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Messi10: Cirque du Soleil’s New Sports-Themed Show is a Winner

With acrobats that fly across the stage with the speed of a ball into a goal and heroic videos of Leo Messi, Messi10 is sure to please crowds.

With acrobats that fly across the stage with the speed of a ball into a goal, trapeze artists that literally take soccer moves to new heights and heroic videos of Leo Messi, Cirque du Soleil’s Messi10 should more than meet expectations for the living legend’s global legion of followers and football lovers in general. But the show, which premiered Thursday night (Oct. 10) in Barcelona with Messi and other Barça club players in the audience, transcends fan fever or celebrity tribute, and does it so beautifully, representing the physical and emotional essence of the game in a series of acts that play out (like a match) during two 45-minute periods.

Messi10 is more muscle than flash. It’s pure nerve, family entertainment and poetic performance. Rather than a biography of the man recognized as the world’s greatest soccer player, it’s a conceptual ensemble piece that explores and elevates the idea of teamwork and expands the usual definition of “athlete” through the prowess of its international cast of trampoline acrobats, freestyle soccer champions, aerial and tight rope artists, human jugglers, dancers, a diabalo spinner, and a contortionist you'll not soon forget.

Popart Music, the Buenos Aires-based concert and festival promoter, executive produced Messi10 and Sony Music had unprecedented participation (Messi also consulted and had approval). Mukhtar Omar Sharif Mukhtar, writer and director of Messi10, is a former champion competitive hip-hop dancer who proves with this show that he knows about flow.

The result of this collaboration is a show that could appeal even to those who usually stay far away from Cirque du Soleil glittering tents or flashy Las Vegas theaters, and, also, notably, to younger audiences. Messi10 is not glitzy, over the top, New-Agey or other adjectives that have sometimes been used to describe past Cirque productions. The costumes – mostly artful shorts and jerseys– are more fashion than fantasy.

The set is minimal, consisting of a stage made to look like a soccer field, the apparatus for each act, and a lot of balls, some of which are remote-controlled. A huge screen is at times placed on the stage so that the performers can interact with Messi virtually (this works better than it sounds). In one scene that also has to be seen to be appreciated, a performer dominates an imposing robotic opponent. The music includes songs by Pharrell Williams, The White Stripes and Shakira’s World Cup anthem “La,La,La,” as well as energetic electronic tracks, the beat of bass drums, crowds cheering and the voices of sports commentators. The producers have also enhanced the experience by adding the Messi Challenge, a fun pre-game soccer skills test that audience members can participate in before the show for the chance to come on stage as “the Messi of the day.” Food trucks outside the tent give the event a festival feel.

Spectators who don’t know Messi’s story won’t come away with a lot of facts, but the show is definitely, on its most basic level, about football. There’s a locker room scene in which soccer players who spin balls with their feet compete with others who spin their teammates bodies in the air; a match on a field-long trampoline on which the players/acrobats advance past each by doing yards-high flips and somersaults in the air, accompanied by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ stadium classic “Matador.” In an at turns hilarious and head-shaking (as in “no way”) bit, a contortionist mimics a player who's thrown himself on the field exaggerating an injury, then goes beyond. Humor is also provided by Mateo Amieba, a clown playing an out-of-shape referee and the show’s MC, who starts his schtick by getting the audience to do a wave.

Perhaps the most directly biographical part of Messi10, and its potential tearjerker, is an acrobatic choreography evoking Messi’s childhood, performed to “Hijo” by Argentine group Los Cafres, which has been transformed from a reggae song (one of Messi’s favorites) into an emotional ballad in a new recording for the show.

Mukhtar has described Messi10 as being about the inspiring message of the football astro’s character and career (Basically, with perseverance “anyone can be a 10”- Messi’s team number). To play that up, words like “confidence,” “family” and “vision” and Nike style slogans like “don’t stop never give up” flash and scroll onscreen during the performance. That may be good reinforcement for the kids, though it comes off as a little corny for the older crowd. Really, it’s superfluous, since it’s the performers who in a more visceral way transmit the show’s most important message: that human beings can do miraculous things if we work together.

At the end of the show on the night of the premiere, Messi came on stage, where the entire cast was gathered, some waving flags, while Shakira’s “La La La” played. Without saying a word, he greeted the performers, took an awkward bow, quickly headed off into wings.

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