One of life’s cruelest ironies is that it begins through death. There is something about loss that forces us to burst out of our bubble and understand that we have to be ready to stand on our own and that the safe haven of our parents won’t always be there watching over us. In Finding Neverland, Marc Foster’s film based on the time in which Barrie wrote Peter Pan, there is a scene in which Johnny Depp, who plays the writer, looks at the eldest of the Llewelyn brothers —who were the inspiration for the author’s Magnum Opus— as he becomes aware of his mother’s illness. And looking at him, J.M. Barrie says, “Magnificent. The boy is gone. In the last 30 seconds… you became a grown-up.”
This is how Cirque du Soleil: Drawn To Life begins: with a farewell letter from a father to a daughter. With the last message from someone who has left and who has laid the groundwork to continue the family legacy in the hands of her, his teenage daughter, an artist herself by right; a basement studio as a sanctuary of creation and of this father-daughter unbreakable bond. Now she has the inescapable challenge of finding an explanation for what is going on so as to make sense of the chaos that grief turns us into. And then, from our seats, as our own emotional attachments and personal analogies arise, this story that has it all unfolds right before our eyes and, at the same time, within our most intimate spaces.
Drawn To Life is a joint collaboration between Cirque du Soleil and Disney. What occurs on the stage is Cirque’s narrative grandeur, exploring emotions throughout certain nods to a childhood we all share and one that has become an essential part of our collective identity. While on stage we witness the evolution of characters playing the roles of ideas and inspiration, struggling against creative roadblocks, sadness and the cruelty of loneliness, the story follows the process of imagination that depicts not Walt Disney, although his characters are embodied in music or visual technology, but the very human journey of understanding what we are truly capable of, even in the midst of our most difficult moments.
As a writer, the villain of the story is, perhaps, one of my greatest fears: the discarded page that keeps growing and getting stronger while ideas keep failing and being discarded. It is the writer’s block, but also the human being’s own fear of expressing what defines them and makes them unique. Because what separates us from animals and makes us the dominant species on the planet is our ability to create.
“The opposite of war is not peace, it’s creation,” Mark sings in Jonathan Larson’s RENT. In Drawn To Life the war is against the invincible enemy: the mourning of loss. And the only way to win a seemingly hopeless battle is to keep the legacy alive, however complicated. So the stage built based around notebooks, pages, pieces of paper that are used to draw gains strength and narrative meaning when the most complicated acrobatic acts begin to take place. Not those that, in this mission to keep the circus spirit alive for generations to come, take place on wheels, trapezes, trampolines and unicycles. No… the most human acrobatics of struggling with sadness in an effort to hold on to something that will connect us to life. In this case, the animation and the world of infinite possibilities that a blank canvas presents.
But there is also a game of words in the title. Drawn To Life can be understood as this analogy of bringing any character to life, through the magic of traditional animation, hence the ever present pencil as a character that goes around the stage. But it’s also a fierce message of hope for us struggling to always have something to hold on and being, literally, Drawn to Life. It is this double meaning that has the most impact. “Hell is the absence of the people you miss,” wrote Emily St. John Mandel in her book Station Eleven. And it is that hell where all of us who have gone through the experience of grief have wondered if the world we stayed in would really miss us should we decide to seek that relentless mystery of knowing if in fact those who are gone are waiting for us out there somewhere.
It is in that word game where Drawn To Life explores our angels and demons, our absences and longings. This time Cirque du Soleil steps away from the abstract narratives of fantasy and carries us through our most private memories of sudden loneliness that we have all been disarmed by on more than one occasion. How to go on when what we are and what built us is no longer around? Creating, fighting against the discarded pages, against ideas not pursued, turning us into what we are meant to be and not into what others try to impose on us.
Drawn To Life also feels like a grandiloquent and enormous tribute to the golden years of 2D animation, that traditional form of expression that filled our generational memories with characters such as Baloo, Mowgli, Dumbo, Aurora, Snow White, Simba, Pocahontas or Mulan. It would even seem to be a final message from the man who inherited us the drawing desk in order to remind us that not everything is computer animation and it is always wise to go back to basics, because it is in those roots where we will find ourselves when we are most lost. I won’t tell you where the climax of this analogy happens, but I’m sure you’ll see it clearly when it arrives.
Cirque du Soleil: Drawn To Life is not only a tribute to that Disney that constructed our childhood. It’s a journey through the complexity of raw emotions that come with the fact of, simply, being human. It is a reminder of what we can be and where we can go if we realize in time that, as Garcia Marquez said in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “…it is life, rather than death, that has no limits.”
I left the show in tears in a way I hadn’t been for years. Drawn To Life touched every possible nerve and pushed every single button. But I also came out discovering that I had been living with the wrong idea. Nicky Tavares’ voice echoes in my head once again, accusing me of growing up and not ever being allowed to return to Neverland. But I look at the tattoo covering my right forearm: “Second star to the right and straight on till morning” it says. I had it done so I would never forget it. I look carefully at the official poster of Drawn To Life and see that it is precisely him, Peter Pan, who is brought to life by the omnipresent pencil of the show. Sixty-nine years ago, people around the world watched amazed at the silver screen as four children crossed the London sky and stopped at the hands of Big Ben for Peter to show Wendy the way. The map back to who we are is still there. It’s just a matter of, as Amanda Gorman said in her poem “The Hill We Climb,” being brave enough to see it.
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