Have you ever seen a Cirque du Soleil performance? I mean a real, live one?

Sarah and I just saw Kooza, the current travelling Cirque show. Now Cirque shows come in several varieties, most notably two kinds: the ones that are housed in a specific facility constructed for the performance (“O”, for instance, at the Bellagio in Las Vegas) and the road shows, which are performed in high tech tents. Both are breathtaking—a perfect blend of human accomplishment, artistic beauty, and innovative technology.

Kooza is no exception: in fact, I think I liked it better than any of the other portable shows. The acts are more traditional—there are trapeze artists, jugglers, contortionists, and tightrope walkers. The music is more circus-like; trombones trumpets and drums are featured instruments.

And there’s a lot of audience interactivity. In every Cirque show I’ve seen, there’s always some—usually so cleverly done that you can’t tell if the audience participants are planted or real volunteers. In Kooza, a hilarious sequence featured a real volunteer (I think)–a retired physician named Caesar. There’s a YouTube video of the same act but with a different audience member, and you can see how very funny it is.

I think my favorite, though, were the contortionists – beautiful, balletic, and certainly a challenge to one who is still having trouble putting her socks on.

The other marvel about Cirque performances is always the meticulous planning that goes into each performance—not just the performance itself, but the preparation for the audience comfort. In this case, parking was easy and there were many shuttlebusses to take you from your car to the entrance walkway. For those of us needing assistance up the walkway hill, there were golf carts. People with mobility problems were shown to their seats before the gates opened, and small children who couldn’t see were cheerfully re-seated in available seats. Food and drink was plentiful (though expensive), but nobody minded if you brought your own refreshments.

Like Disney, Cirque understands audience comfort and delight. What I call backstage problems are always kept backstage (did you ever notice how grocery store cashiers and nurses have continuous workschedule conversations, even while they’re giving you a shot or making change?). At Cirque, performance perfection is the primary goal (no, you can’t take flash photos, and no, you can’t come in late and make a lot of distracting noise). I remember when I was teaching in the public schools, it sometimes seemed like the learning environment was the last item on anyone’s agenda. And in a Cirque performance, customer satisfaction is a major concern—and it shows: the audience knows that arrangements have been made for their comfort, from the comfortable chairs to the tent stakes that don’t obstruct your vision.

I noticed the same dedication to customer comfort when I visited the IKEA home furnishing store near Sarah’s house. Not only is your every movement carefully orchestrated for your comfort, but the also the store actually supports your purchasing effort with better-designed carts, and frequent little kiosks that hold pencils, notepaper, and measuring tapes. And if you get tired as you trudge through the massive warehouse, there’s a unique little cafe halfway through the journey with elegant pastries and coffee, or a full breakfast for $.99.

There are lessons to be learned, I think, as I plan another airplane trip. US air travel can be one of the most personally degrading experiences available in the modern world. Passengers now have to pay for the privilege of not jamming luggage into the crowded body of the plane and dragging it through the airport, and we get to take off our shoes, coats, hats, and jewelry. If you’re a hip transplant, you get to experience the personal caress of the security guard who cares little about your discomfort at having the soles of your bare feet ‘wanded’ and your midsection patted by hands wearing protective gloves. All this happens even before the plane is delayed, the connection missed, and your luggage lost. And before you began to wish you were a Cirque du Soleil contortionist so you could get into your passenger seat.



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