Critic's Notebook: Then and Now
For those with long memories, the Excalibur’s new show, Fuerza Bruta, will bring to mind a (short-lived) blast from the past
Update: On April 3, the producers of Fuerza Bruta announced the tent show would fold April 7. No reason was given for closing the show that was booked through at least September 1, but closing an even 30 days after its March 7 opening suggests the exercising of an out clause due to low ticket sales.
The show will instead be re-routed to MGM Cotai in Macau, leaving only speculation for why it didn’t work here. Has the Strip hit the saturation point for wordless acrobatics? Were 7 p.m. starts too early for its target audience of club kids? Was the big top too hard to find? (Or possibly even too close to the site of the Route 91 Harvest massacre?) Should the producers have been a little more patient, waiting for at least the rest of spring break season, if not Electric Daisy Carnival weekend?
One thing that’s safe to say is that the 10-month run for its 2000 precursor, De La Guarda , is looking better and better in the history books.
Millennials, you will hear it said, don’t want to sit and watch a show. They want to be the show. When someone in casino entertainment says that, I think of De La Guarda.
Show producers have chased an elusive fusion of nightclub culture and “immersive theater” since late 2000, when they had that very thing sitting out back of The Rio. The Argentinian troupe De La Guarda brought an edgy mix of acrobatics and abstract theater to its warehouse theater. Performers climbed the walls around the audience and swung over their heads on harnesses. Sometimes, audience members got scooped up and carried along for the ride. Eventually, it erupted into a big dance party.
“If you could have just waited another five years,” I tell co-creator Diqui James now, and he laughs.
“I hope that’s not going to happen now,” he says at a press preview of his new venture, Fuerza Bruta, a direct descendent of De La Guarda that’s now ensconced in a big top in front of the Excalibur. “I hope the young clubbing audiences are going to notice now that we have a show for them.”
Whether or not they turn out, the Electric Daisy Carnival crowd will at least understand Fuerza Bruta. Electronic dance music culture and the wordless antics of Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group provide a context that didn’t exist in October 2000. Casino shows then skewed toward variety performers updating the classic-Vegas tradition — Wayne Newton, the Scintas, Clint Holmes — and were light on avant-garde theater that whipped up indoor wind and rain storms to punch the symbolism of Argentina’s repressive military junta and “dirty war” of the 1970s.
Studio 54 had staked out ground for casino-based nightclubs. But musically, the MGM Grand nightspot was still old-school disco and radio pop. It would be a few years before the likes of LAX and Pure would wrench the club scene from the baby boomers and hand it over to star DJs working in their own genre of EDM.
De La Guarda got off to a rip-roaring start on opening night. The vodka was flowing, literally, through a moonshiner’s still coil, frozen in a block of ice. When the first performer burst through what turned out to be a drop ceiling made of paper, the well-lubricated crowd howled in rapture.
But some minor babysitting emergency — the specifics are lost to time — called me away, and I had to come back the next night. And that night? The warehouse space was nearly empty and seemed chilly and creepy; more like a haunted house attraction where you were trapped in the middle. Two young Asian women shielded themselves behind their dates. No surprise the show ran just 10 months.
(The U.S. partners managed to recover. Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller were fresh from the Broadway hit Rent and would later bring Avenue Q to Wynn Las Vegas. Seller would go on to produce a little show called Hamilton.)
This time, opening-night guests of Fuerza Bruta were treated to Bud Light and big plastic cups brimming with House Wine. But no one was intimidated. If De La Guarda was lo-fi black-and-white, Fuerza Bruta is digital Technicolor. Technology is compact now, and the new show explodes with computer-synced colors inside the big top, which seems bigger inside than it does from Las Vegas Boulevard, dwarfed by The Excalibur.
And now we have the vocabulary to describe it. The opening sequence? “Cirque meets Blue Man.” Five characters in white powder wigs and red Revolutionary War waistcoats, pounding drums on a two-story Hollywood Squares scaffold, become a fusion of those Las Vegas staples. Later, giant billowing fabric rolls out over our heads, before inflating into a laser-projection dome. If this troupe hadn’t waited 18 years to come back to town, we might not have seen a similar effect in Cirque’s Love.
But Fuerza Bruta sports at least one thing we haven’t seen: a clear, above-ground swimming pool. Way above ground, as we peer through clear Lucite to see the women of the 12-member troupe splash and slide above us — their writhing silhouettes a James Bond credit sequence come to life, as the pool eventually lowers to within touching distance of the audience.
De La Guarda was “more like throwing our bodies into the air,” says James, the creative and artistic director. Now, “the action comes from the machinery. ... The water moves the performer, or there they are here in this huge dome which inflates, and the performer plays with it and the audience at the same time. We still have this primitive language, combining with technology of nowadays.”
The audience is invited to shift around as playing areas transform within the space, following the struggle of a white disco-suited everyman (Bruno Lopez Aragon) pushing his way along a treadmill to get ... somewhere. Gone are the menacing echoes of military terrorism. This seems more of a Pink Floyd “Us and Them” attempt to break free of the confines of everyday life. Our white-suited Bee Gee eventually smashes through a wall of banker’s boxes and takes flight. Young people who may represent office drones pulverize a similar stack of banker’s boxes to unleash confetti, turning their work space into a dance floor. “Everything is political,” James says, “but what we do is not specifically political.”
Another tie to De La Guarda is the brief running time: The whole thing’s over in an hour. And if it seems a little “clubby” for a 7 p.m. start, there’s no testing of fractured attention spans. And no question that it’s immersive. The finale offers the willing a chance to dance in the shower of a rain curtain.
And while this invited-night crowd represented a vast age range of industry folk and “influencers,” the biggest change since 2000 was universal, and constant. Millennials may or may not want to be this show, but they — and a lot of others — certainly want to film it. I can’t remember how many BlackBerrys I saw at De La Guarda. But even if it’s funny that an experience isn’t real these days unless it’s captured and shared, the battalion of hoisted phones suggests Fuerza Bruta should never have to pay for social media. If De La Guarda struggled to explain itself — to answer the inevitable question of “What’s it all about?” — those fielding the same questions about Fuerza Bruta can simply redirect inquiries to YouTube.