A performance by the Cirque du Soleil is almost always a life-altering experience for someone in the audience, and it’s little wonder that fans tend to nominate their very first show as their favorite. My first cirque was Alegria, back in the mid-1990s when the Grand Chapiteau was set up across the street from the Cheetah 3 strip club, and to this day the soundtrack from Alegria is the first thing I think of when I hear the word ‘Cirque’.
For my second show (I think it might have been Dralion) I bought tickets for my parents, treating them to the Tapis Rouge experience – a magical tent overflowing with music, food, and drink. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into a server carrying a tray laden with some incredible work of edible art, and to this day my mom remains convinced that the Cirque du Soleil is the only place where you can order “that drink made with grapefruit and vodka” (she’s not much of a drinker).
The Tapis Rouge wasn’t just about the food though, it truly was an “experience” in its own right – an expression of everything that is unique about Cirque, from the fabric lining the tent to the stage lighting and the festive decor of the space, to the playlist of songs from current and previous traveling shows. There was a Cirque store where you could purchase clothing, knickknacks, umbrellas, celebrated Venetian masks, and of course the soundtrack from the current show. It was a costume museum featuring manikins decked out in actual costumes from previous shows, arranged in fantastic poses around the tent.
There was even a little fenced off area outside our special Tapis Rouge tent where smokers and restless Tapis Rouge lanyard-wearers could sit and gaze out over the fence at the plebes crowded on the other side, munching on circus popcorn and gazing lustily at our special VIP toilets, which were no different from the portable toilets available on their side of the fence, the only difference being that our lines were much shorter.
VIP tickets also ensured that we would have a seat in the inner ring, center stage, and let me tell you: that proximity to the stage significantly enhances an already magical experience.
During intermission VIP badge holders would return to the Tapis Rouge to be wined and dined all over again, except this time the army of servers would be sailing around the tent with amazing desserts of every description, and you could have another drink or two, or make yourself a nice big cup of coffee and relax at one of the many couches and standing tables spread around the tent.
Now of course everything that I have described to you sounds decadently bourgeoisie, and it was!!! Remarkably, delightfully so. Of course you paid dearly for that experience. Looking back at my billing emails from the 2012 performance of Totem I see that I spend $281 per ticket, but it was worth it to see my mom having the time of her life – she transforms into an excitable seven year old girl at cirque, dancing in her chair to the music and clapping and yelling – making people a quarter her age look like a bunch of stuffed shirts. Her reaction to the show is arguably more entertaining that the show itself. Heck, if they could film her in action, dancing in her seat, they’d have a commercial to help sell a million, zillion tickets.
We nearly missed seeing Kurios this year because we lost dad the first week of March and it’s been a difficult time for us both. I’d heard so many good things about this show that I prevailed upon mom to let me take her again and I’m so glad that I did because this was a solid entry in the style of the early cirques.
This was the most exciting Cirque show to come through Atlanta in many seasons and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone considering buying tickets. The staff that we encountered were friendly and helpful, and we had no complaints about any of them.
Sadly, we were not as happy with the BMW VIP Experience.
We arrived a few minutes after the VIP area had opened and as we entered we were met by a young woman offering us plastic stemware filled with warm champagne, which we accepted cautiously – this already seemed different from our past Tapis Rouge experiences.
I steadied mom as we stepped up and into a sort of “passage” formed of curtains, and as we turned to our left to enter the main space we were confused because there wasn’t a main space!
The BWM Experience VIP area was one long hallway, with black curtains along one side and mesh “windows” facing out toward the concession area where people who’d purchased regular tickets were milling around, curiously trying to peep through the mesh screen. If they’d succeeded they would have seen me looking around and figuring out that I’d just wasted more than $300.
This space was easily half or perhaps even just a third of the size of the old Tapis Rouge space and for a fleeting moment I supposed that this was just a waiting area and that we’d soon be ushered into the “real” tent, but it soon became clear that this was all there was.
My mom is in her mid-80s so seating is a big priority for her these days, and we had to look around and essentially fight for her to get a spot on the edge of one of the few couches in this broom closet of a VIP experience.
On our way in we’d spotted a swarm of people lined up to receive a little plastic cup of freshly sliced prime rib on top of some mashed potatoes, so mom made sure to get in that line before looking for a place to sit. The cups they were using were those cheap plastic affairs you buy at the convenience store when you decide to have a last-minute celebration at the office to wish Stu a happy forced retirement, and sure enough within the first 2 seconds of the man handing me that meat-laden cup the little plastic bottom popped off, the load shifted, and the cup did a rapid 180 degree inversion and went ka-splooey onto the serving table.
I felt like a moron, but over the next 20 minutes my embarrassment would be replaced by anger that I’d paid so much money for such a disappointing experience.
A pleasant young woman with a platter of crostini cruised past us offering an affordable snack, but nowhere to be seen were the army of servers bearing spicy thai shrimp spoons and curried chicken satay sticks and roast walrus burgers (not really, but you get the picture – the stuff they used to serve was fancy).
I finally spotted a beleaguered young man skulking past with a tray of what looked like sausage biscuits. After a series of polite pleasantries over which of us would get the last of the things on his tray I emerged the proud recipient of a turkey burger.
A turkey burger.
In the past it would have been something like a pan-roasted saffron-dipped Icelandic scallop, but here they were, pointing and nodding at a darned turkey burger like James bloody Beard had prepared it personally for us ‘round back. I almost think they were rubbing their bellies and encouraging me to be amazed that they’d been able to find one of these rare treats.
I think you can tell from how I’m writing this that I was getting angry, and my explanations are only marginally sensationalized. Expectations that had been well established by 20 years of attending Cirques were not met in a very significant way and I found myself beginning to say this out loud to the people around me, which for anyone who knows me is a pretty remarkable thing. I generally adopt that Alexi Sayle sort of British demeanor of “Mustn’t grumble”, and have accepted a lot of unacceptable service over the years, but that afternoon I was spouting off at the mouth and a lady standing a nearby table agreed heartily with me (several times throughout the day).
She was standing at one of those tall event tables that are just big enough for people to crowd around and set their drinks on, but are useless for any other purpose other than declaring a “home base” so that you aren’t doomed to wander around lost.
Once I had mom planted on a couch and gumming on something that vaguely resembled one of those toothpick treats the nice ladies offer you at the supermarket, I went off to look for some answers.
And listen, it’s easy to write a vaguely anonymous rant like this on the Internet, but when you get to somebody with answers you have to be reasonable, and I did in fact find somebody with answers, the man who manages the VIP area.
We stood and discussed everything from the lack of any semblance of décor – it turns out that up until the past few days that space had actually featured a bit of decoration, but since we were there on the last weekend the company was striking as much as they could in preparation for the move out of Atlanta.
We discussed the lack of air-conditioning – the manager’s husband handles the AC for the show and had supposedly had all systems on go. To be reasonable, perhaps we attended the event more in the winter months when cooling the tent was not an issue? Whatever the answer was, it was hot.
We discussed the quality of the food and I was told that they had the best Atlanta had to offer, the unspoken context that I’m guessing into is “with the budget that we had available”, because I’ve had better at the Tapis Rouge.
As someone who has worked in the film business I know what things are like when you’re about to do a company move, but in the movie business that’s a procedure that doesn’t affect a paying audience, whereas the Cirque du Soleil had charged us a pretty penny to sit in that hot, joyless, dark, stripped-down corridor for the same price as other attendees who’d experienced the full experience (I wonder how different it was from what we encountered?) and range about for scraps of food for an hour, fighting for table and couch space. I spotted a photo-op banner that must have surely been staffed with a photographer in the earlier part of the run of the show to document guests experience, which is something that they’ve done in the past with the Tapis Rouge.
And there lies the real issue: the BMW Experience sucks if you’ve been to the authentic Tapis Rouge, or at least it sucks if you go on the last weekend of the run.
This was a chintzy, low-budget experience. I’d have happily exchanged the bag of useless swag for a nicer VIP area. Instead we received a bag of things that no one over the age of 30 is likely to desire: a plastic Kurios-branded travel cup, a leather-bound Kurios lined notebook, and a (really nice) hardcover program commemorating the (really awesome) show. It’s almost like they knew that the BMW Experience sucked and went through the gift shop to find something to buy us off with.
On the way home, like she did so many years ago after going to her very first Cirque du Soleil, my mom turned to me and gave me a new request: “Honey, please don’t ever buy me those expensive tickets again. Just save your money.”
I cannot begin to tell you how crushing it was to hear that coming from the world’s biggest fan of Cirque du Soleil.