Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cirque Reinvents Steampunk

                           

As a child I recall friends always telling me to make a wish when the clock hit certain times of the day. If the clock showed your birthday, (i.e. 2:25) for February 25th, you'd wish for more toys of course! Or, noticing the clock was sequential at 1:23 might mean you would have good luck that day.

What about "11:11"? It is a more popular symbol in the subject of New Age or Numerology. It is at 11:11 when the story of Cirque du Soleil's newest show Kurios begins. 11:11, allegedly a time of perfect synchronicity or heightened awareness can open the mind to what is possible. In Cirque's show it is a signal for a parallel universe to open up and maybe travel through that portal.

 Lucky for us, the show is only playing about two miles away from us in Costa Mesa, California. So when we scored our very last minute tickets, it wasn't a hassle at all to get to the tent site. When walking toward the Big Top I get the same feeling as when walking toward a Disney Park castle. It really is an icon to all that see it. The tent reaches toward the night sky while proudly flying the various country flags that represent their performers. I suddenly felt like a kid!

The first time I saw a Cirque show in 1996 I was so impressed with how well they keep the grounds at the Big Top. Take the personal facilities. The restrooms aren't dark, dreary out houses that smell like last year's trash. And, the background music is always a nice touch to create an exciting atmosphere. They have a lovely merchandise and concession tent that housed some great product, themed specifically to the show. No glow sticks or sparkling swords would be found for sale here.

                                


Once inside the main tent, the show's overall tone is set quickly. The stage, full of set pieces that have a Steampunk or Jules Verne theme (there is a bust of him on the stage). Right at the center of the stage is a clock, set on the 11th hour. And, there are three odd looking robots wandering about on the stage. As this is taking place, beneath the large brass gears that connect the stage's machinery to the top of the tent, the large clock changes the time from 11:04 to 11:05.

We found that our 40% off seats did not exactly mirror the map that was shown to us online. We were sat a little more to the side than expected and only one seat was to Eric's left. Still, the stage is a lot closer than one would think. Most of the row ahead of us was empty and even the seats to our right were too. At some point we would move more toward the center, at least after intermission. As the anticipation builds, more spectators enter, and the clock slowly ticks closer to 11:11.

                        


As we waited for the show we noticed the central character, a scientist, begin to move about the stage and make adjustments to his machinery. Eric made an interesting point about the scientist and his robots. One robot was bronze in color, not human in any way, and looked aged. A second had a tad more color, and a little more personality to his mannerisms. A third robot had the characteristics of the second, but also had legs. Eric thinks, and I agree, that the first robot i described was the first he invented. The scientist appeared to have more camaraderie with his first invention, possibly for sentimental reasons.

When the clock did strike 11:11 we could hear a whistle and bells to our immediate left. A miniature train held up by performers made it's tracks directly behind us and continued through the main aisle as it shone it's strong headlight into the tent's darkness. Following the train were the band members playing their drums, violin, and cello. The lead singer was also with them and she  joyfully vocalized with the melody. But, where was the train headed? And, who else was riding aboard this train?

Still in his lab, hanging with his inventions, the protagonist of this story might want to be aboard that train. He didn't have a train, but instead created a machine that could transport him to another realm. The scientist flips his switch and as electrical currents flash throughout the tent, a portal appears up near the tent's roof. Coming down through the portal we see odd looking characters descending into the stage, this "cabinet of curiosities".

In case you haven't seen a show by this company, this is the sort of world Cirque aims to create. Here, maybe they are asking the audience, "Where do you want to go and what do you wish see?" And.....maybe I am completely wrong! This scientist found his solution and they invite us to find ours. The show then becomes a little more abstract as they transition from circus act to clowning, then back to acrobatics.

One of the performances that stood out was an elaborate act of chair balancing. This act began with a dinner party onstage covered in a fancy spread. The characters are communicating in jibberish or "cirquish".  They all stand from their seats during what appears to be an intense conversation. One of the men jumped onto the lavish table. After motioning to his pal to hand him a chair, he begins balancing on it and others at various heights. As he holds impressive poses atop the chairs, we begin to see the exact same scene start to play out above, protruding out of the portal. The difference with this second scene (everyone is wearing the exact same outfit as those below) is that it is upside down, appearing to be a mirror.

The artist up above were attach to well hidden wires that allowed them to stand upside down. Even their clothing had been manufactured so that gravity had no affect on loose articles. It was a very interesting sight to watch as both balancing men mirrored one another. The image was equivalent to tall trees alongside a huge lake while the water reflected back a perfect image.



The show's music seems to be a hybrid of Jazz, Rock, and Classical. This show steered clear of the tribal sounding music from recent shows like "Totem" or "Ovo". The choice to stick with this jazzy sound is a breath of fresh air. The company has an excellent range of soundtracks, but when Kurios came along it was clear that a musical change was needed. I like the director's choice to stage the show in such a way that various musicians get to join acrobats on the stage. I don't think I have seen a cello played while being hauled around the Big Top stage and through the audience. The singer, named Eirini Torrneskim, is from Crete. She has a powerful voice that takes the melody to a heightened level. Another positive observance about the music is that I noticed people bobbing their heads and foot tapping to beat. The only other time I saw something like this for a Cirque show was during show "Love" in Las Vegas. At "Love", there was even a drunk women dancing in the aisle, but I digress.



I can't only praise the show. I'm sure those interested want to know what the flaws are. What would I say is flawed about this Steampunk themed show? A theme that felt out of place were the random aquatic characters. Most of the characters had this Victorian/Metallic look about them. Then, you'd have fish show up now and again. The odd costume choice didn't overshadow their incredible talent. And, in sure the creators had their reasons. 

Let's talk about the clown in Kurios. This character was quite fun during the show. I usually mentally check out when it comes to clowns. They've never amused me all that much. This clown in Kurios had some fun with his take on the flea circus illusion. That act was brilliant and unique. He later came out and acted as a cat while an audience member awkwardly sat on a sofa next to him. I can't say that I had seen a Cirque clown do that before, but it went on far too long.

Let us rewind back to the show's start, the eccentric characters arrive, but then the scientist disappears. It seemed a little odd that we were following his journey, but it wasn't made clear again until intermission. We see the scientist ascend through the portal and we follow him into the clouds. But, I feel like after that happened he got lost amongst the zany characters we discover. Then, at some point, for some reason, he floats back down through the portal at the show's end. Was he sent back? Did he run out of time? This exit from the magical portal must've been for some reason, but we weren't shown. 

Again with the first few show moments, the intro transitions to a juggling act. That stage was crowded with performers. They had purposely staged about eight characters that blocked the juggler as he performed. Eric and I struggled to get a view of the juggler during these moments. Their choreography was a little cute, but we missed out on some cool tricks. (I assume they were cool by the positive audience reaction opposite our side of the stage)

The finale act, although impressive, felt like it was building up to a huge finish that never happened. It was a Banquine act, where performers toss one another through the air so they may land on their partner's shoulders. Talk about strength and trust! It must take a lot of work, tears, years, even blood to get to their level, but it didn't build up to anything. Eric made a good point. A finale act calls for a high energy piece of music as achieved in the Cirque show "La Nouba". The song for this piece is great, as the whole album is, but it didn't convey that "POW! Let's hit them with all we have" energy. When the song did pick up to a driving electric jazz beat, the act stayed at the previous tempo.

               
                                                       Notice it's now 11:12. 

Even though Eric and I noticed room for improvement, the show is very solid. Heck! We are seeing it again in a few weeks! I do not think they need to stop what they are doing and retool all of this. Even if I enjoy something I do like to see what it is that can be re-imagined. I won't blindly accept something as great and ignore minor flaws.



Their tent will call Costa Mesa home for the next few weeks, until November 29th. We obtained tickets through Travel Zoo. I have seen similar deals on the Goldstar app, a favorite of ours. I always tell people to never pay full price for a show or an event. There are some great deals out there if you look hard enough. Eric and I were on the far side of our section, but with that row empty we slid over to seats that were maybe $15-20 more. Because we did move, maybe we saved more than 40 percent? My point is that if you get out and see Kurios, there is no way you won't like it. Great! Now I sound like I turned into a show promoter. 

Oh well. I just want everyone to see it for the experience. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pumpkins for Halloween!



This past weekend Eric and I ventured out to the mysterious world Arcadia, CA!!! It's a maze of upscale homes and streets lined with massive trees. Adjacent to this neighborhood is the Santa Anita Racetrack, which was our destination for the evening. Our friend Erin had heard of a pumpkin themed event, Rise of the Jack-o- Lanterns, taking place near her home. She invited us along with her boyfriend Jimmy to see what it was all about.



As with most outings I write about, we didn't pay full price for entry. There are actually a few different ways to find cheap tickets. I definitely know that Goldstar was advertising the event with reduced pricing. For our passes we visited www.therise.org/secretcode and that took us to the site to choose a time. They sell tickets in 15 minutes increments to avoid too much congestion. Now it was time to plan the evening.

Eric and I absolutely love the Arcadia eatery called Moffet's. They have excellent pot pies. So we chose the 8:15 PM pass and planned to have dinner prior. Fast forward to the day we went, a Sunday,  Moffet's was closed. It's a small business, family run, so I guess they were allowed a day off. There were no pot pies to be eaten (sad face). We ended up at BJ's, the antithesis of a small business, but the pizza is definitely satisfying.




The parking to the pumpkin event was included. Rise of the Jack-o-Lanterns was to take place in the same parking lot. It is important that I mention that the parking lot and entry area was lit by temporary light towers that are loudly run by generators. The "venue" was fenced in by an average sized fence (rent -a -fence) and had a green tarp covering the chain links. As we approached the location it was difficult to see what was going on within. Through the tarps we could make out a lot of orange lights, we assumed they were the lit pumpkins.

The entry way had a few photo opportunities and was lined with booths selling what one might call "CRAP". In these booths I saw the usual plastic light up swords, light up jewelry, and there was even a light up stick. Eric joked that it resembled a crowd control stick from a Disney park. Although it was all junk, seeing all this made me wish our nephews lived closer so that we could bring then along. I bet they would've wanted the light up pirate sword.

               Their attempt at creating a mood.

The four of us headed further into this lobby area to the queues that were divided by times. It was still around 7:45 PM, but people had already began to line up in the "bull pin" for our entry time. The 7:45 queue was very long at this point. They were obviously all ready to enter. At this point, all of us were a tad unimpressed with their set up. We began to brainstorm how else this could be done. Erin made an excellent point by saying she'd gladly buy a bottle of water in this heat while we wait. Also, we began to joke around about what market hadn't been tapped for this sort of thing. Think about it for a moment. People are paying to go see pumpkin displays. What else would people pay to see and for which holidays?

                  (Light Pollution!!!)

When it was time to pass into the pumpkin gallery, our tickets were scanned on our iPhones (convenient). Their staff reminded us there were no lines and to keep moving forward. Once we entered the enclosed area, a path that formed a very wide "U", we noticed an issue of light pollution from the surrounding lights.





The lighting would be our biggest complaint. The entire experience was affected by the flood lights set in the parking and entry areas. The light pollution really ruined a few of the scenes they had created. Too bad there wasn't a way for them to get taller fences or even have this in a tent. The event occurs rain or shine, so a tent definitely would have helped.  I hope that maybe in the future they will consider that option. We were hoping for a questionnaire, but we never saw one.




The larger displays were further away from the wide path while the singular pumpkins were right against the ropes.


                                                              Any OITNB fans?

Eric brought up a good point that a lot of these images are owned properties and how did they work around legal action. Of course that is something the coordinators need to worry about, not so much the attendees, but it was just something to think about. To name a few, we saw properties such as Orange is the New Black, Disney, and Sesame Street.




The dinosaurs and Chinese dragon were pretty successful. We liked those because rather than scraping the exterior of the pumpkin, these pumpkins had been fully carved through. There are obviously many ways to bring about a cool design on a pumpkin. Eric and I feel using the more traditional hollowing/carving technique to create a striking scene or  image is much more impressive. The difficult part is to get the thin parts of the carved pumpkin to NOT break! Even after saying that, this event definitely has some true talent behind it. Eric and read that the carvers are constantly carving new ones to replace the ones used. It is a lengthy event, all of October.




Would we recommend Rise of the Jack-o-Lanterns to anyone reading this? It is very cute and kids would definitely love it. I would say one should enter while keeping in mind that these are merely pumpkins, not at Disneyland or Universal Studios where large sets are created. Here they have the designs speaking for themselves with a few areas containing background music. It was festive to see large families out for an innocent Halloween event. I'll add what I feel is an obvious point. This is not a scary or horror filled event, so kids very young can go. We all agreed that it was a nice "been there, done that" outing. If you can get cheap tickets, like we did, you should check it out. It takes about 30-40 minutes, depending on how slowly you walk.



Halloween is creeping up toward us! Do you have your costumes ready?




Saturday, August 29, 2015

Harajuku Girls and Crossing A Massive Street!



In a silly way, one of the thoughts that come to mind when thinking of Harajuku is Gwen Stefani and her old obsession with that style of fashion. How American is that thought, huh? We looked forward to wildly dressed Women and Men dressed in what I think looks like “Japanese Punk”. Though some of that was found in Harajuku, I was disappointed in the low intensity of the stereotypes. All the travel shows and blogs enticed us with images of what one might call “shock value”. What Eric and I found in Harajuku was something a little more structured and serene.

For our stay in Shibuya, Eric and I had a local coffee shop filled with pastries and food. It was very convenient as it was just around the corner from the apartment and on the way to the trains. Another thing to mention was that staying in this area we were generally pretty close to our destinations. Harajuku was only one stop on the train. With it being so easy to find, both Eric and I felt like locals. With breakfast at the local cafĂ©, then easily hopping onto the train why wouldn’t we?

Our first order of business was to get to the Meiji Shrine, located in a forest of trees, filled with scary spiders. If ever at this spot, on the walkways to the shrine, make sure to look up when passing through arches or between two light posts. You’ll will see some large webs. Once you get past the “eerie chills” of seeing these massive spiders, all is well. Catching a glimpse of the first Torri gate and shrine, the chill inducing spider images melted away.


Even though the shrine was reconstructed in the late 1950s, it still felt as if it was from a distant time. This was our first experience in Japan where Eric and I felt transported to a land infused with mysticism. The Meiji Shrine, being a Shinto shrine, doesn’t belong to a specific religion. Instead, the shrine is dedicated to matters of all inclusive spirituality. This “blanket” includes wishes to fellow friends, hopes of getting that “A” on the big test, or wishes of being healed.

It was quiet like a library or church. We even entered as one would a Catholic church. We washed both hands and then rinsed our mouths from the fountain, or Temizuya, at the entrance. We didn’t get a photo of us doing that because it seemed a little inappropriate. Once we had been cleansed or at least momentarily purified, we entered the grounds.

We wandered the main structure that apparently was built without nails. Within the courtyard of that structure a wedding ceremony was starting to process through the crowd. There were many onlookers. The both of us felt a tad odd taking photos of this ceremony, but when would we have another chance to see this? Since the wedding party too had photographers, we sort of blended right in with the few shots we took. And, we sort of followed the poor excuse of “well everyone else is”. (Ten minutes prior we didn’t do that at the cleansing station. What hypocrites we are, huh?)

They had some young ladies working at the gift counter that reminded us of “Rei” from Sailor Moon. They wear a very similar outfit while at the shrine, a white top with red flowing pants. I am sure there is a proper name for the clothing, but I am not aware of the name. They had charms and postcards for sale. Entry to the shrine was free, so these proceeds go toward the upkeep. Eric had purchased a Healing charm for his Mom. She had just had knee surgery and we also bought what is called an Ema for each of us. It is a wooden tablet where we could write our wishes and leave them there at the shrine. I was very excited to do this!

If people wanted to, visitors could also step up to the main shrine to give an offering. We saw some folks stepping up to the shrine, tossing in some coins, bowing twice, and then clapping twice. Eric went up and joined in, but we weren’t allowed to photograph this practice. The idea is to send positive thoughts and wishes to people everywhere.

After strolling through the gardens and checking out the Koi pond, we decided to head back toward the streets.

Nearby we would find Takeshita-Dori where it is said the hipsters of Tokyo hang out in their unique fashion. As suggested by many, we went there on a Sunday when the locals come out to show off. One of our goals was to have a crepe from Angel Heart Crepes. We had seen quite a few YouTube videos of people stopping by for the treat. But, just before that we needed to grab food. What stared at us in the face? McDonald’s of course!

There isn’t much of a difference between the McDonald’s of America versus Japan. The coolest difference is that when you’re all through they ask for you to separate your trash. There was a funnel on top of the receptacle where we were to empty our ice prior to throwing our cup into bin marked for paper. I wish we had this here at home. The Japanese are very big on recycling and it would be great if one day we could adopt this as they have, with laws.



We came across a five story store called Daiso. It is the equivalent to the Dollar Tree where we even found great souvenirs for the kids. There we found Japanese play money and even model trains for the different types of subway lines. We knew the kids were too old to play with fake cash, but at least they could see the difference.

                                                                  Interesting sign, don't you think?

After some wandering, Eric found Angel Hearts Crepes. I had found a different crepe stand first, but he reminded me of what the actual name was. I think the first one I found was called Angel Crepes, a knock off! There wasn’t an awful queue. It took maybe five minutes to get to the order window. I ordered the Blueberry Cheesecake and Eric decided on the Custard Chocolate Special. It was REALLY hard for me to choose. With the “fake food” on display, they all looked so appealing!



Although we did want to browse a lot more, Eric and I wanted to get to the park and see the real fashion. There we would see the famous “Harajuku Girls” dressed in all their flashy flair. So we decided to only enter the Top Man store and then head over to the bridge near Yoyogi Park. It was a nice walk and we did see a few street performers dressed as 1950s “Greasers”, but no Harajuku Girls in sight. We pressed on, thinking that maybe we weren’t in the correct spot. In the end we didn’t see any fashion shockers. We even asked ourselves if Japanese fashion doesn’t have the extreme look it once had. If the year were 1995, I bet a few of those outfits would’ve stood out to us a lot more than they did presently. Maybe we SHOULD thank Gwen Stefani for bringing recognition to the Harajuku Girl? I know that sounds a little silly for me to say, but it surely was a start.



Continuing down the street we came across a stadium that had been used in the 1964 Olympics. In the parking lot of this stadium was a type of flea market or even a Farmers Market. Eric wanted to check it out.

It was getting to be mid-afternoon and we had to keep in mind that we were meeting up with a friend of mine around 5 PM. After all the walking, we wanted to take a short break and maybe even shut our eyes for 15 minutes. It didn’t take us long to walk back to the storybook looking train station, so that we’d get back to Shibuya.


Recharging in the room was an excellent idea. We still had wine that our host had left for us, so we polished that off. We would soon be meeting with my high school pal, Kwesi. I hadn’t seen him in so long. He lives about 30-40 minutes from Tokyo while working as a teacher. During this trip, so far we had met up with Sarah and Tom Bricker, and Chris from www.tdrExplorer.com ! When we planned our time in Japan we really didn’t expect to come across friends like this!

We were to meet Kwesi at the Hachiko statue near Shibuya station. Hachiko has a great story. I encourage everyone reading this to google his story. It was a lengthy train ride for my friend, but a short walk for us. This was our first glimpse at the famous Shibuya Crossing. It is comprised of 5 crosswalks running in a few directions. What really happens is people just cross the street in any way they feel! It sure is a sight to see and definitely hypnotic too! And hey, we spotted Kwesi hanging out away from the crowd, against a mural.

Last time we had seen one another was in 1999 at the Disneyland Cast cafeteria. Now, here we were in Tokyo, Japan! It’s really weird how life works out sometimes. We had some catching up to do, but at the same time, not really. As everyone knows, social media keeps people connected, so we had a sense of the “latest news” about each other. He hadn’t met Eric before, but for the most part he knew the whole story. We really dove into stories about the present and what it was like on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Just like with Chris we had a lot of questions about his experience in Japan.

I didn’t get great photos from our time together, but this one shot sums up our time together at the bar. We climbed 2 flights to get to the appropriate floor of the bar. Eric and I were still impressed that the businesses are stacked on one another. Our drink of choice was the Long Island Iced Tea, neither of us beer drinkers. We had a lot of laughs and shared a lot of travel stories. But, it being a weekday and just after work, it was time for Kwesi to hop on the trains and head back home. For both Eric and I, it was a very memorable part of our trip!



Our night wasn’t quiet over as we were determined to locate the Disney Store in Shibuya. As I said, we had a few drinks so this was going to be interesting. I think we were lost for a bit and crossed the Shibuya Crosswalk in a few different directions before we actually found the store. Eric may have photo bombed a few pictures, in the middle of the road (crazy American). It almost felt as though we were roaming around Vegas during peak hours. People were everywhere and the lights on the signage were burning brightly.



We also found Shibuya’s Uniqlo location. There were a few items we hadn’t seen here at home, so we each bought something. I was hoping the store would be a little bigger. I think the Daiso we visited earlier had a larger store. This wasn’t even multi leveled.

Still, the day had been a complete success for all involved. It was great to know that all this was happening in Shibuya just around the bend from our apartment. Eric and I were very excited that we were in the middle of glitz and hustle of the city. Again, it’s a great feeling that you walk into an apartment building and not a hotel. We were loving our Airbnb experience!

The next day would also be another big one. We would be headed to Kyoto via the Shinkansen bullet train! It was going to be a 4:30 early rise to make it out for the first train. Maybe we would see a Geisha or a golden pavilion. We couldn’t wait to find out!