A few minutes into "Drawn to Life," I began to wonder if Disney had driven the circus from Cirque du Soleil. Cirque's new residency at the Walt Disney World Resort, which opened in November in Disney Springs, tells the story of a young girl named Julie, whose father was a Disney animator.
Typically, people don't come to Cirque du Soleil productions for the storytelling. Cirque provides an amazing visual experience, capturing your imagination with its unbelievable physical displays. Acrobats, aerials, tumblers, and other stunt artists command your attention then reward it with performances that have made Cirque synonymous with people whose bodies know no limits from tension nor gravity.
But Drawn to Life is not just another Cirque production. It's Cirque's collaboration with Disney - a tribute to the art of Disney animation. For that to feel honest, it must include a story. So Cirque obliges, introducing us to Julie and her late father. (Ah, Disney and dead parents.)
It's more ballet than circus in the first moments, but soon Cirque asserts its form. Animation's use of a sequence of individual drawings to simulate motion on screen provides a convenient excuse for Cirque to stage a group of rhythmic gymnasts performing in sequence to illustrate that process. But any doubt that Drawn to Life is at its heart a Cirque production gets erased when a male aerialist grabs a long pencil-like pole to take flight.
Here are clips from those performances we shared earlier.
It might occur to viewers of a certain disposition that they basically are watching a topless pole dancer at Walt Disney World at this point. No matter. This is stunning performance art, well worth the saving an evening on your Walt Disney World vacation to watch.
Been wondering where a jump-roping unicyclist is in your life? She's here.
How about some "owls" walking, jumping, and daresay flying through the Wheel of Death? Yup. Here.
Drawn to Life does not allow its need for story to squeeze out Cirque fans' need for amazing stunt work. It's all here, performed brilliantly in Disney Springs' comfortable dedicated theater for the show.
We do get a villain in Drawn to Life - a person-sized wad of paper. She's the personification of an animator's failure - a drawing smushed up and discarded, left to mock the artist from the wastebasket. Throughout the show, as Julie takes another step toward following her father's path, the wad of paper emerges to block her and test her confidence.
Ultimately, as she must, Julie triumphs. She literally embraces her failure by the end of Drawn to Life, accepting that an errant drawing is not an indictment of her ability, but a testament that she can - and will - do better.
My favorite moment in Drawn to Life found the balance between Disney story and Cirque performance. As we enter the show's final act, Julie imagines her father and mother dancing together. Staged to an arranged version of "Beauty and the Beast," the pas de deux slyly incorporates aerialist work by the mother, creating a series of wonderful illusions as she seems to float, dance, and run through the air above and around Julie's father. The lighting and some smoke effects on stage hide well the cables, which I could not see despite my best efforts to break the illusion. So I gave up and simply enjoyed the scene.
And the story. This is the most emotional moment in the show, when Julie overcomes her frustration by embracing her love for animation, as she remembers her parents' love for one another. It's pure Disney magic, married with Cirque spectacle.
No, the moment did not need snippets of Disney couples projected onto the periphery of the scene. Drawn to Life employs such decorations from time to time, but I found myself ignoring them as superfluous window dressing. The live performers drive this show. If some fans - or Disney higher-ups - need the affirmation of Disney characters projected upon the edges of the stage to accept this production at Disney World, well, they shouldn't. But if that's the price to get Drawn to Life on stage at Disney Springs, so be it.
This is theatrical magic.
Drawn to Life plays Tuesday through Saturday evenings in the Cirque theater in Disney Springs. Tickets are available via the Cirque du Soleil website.
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