RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico — Anyone who has seen the Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas; Orlando; Miami; Duluth, Minn.; Helsinki, Finland; or in countless other cities on six continents might not recognize the group’s newest production, performed in a permanent, intimate theater concealed among mangroves deep in the Vidanta Riviera Maya property here.
Forget the theaters that seat thousands, the performers who dazzle on the flying trapeze, the acrobats who bend and flip with grace and the spectacle that the brand has come to embody.
Granted, there are some acrobatics and trapeze art in the show, coupled with a stunning set with aspects of Mexican culture woven throughout.
But Cirque du Soleil has ventured far out of the box with this newest show, “Joya” (meaning pearl or jewel in Spanish), performed in the group’s custom-designed, 600-seat theater-in-the-round, which debuted near Vidanta’s Grand Mayan resort on Nov. 21.
Privately held Grupo Vidanta, which owns golf courses in Mexico, an airport in the state of Sonora and the Vida Vacation brand with five resorts across the highway from the Cirque site, invested $20 million and operation in partnership with Cirque du Soleil.
The theater’s architecture resembles a palapa, an open-sided dwelling with a thatched roof made of dried palm leaves very common on Mexican beaches.
The location of the theater is an oasis within an oasis, reached by a sloping wooden walkway that winds up from the site’s entrance to the theater, perched 33 feet above a massive lagoon cascading in a waterfall.
This is the world of “Joya,” Cirque’s 36th production since 1984 and an entertainment and culinary experience unlike any other the group has produced.
“This new creative collusion of cuisine and immersive performances is tailor-made for Cancun and the Riviera Maya,” said Daniel Lamarre, president and CEO of Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. “We reveled in the creative challenge of introducing something different in ‘Joya.’ It is a new way to promote and experience Mexico. This Cirque du Soleil show in the Vidanta Theater is a destination within a destination.”
Claudia Ruiz Massieu, Mexico’s secretary of tourism, attended opening night and praised the performance and the setting.
She pointed out in remarks before the show that initiatives such as the partnership with Cirque and Grupo Vidanta “are necessary for tourism.”
“Joya” is Cirque’s the first show being mounted on a small scale, in the smallest theater that the company has ever used for a continuous production.
The theater also is the first permanent production site for Cirque du Soleil outside of Las Vegas and Orlando, according to Lamarre.
Over time, the acts will change slightly and the menus will be tweaked (in a first for a Cirque du Soleil production, dinner is served prior to the show in a special seating area).
But each 70-minute performance will follow the adventures of a rebellious teenage girl named Joya, who has been whisked away to a mysterious jungle in her alchemist grandfather Zelig’s fantasy world.
Surrounded by a strange band of half-animal, half-human creatures, Zelig, an aging naturalist, yearns to pass on to his granddaughter his quest for the meaning of life.
If the plot gets a bit difficult to follow (the story is told in dance and movement) audience members can just sit back and take in the stage set, which subtly weaves Mayan and Mexican history through giant monarch butterflies, paintings that celebrate the works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, masked wrestlers, pirates, mariachis and other sounds of Mexico.
Sets soar high above the stage, stopping at a library filled with old books, a reference to Mexico being home to some of the largest universities in the world.
Throughout the show, the space undergoes several transformations, becoming an underwater world at one point and a jungle at another, when a giant vine descends onto the stage.
Hordes of pirates emerge from a large book to take the stage, and the audience, by storm. Throughout it all, performers in fantastical costumes swoop, glide and dance on and above the stage.
“Through the integration of premium food-and-beverage services into a Cirque du Soleil theatrical experience that draws on Mexico’s rich culture and heritage, we are delivering an immersive, multisensory offering beyond anything that exists for residents of and visitors to Mexico or elsewhere in the world,” Lamarre said.
The architecture at the theater site, he said, celebrates the Mayans’ respect for nature and was inspired by the beauty of the surrounding jungle.
For every tree that had to come down during construction, another tree was planted at the site. To better preserve the natural habitat, the wooden walkway leading to the theater was built above ground, enabling jungle fauna to pass freely beneath.
The show is performed Tuesdays through Saturdays year round, with two shows a night on Fridays and Saturdays. Prices range from $80 for a single ticket to $110 for the show plus Champagne; $165 for dinner plus Champagne and show; and $225 for a VIP ticket (best seats in the house, with Champagne and dinner).
Tickets are commissionable to agents who book them in advance for clients.
“Joya” is open to the public, not just resort guests, and tickets are available at many resorts in the area.
“Our sales are very strong this season, with many VIP categories already sold out on certain dates,” Lamarre said.