Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Zarkana’ weaves a mystical tapestry

After the critical drubbing of its last show in New York City (the short-lived Banana Shpeel) and the under-whelming holiday tent-pole known as Wintuk, Cirque du Soleil had a lot to prove in the Big Apple. Thankfully, the Montreal-based performance company outdoes itself with Zarkana, a bizarrely sublime new creation that has taken up residency in the historic Radio City Music Hall.

The show’s elaborate scenic design pairs with death-defying acts to make an enjoyable evening that never ceases to amaze. Zarkana may prove to be one of Cirque’s finest creations: a show with unrelenting dedication to mystery and wonder. If this doesn’t thrill you, not much in life can.

Cirque du Soleil's "Zarkana" at Radio City Music Hall - Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

In usual Cirque fashion, the circus acts are interrupted throughout the night by the antics of a few clowns plus the overly-dramatic singing of a few cantors. In Zarkana, the lyrics are in English, yet they still prove needlessly obscure. There is a loose plot that details the difficulties of a wayward magician named Zark (Garou), but honestly any attempt at story falls victim to the wonder of the aerial feats of strength.

The spectacle begins easily enough with a solitary juggler. Using a seemingly endless barrage of balls, the performer creates virtual highways between her hands and the ground. The resulting performance is quite the sight to behold.

From there, audiences experience a duet involving two ladders, plus a high-flying act using aerial wires. This latter spectacle, which has become a benchmark of many Cirque shows, is especially awe-inducing in the voluminous Radio City Music Hall. The two performers glide around in circles, letting their flowing hair and desire for safety whisk through the air.

Cirque du Soleil must have a monster of an insurance policy.

A group of performers take the stage next with a flag-throwing act that passes the time until a high-wire sequence takes the breath away.

One of the more interesting additions is the Act-Two opener: a sand painter who brings to life the scenes and characters that close out Zarkana. The artist is perhaps the simplest (and safest) of any Cirque act throughout the years, and yet she gains as much applause and admiration from the doting audience as her brethren swinging from impossible heights.

The two highlights of the night include a flying trapeze act, which on the night I saw Zarkana included a near fall, plus the ubiquitous, yet always thrilling, wheel of death. It’s a wonder why one of these fine performances didn’t close out the stellar show, but instead writer/director Francois Girard chooses to finish with a frenetic human pyramid act that will remind audience members of U.S. cheerleading competitions.

The big challenge of importing Cirque du Soleil into the enormous Radio City Music Hall was whether the company could fill the space organically. Thankfully, this is Zarkana’s strongest suit. The sets by Stephane Roy are exquisitely detailed, combining computer graphics with evocative drop curtains. Yes, there is a lot of empty space, but Roy’s designs mask the space as best and as creatively as possible.

Halfway through the two-hour show, a clown jokes about the flying troubles of Zarkana’s nearby Broadway neighbor, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. The jibe will instantly remind you that Cirque du Soleil is the original purveyor of theatrical aerial arts, and, with Zarkana, the legacy continues.

By John Soltes / Publisher /
  • Zarkana

  • A production of Cirque du Soleil

  • Written and directed by Francois Girard

  • Playing at Radio City Music Hall at 1260 Avenue of the Americas in New York City

  • Click here for more information. Tickets are $52 to $300, with discounts available.

  • Running time: two hours, 15 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission

  • Rating: ★★★★

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John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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