Cirque du Soleil’s first venture into country music features hay bales, red solo cups and hit songs – but how country could it be? Songblazers, the newest Cirque du Soleil show, was previewed at the Fisher Center on June 5. In partnership with Universal Music Group, Songblazers seeks to honor country music trailblazers and pay homage to the industry. Starring a cast portraying songwriters, Songblazers is “a show about writing a song,” said writer and director Amy Tinkham. The show features music written by Sam Williams, grandson of legendary country star Hank Williams. Throughout the creation process, Tinkham intended to focus equally on acrobatic and musical performance, all while guiding 29 performers from 13 countries. A 15-minute performance followed an introduction by Tinkham and director of creation Daniel Ross. As the lights dimmed, audience members waited to see if the show was “a journey to that perfect song,” as Tinkham described. 
The performance began with a group of four singing Williams’ new tune “Carnival Heart,” which explores creativity, hope and resilience. The singers played guitar, fiddle and banjo while clad in whimsical, brightly colored attire. The curtain opened to reveal an elaborate honky tonk set. A collection of neon signs sporting the words “Bull Riding” and “Y’all Come Back” hung from the ceiling. Rustic furniture and large hay bales ornamented the stage. While detailed and impressive, the set primed a seemingly cartoon-style take on Southern culture that was reinforced with camp, theatrical costuming. This extravagant feel carried into the next scene, where the ensemble line danced to Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” A juggler then took to the stage while Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” played. He stood on a bar table while throwing and catching red solo cups in front of the rowdy honky tonk crowd. After the juggler amazed the ensemble, a heated bar fight broke out and was then interrupted by the saxophone intro from Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” Two women appeared, both blonde and dressed alike. They grabbed a harness lowered from the ceiling and performed a meticulous acrobatic routine to Twain’s hit. The ensemble watched in awe as the performers, seemingly clones of each other, dropped, lunged and flipped in midair. 
The preview showed off the impressive stunts and theatrical sensibilities Cirque du Soleil is known for. Songblazers’ approach might have differed if more long-time Nashvillians had been brought on to contribute, choosing songs that accurately reflect trailblazers in country music rather than mainstream hits, and feature notable pioneers in the genre’s history. While “Carnival Heart” explores the thrill and adventure of following creative passions, we hope these themes will hold a more pivotal place in the rest of the performance, rather than just stereotypical Southern imagery. Songblazers will reach TPAC in July, and it will be interesting to see how these pieces are united through a full run. It’ll be up to audiences to determine whether Cirque du Soleil’s spin on country music was authentically embodied.
- Madeleine Bradford

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