Cirque du Soleil’s sparkling ‘Varekai’ now at EagleBank Arena

Traveling Cirque du Soleil extravaganza “Varekai” takes the hapless Icarus and his wings on a journey of re-imagination never before revealed in ancient mythologies.

Russian acrobats.
Russian acrobats performing in "Varekai's" fantastic finale. (Image via Cirque du Soleil website)

FAIRFAX, Virginia, July 23, 2015 – “Varekai,” one of Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil’s traveling extravaganzas, opened Wednesday evening, July 22 at George Mason University’s newly-christened EagleBank Arena, the venue formerly known as the Patriot Center. Based on the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, the performing troupe’s current show takes this well-known character on a magical journey of redemption and renewal.

Icarus fallen to Earth.
The imagery in this 1898 painting by Herbert James Draper depicting Icarus after falling to the Earth is strikingly similar to the way Icarus lands in Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai.” (Image via Wikipedia.)

For those not familiar with Cirque du Soleil, this wide-ranging entertainment company began to take shape in Quebec in 1979-1980 when its founder, Guy Laliberté decided to try his hand at totally transforming the art of the circus performer into something totally new and different.

After the usual early struggles and failures, Laliberté and his associates were able to obtain funding from the Canadian government as well as the Quebec provincial government to support these efforts, ultimately resulting in the creation of what is now acknowledged as the largest theatrical production company in the world.

As the company evolved throughout the 1980s, it gradually drew from Russian and French efforts to move the traditional traveling circus away from its longstanding big-top format. Instead of featuring the traditional circus format, that colorful parade of spectacular but random acts performed by animals and humans, the idea was to transform the circus into something closely resembling an evening of live theater.

Read also: Emily Carragher: A clown guide through “Varekai” by Cirque du Soleil

The evolving troupe eventually perfected its currently successful format, re-creating the circus as a single, continuous performance event that unfolded like an impressionistic story or play. True, while eliminating live animal acts, this arguably new art form still revolved around traditional circus performers and dancers. But now, the entire performing company would take part in a single narrative, supported by yet another innovation: original music composed expressly for each new show.

The title “Varekai,” the show currently being performed at the EagleBank Arena, is the Romanian-gypsy word for “wherever.” “Varekai” transports us to a fantastic world of creatures and characters that live on and around a still-active volcano that reminds us of its presence by frequently belching steam and smoke when we—and the inhabitants—least expect it.

Icarus. (Image courtesy Cirque du Soleil web pages)
Icarus. (Image courtesy Cirque du Soleil web pages)

Into this world suddenly drops the hapless Icarus, whose elaborately constructed wings have melted—a result of his pride and exuberance as he ignored his father Daedalus’ warning not to get too close to the sun. Badly injured and apparently near death, he is tended to by the volcano’s inhabitants and restored to health. But he is now crippled and no longer has use of his legs.

Throughout the remainder of the show, characters like “The Guide” and “The Skywatcher,” a kind of mad scientist, introduce Icarus to various performers performing feats meant to encourage him to rebuild his life anew and try once again to live in their strange land with wisdom and honor. A key point in his rehabilitation he witness an acrobatic dance performed by one of the mountain creatures entirely on a pair of stylized crutches. Inspired at last, he begins to walk again and ultimately win a different kind of happiness with a welcoming acrobat and balancing artist who becomes “The Betrothed.”

"The Guide" makes sure Icarus remains on the right path.
“The Guide” makes sure Icarus remains on the right path. (Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil’s web site)

Cirque du Soleil story lines typically follow one or more characters on their journey of discovery, and “Varekai” is no exception. What makes the show distinct, however, are the increasing athleticism of each successive act, most of which are performed against the backdrop of a live-performed musical score that strongly emphasizes the Middle Eastern and Eastern European gypsy sensibilities of both the storyline and the characters.

Acts run the gamut, from Icarus’ own, chrysalis-like aerial dance, to acrobats who leap, roll and bounce to the rhythm of the show’s pulsating score, to delicate balancing and trapeze acts to a thrilling grand finale that features a troupe of brightly-clad Russian acrobats who fly high in the air, propelled upward by partners who launch them from a pair of wildly oscillating giant swings.

(Below: We took this short video of the Russian acrobats in rehearsal during a backstage press tour the afternoon of July 22. This brief clip gives you a birds’ eye view of the height these powerful athletes can achieve once launched in the air by their partners.)

Lest we forget this is a circus, though, the story line and acts are frequently interrupted by a few eccentric characters and a pair of clowns—one male, one female—who successfully make a mess of everything they undertake and who occasionally wander into the front-row seats to spill popcorn and annoy the audience members seated there. It’s all in good fun, of course, and the little ones in particular enjoy these comic interludes most of all.

The crazed "Skywatcher" is the first to see Icarus as he plummets to Earth.
The crazed “Skywatcher” is the first to see Icarus as he plummets to Earth. (Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil’s web site)

The show’s spectacular Russian finale completes Icarus’ transformation from callow youth to wiser adult, which finally wins for him a beautiful bride as “Varekai” draws to its colorful and uplifting close.

While Cirque du Soleil’s famous, long-running Las Vegas spectaculars are considerably more elaborate (and more expensive!) than their traveling shows like “Varekai,” these traveling shows are more “up close and personal,” making them considerably more accessible to families with young tykes who want their kids to enjoy the thrill of bright and colorful circus performers in live performance.

"The Betrothed."
“The Betrothed” joins Icarus as he strides toward a new life. (Courtesy Cirque du Soleil web pages)

Cirque du Soleil consistently hires the best circus artists from around the world for all their shows, and “Varekai” is no exception. From those athletic Russians to the most dazzling baton twirler-jugglers you’ve ever seen, the color and the pageantry of “Varekai” is an easily accessible multimedia show the whole family can enjoy. And for Northern Virginia residents in particular, the venue—and the free parking—are close to home.

Highly recommended.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” continues at EagleBank Arena (formerly the Patriot Center) on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia through July 26. Remaining dates and times:

Friday, July 24 at 4pm and 7:30pm
Saturday, July 25 at 4pm and 7:30pm
Sunday, July 26 at 1:30pm and 5pm

For tickets and information, including pricing and seats, visit Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” page here.

Note: Try to arrive a bit earlier than usual as what appears to be a large university construction project is currently blocking one major access route to the Arena. Best way to enter currently appears to be via Braddock Road.


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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17