struck gong as I return to the reality of my non-theatrical midlife.

Which brings us to Night Four’s final and most bizarre back-to-back. Criss Angel’s Believe began its prolific prestidigitation run at the Luxor on Halloween 2008. Believe fans adore the razor-swallowing, rabbit-conjuring star of cable TV’s Mindfreak. I’d never seen him perform on the tube, live or anywhere else. But I sure knew that theater in the belly of the great glass pyramid. This is where Blue Man Group made their indigo mark on Las Vegas. I dated the director back in 2004, used to pick her up after work, hang out with the blue guys and musicians, watch her do “notes” with the performers. Had not stepped in that room since and had to take a few minutes to adjust my perception and focus on the notorious sleight of hand and eye master of illusion. Believe did not suspend my belief in anything except one talented trickster’s ability to put on a good show.

In all other Cirque shows, you bear close witness to the athletic marvels and choreographed splendor, like the two Asian girls in O who bend themselves into impossible human pretzel positions before your very eyes. The genuine magic of Cirque is watching men and women do incredible, impossible things where seeing is truly believing.

Through the tunnel that connects Luxor with Mandalay Bay, it’s grand finale time. An hour into the Michael Jackson extravaganza, the audience is dancing, shouting and shaking their bodies down to the ground, united in song and memory for a beloved musician who devoted his life to raising the vibration of the planet through the power of groove. And no one in the massive hall is floating higher than me. The full cast delivers the unifying anthem “Black or White,” and for a few transcendent moments, this broken, greedy, hate-filled world disappears. I’ve escaped—we’ve escaped. Last tear trickles down my gray-whiskered cheek.

I text my Michael Jackson muse, Gina. “Wow.” And snake-dance my way home.

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