I am a very fearful spectator, hopelessly sensitive to viewing pain or violence. For my own mental health I refuse to watch horror films or medical dramas. I can’t comprehend the general obsession with Law & Order: SVU—any crime dramas that aren’t produced by Shonda Rhimes are out. And that’s just the fictitious stuff. I am especially wary of certain high-risk sports. Nascar and boxing are no-gos. Watching the X-Games raises my blood pressure. Even figure skating or gymnastics is out of the question. I simply worry too much over the possibility of witnessing someone’s accidental death.
So when my boyfriend got us tickets for Cirque du Soleil during a visit to Orlando, my reaction was lackluster. “Sure,” I said, completely unaware of what was in store, “If we don’t find something else to do that’s cheaper, or better.” What a simpleton. I love to watch dance, especially modern dance, but the cirque aspect, I thought, would veer on the gimmicky side, artless and ostentatious.
And then the bombs went off in Paris. I was in the middle of a Disney World vacation. At that very moment I was probably in France—that is, the Disneyfied representation of France at Epcot. Me, posing for a selfie, smiling dumbly at the beautiful “world” around me. But I didn’t hear about the attacks until hours after they occurred. In my defense, who checks their New York Times app on vacation? When I finally looked up from the manufactured world that Disney made, I found even the headlines were too much.
Selfishly, I turned off the TV, I ignored my phone, and we went out to see Cirque du Soleil.
Pulling into the parking lot, the theater loomed before us, itself a masterpiece reminiscent of the original Big Top—a gorgeous study in suspension, tension, and undulating lines. We took our seats in the very first row, mere feet from the thrust stage. The house lights went dark. Chers mesdames et messieurs, a voice announced with a Québecois accent, nous consacrons cette performance aux victimes des attentats terroristes à Paris. The theater was about half-full but immediately swelled with echoing applause. I had not seen anything yet and was already overcome with emotion. I was expecting an ethereal spectacle to help me escape this world. Instead, it catapulted me headfirst into it.
The show took off, exploding with color and speed, sight and sound. Performers took the stage in waves. First, a pair of manic jump-ropers and a nail-biting high wire act. Then, four young Chinese girls captivating us with their yo-yos before descending below the stage on a lift. Two stunt bicyclists rode out before us, balancing on their front wheels and leaping over a line-up of four clowns, skidding to a stop. I was clutching my seat, sweating through my blouse.
There were trampolines and trapeze, swinging and juggling. I kept needing to remind myself to breathe. There were live musicians and two singers whose voices soared to equally great heights as their fellow performers. In the aerial ballet, an impossibly muscular man glided above the audience on a giant plume of crimson silk, the very picture of strength and grace. Three more sheets cascaded from the ceiling and female dancers tangled and tumbled down the lengths of the fabric, in synchronicity, finally touching down onto the stage.
The whole time, I was shaking, sweating, laughing, in tears. I was awestruck by this celebration of human ability and ambition, the performers pulling at the edges of what I considered to be humanly possible. The joy and optimism—that he’ll catch her, that she’ll land on both feet, that no one will be hurt, that we’ll all have a good time—in clear juxtaposition with the pain and destruction in Paris and beyond. It no longer felt selfish to indulge in this spectacle; it felt necessary, cathartic. Fear bound up in love.