We Got Down in the Jungle this Weekend at Cirque Dreams

By now, the “cirque” experience is synonymous with high dollar, high rolling entertainment—but by no means does that have to be the case. Sure, the Cirque du Soleil empire gets all the name recognition and has a lock on zillion dollar sets and complex hydraulics, but the unaffiliated Cirque Dreams conglomerate presents a serious spandex-heavy spectacle without the related gambling debt.

While that big name human circus is arguably skewed more toward adults willing to shell out the big bucks for tickets, “Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy” seems to be aimed at a wider demographic, with travelling productions that go anywhere from regional arts centers to theme parks, military installations, and even cruise ships. Cirque Dreams employs a team of seriously practiced aerialists, contortionists, jugglers, acrobats and other athletes that perform in short showcase vignettes.

This collection of scenes, divided into two acts, is ostensibly jungle-themed, though if there’s a narrative thread, it’s a thin one—each of the 19 routines seemingly stands independently of any overarching story. Even the jungle motif seemed a little tenuous—many of the animals seem to have drifted over continents to land in their setting, and one incongruous snippet of the production was tied to the premise only by a reference to Tarzan.

That’s the scene I’ll designate as the show’s true misstep: it’s a pantomime, involving a few audience members pulled up on stage. After a few laughs at these amateurs and their onstage miscues, there was an uncomfortable moment when it became clear that they were supposed to act out a story that involves a domestic dispute leading to a murder and then suicide. The audience audibly hesitated when the “director” mimed the gunshots for the first time—perhaps this is something that should have been reconsidered in the days following a mass shooting. But regardless of the timing, the scene is still at odds with the rest of the production.

When things are safely back on track, your guide is Mother Nature, who appears to be a cross between Cher and Princess Ariel. She’s here mostly to provide some context to the viewing experience via some Songs About Nature and Stuff. Her sidekick is a violin player who would look at home on the cover of a trashy romance novel: he is Fabio With Strings, dressed like a botanical panflutist. But the musical accompaniment takes a backseat (thankfully, to be honest) to the talented cast: contortionists who defy physics and probably subsist on cortisone shots, and aerialists who spin through the air and hold themselves aloft with sheer muscle, reminding you to re-up that pilates membership, stat. Act I, which occurs against a simple jungle backdrop, also answers the eternal question about what happens when you put a pair of zebras on rollerskates—which is that they spin at a dizzying speed, becoming blurs as one zebra-costumed skater spins around another.

The second half of the show is set on a glow-in-the-dark backdrop and features some of the biggest oohs and aahs of the night: two muscle men accomplishing varying feats of crazy contortionism—including balancing one 200-pound plus dude on the other’s head, which drew a small standing ovation from a group of women seated up front; a fun and thrilling display involving foot juggling a patterned table; and a daredevil, suspense-filled balancing act.

Ultimately, what separates Cirque Dreams from its glitzier competitor is that this show is not all about production value. Here, that remains charmingly lo-tech—but not shoddy, either. The focus is largely where it should be—on the performers. The lithe women who bent over backwards, quite literally, to thrill the audience; the juggler who handily managed a bevvy of balls—all were part of sequences that stayed bouncy and entertaining, drawing lots of vocal approval from the diverse audience. And in little over than two hours, the curtain fell and the crowd dissipated—though a group of children remained on the green outside Annette Strauss Square afterward, turning cartwheels, attempting handstands, and trying to match the velocity of those rollerskating zebras….a fully unpretentious and fun conclusion to a show that was much the same.

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