Yes, I know “Death and the Uncanny” wasn’t the theme of the huge Luminato arts festival that just finished its third annual go-round in Toronto. But you must admit, there were a few shadows in certain corners. Like that reading from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. And the evening of Gothic Fiction, with that surreal thing going on. And we can’t forget “Gothic Toronto: Writing the City Macabre.” Oh, and the “Tales of the Uncanny” film screening.
Hm…rather a lot of corners, actually.
I didn’t get to many events myself, because I can only go to free stuff. But last Saturday, heading down to the lakeshore, I wandered into what turned out to be Luminato, for me.
Cirque de Soleil created a “weekend of wonder” for the closing days of the festival, down at the Music Garden along the lakeshore. It was indeed wonderful, but more than that, it was a manifestation of the Uncanny. With strong overtones of otherworldliness and death.
Think I’m nuts? What do you think that whiteface paint is really all about? There’s a long, long history behind the whiteface and the “clown” image in general, and it has always stemmed from a link to death. And not just death, of course, but a sort of ritual departure from “normal” life, a step outside the rational. This image threatens us from the “other side,” attracting and repelling us at the deepest levels of our being. All the adult clown figures create this tension, this potential for uneasy ecstasy.
The very enclosures designed for these performances — spherical shapes of metal crossbars bolted together — served to set us apart from the world. Inside those spheres, open though they were, the normal rules were suspended as three whitefaced figures read books while suspended upside down on tipped-over chairs, or marched around with suitcases. One of them took a large metal hoop and began to spin it, eventually stepping into it and becoming part of the spinning.
Watch a gymnast do that at the Olympics, and you marvel at their skill. Put the same gymnast in whiteface, doing a similar routine with Cirque de Soleil, and that frisson of delicious unease goes through your vitals like a ghostly knife.
Music was another element of the otherworldliness, and of course, Cirque de Soleil is famous for this. Even between performances, the music floated around and through those spheres so you never quite came back to the real world while waiting for the next performers. And the long-coated clown with the crumpled top hat whirled nearby on the grass, cello swinging around and around with him, as he played his own eerie song.
At the edges of the space, a mechanical bird with brilliantly costumed rider strolled sedately by. It was really someone on stilts, using hidden controls to make the bird’s head and neck move. But it was almost impossible not to feel like the darn thing was real, as all the while, the distant, impassive white face of the rider seemed less of this world than the metal bird.
Which was how Sigmund Freud described the Uncanny, at least in part: discovering an inanimate object suddenly imbued with life. It’s not part of the natural. It is Other.
This, in my opinion, is the key to Cirque de Soleil’s success. People sit at the edges of the Other world, enthralled with the beauty of the Uncanny, attracted and repelled by the intoxicating danger of it all. And they survive.
And this was why I wandered into the Other world at the close of Luminato — and did not want to leave.