Going to see The Journey of Man, the newest film by Cirque du Soleil, is a somewhat surreal experience.
First there's the IMAX film itself, which roughly traces both the evolution of humankind from caves to the Brandenburg Gate and the ages of man from infancy to old age.
The Montreal-based circus is known for its dazzling combinations of acrobatics, costuming, dance and music under an old-fashioned big top, but running through the beauty of its choreography is often a subtle threat of danger; everyday fears made real. This unsettling feature is present in Journey of Man as well: gorgeously; clad wood sylphs kidnap a young boy, a strong man spins an immense metal cube then disappears. The lovely, in Cirque, is coupled with the frightening.
But here's what's really surreal about going to see The Journey of Man:
On a bustling holiday evening, I stood with a lot of other Americans outside the box office at Cinemark 16, off of Powers Boulevard, awaiting entry to the film. A few short years ago there was little human activity in that part of the high plains. Then up went the many eastern Colorado Springs housing developments, and with them the steakhouses, lube shops and home improvement stores that follow Homo Sapiens habitation these days. And, up went Cinemark.
Unlike the new, glitzy front of Cinemark's sister complex, Tinseltown, Cinemark 16 is aspiring to be someplace old and established. Stone facing, a sunburst on the ceiling of the entrance hall, street signs that proclaim a small-town "First and Main," are all intended to give the impression that this is a location with history and meaning, where genuine lives have been lived. In an earlier generation we might have gone to see a real circus, now we go to see the movie.
My fellow movie goers were like me -- kind of soft and unfit, generally unkempt. We didn't want to be wowed by real life, or even by a real circus. We were hoping for a facsimile of a circus that looked so real that it was better than reality. Slouched in our seats, IMAX glasses perched on our noses, we got what we had paid for: 38 minutes of remarkable human strength, balance and artistry. There was water ballet that left me wondering if humans might once again return to the oceans, and a fabulously timed and costumed bungee cord/trapeze act that convinced me that we might once again return to the trees. Most wondrous was a pas de deux of living sculptures. A man and woman, both painted to look like marble, slowly lifted and balanced each other in remarkable poses -- head-to-head, she upside down, neither holding onto the other, in perfect counterweight, suspended only by air and the tautest of muscles.
In front of fabulous backdrops like a redwood forest or a Nevada desert, these acrobats demonstrated what is possible when human. Gorgeous feats of strength, coordination and faith (only slightly diminished by the schmaltzy narration) awed and inspired.
When the lights turned back on, we handed in our glasses and shuffled, with our super-sized Cokes and popcorn, into the artificial light of the unselfconsciously faux world of First and Main. Overfed, overstimulated, sated. How very surreal.