It’s pitch dark. There’s a murmur in the audience but only until the lights come on. A soft bell rings. The heavy red curtains roll up. It’s showtime!
While travel for leisure itself has now become something we rethink a zillion times, what I miss most are the live shows. The stage, the artists, and the excitement of watching an act live is unmatchable. Productions with large ensemble casts, big or small budgets, music, dance, drama, romance, tragedy, and comic relief all come together, to bring to life stories and cultures from different worlds. But eventually, emotions and human stories are common across the world even if languages are different. Catching live performances in different cities have been some of my most cherished experiences. The past year and a half have been hard for many performing artists with venues remaining shut, but when things do get safe enough, here are some shows you must try and catch.
1. A show by Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas, USA
While Vegas is most popular for its casinos, bachelorette parties, and impromptu weddings, catching a live show here is a must. From magic shows, musicals, dare-devil acts, and adult entertainment, you’ll have a whole lot to choose from. While I’d rather not reveal the complete list of shows I watched in Vegas for obvious reasons, I must say that nothing I had ever seen could have ever prepared me for what was going to happen on stage when we watched KA by Cirque Du Soleil, which is a Montreal-based entertainment company and the largest contemporary circus producer in the world. While they have various shows in Vegas, including one performed in water, we chose KA. There’s drama, action, thrill, music and the show is a pure technological marvel. The moving stage is one of the highlights of the massive set (5,000 speakers and 3,000 lighting units) built in the MGM Grand Hotel. Members from the warrior tribes fly in from across the venue in a gravity-defying display of acrobatics. Post the show I was silent for close to 10 minutes, just to be able to soak it all in and register what I had just seen.
Tip: Staying at the MGM might get you a better deal on show tickets.
2. The Fringe Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland
The energy on the streets of Edinburgh is contagious as performers from all over the world take over the Scottish capital. It’s like a fair; one big street party! For three weeks in August, the festival showcases a healthy mix of big names in the entertainment business to new, unknown artists looking to build their careers in the field of comedy, dance, physical theatre, circus, cabaret, children's shows, music, and the spoken word. There are free shows and ticketed events, spread across a hundred stages, that you can choose from. Don’t miss the tents, where portrait artists, hair braiders, face painters, and palmists offer their services for a fee. I felt like Alice in Wonderland as strange characters in costumes smiled at me. One of the coolest things about the Fringe is the preview stages. These short 20-minute spots are perfect for giving you a free taste of the paid shows on offer and can help you decide what you want to watch. I met an Indian stand-up comic, watched a midnight jazz performance, and even took a Haunted Edinburgh tour where the guide joked about how solo travellers, far away from home, were the easiest prey to the creatures of the night.
Tip: Be prepared to walk a lot. Book way in advance because the city gets packed really quickly. The Royal Mile is a good stretch to get an inn/hostel. I stayed at an inn where the staff only spoke Chinese. That’s a story for another time.
3. A belly dance performance while cruising on the Nile, Egypt
Belly dance, also known as Oriental dance, is believed to have had its origins in Egypt since ancient times. It has become a popular art form across the world and you can even sign up for classes in India. In Egypt, especially in Cairo and Alexandria, you’ll find most hotels offering evening entertainment featuring belly dancers and swirling dervishes. While we did catch a show during a short dinner cruise on the Nile in Cairo, the most memorable of the experiences was watching a graceful and charismatic dancer on the Nile Cruise up to Aswan, where blue waters made for the perfect setting. It was a Gallabia (kaftan) night, where most guests sportingly showed up in costume. After a delightful performance by the artist, she encouraged some of us to try and learn a few steps before we participated in a competition. Coming a close second out of nine performers won me a free drink at the bar and broke the ice, also winning me some cruise mates.
Tip: Match the dancer’s enthusiasm and spirit apart from learning the steps. It’ll give you the winning edge.
4. Apsara dance showcasing the culture of the Khmer people, Siem Reap, Cambodia
While the ancient temple of Angkor Wat took me back to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and King Louie, the King of the Bandar Log - a character added by Walt Disney in the 1967 animated film, the strong religious beliefs of the Khmer people (Cambodian) reminded me of India. The similarities got even stronger when we watched a performance of the Apsara dance. The roots of this dance can be traced back to the 7th century and come from Cambodia’s Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The word apsara means angelic creatures who entertained the gods with their enchanting dance. I found it hard to take my eyes off the petite and gorgeous dancers dressed in elaborate costumes including long silk brocade dresses and jewelled headdresses. Just like in Indian classical dance where hand gestures also known as ‘mudras’ are an integral part of the performance, each movement of the finger, in the Apsara dance, has its own distinct meaning.
Tip: Many venues offer a combination of dinner and entertainment, opting for one of these allows you to try the interesting Khmer cuisine.
5. A Shakespeare play in Stratford Upon Avon, UK
Springing right out of the pages of a fairy-tale, Stratford-upon-Avon in England’s West Midlands is the birthplace of William Shakespeare. When you are not strolling across this dreamy, medieval town and peeping into the rooms of Shakespeare’s house, you must catch a performance by The Royal Shakespeare Company that performs his plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the banks of the River Avon. Being in the theatre and watching the characters mouth the lines written by the playwright centuries ago makes you realise that while the language has changed so much over the years, human emotions have stayed pretty much the same. After having spent the day visiting this celebrated playwright's house, reading about him and talking about him, as Antony and Cleopatra said their perfectly memorised lines, it was impossible to stop oneself from being transported to his world.
Tip: Do check out the rooftop restaurant and bar with views of the River Avon.
6. Watching Mamma Mia on Broadway, New York, USA
To be honest, I wanted to watch the Lion King on Broadway when I was in New York but it was the last leg of my time in America, the tickets were steep and I didn’t want to splurge. I looked around the street to find a more budget-friendly option. I still believe that the large life-size poster of Mamma Mia called out to me. Who doesn’t like ABBA I thought and decided to give it a shot. I’m still grateful to the universe that I did. An unbelievably talented cast sang, danced, and acted for a packed audience who cheered all through. Just like me, 80 per cent of the audience knew the lyrics of the songs and at one point, everyone in the audience was singing the chorus of ‘Honey honey, how you thrill me, a-ha’, aloud. The actors came down the stage, to the audience and also encouraged dancing in the aisles. If you’re looking to spend a delightful, fun afternoon in NYC I highly recommend the Mamma Mia experience.
Tip: Picking a matinee show will save you big bucks. Also, check with locals for box office discounts.
7. A ballet in Sydney’s Opera House, Australia
Sydney was my first solo trip and it will always be special. Just the idea of watching something at the Sydney Opera house was exciting. Standing outside this awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site gave me butterflies in my stomach. I must admit I did pick my favourite dress to head out to this one. The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre and there are over 40 shows a week to choose from. While I was earlier looking to watch a traditional opera, I finally opted to see a ballet performance by The Australian Ballet, the largest classical ballet company in Australia. The graceful dancers who displayed precision and perfection in every move were accompanied by the Opera Australia Orchestra. The performance was extraordinary.
Tip: The bar outside serves the best martinis. Watch the sunset over the Sydney harbour before or after your show.
8. Performances by Hill Tribes from Northern Thailand at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, Thailand
Far from the maddening crowds of Bangkok and Pattaya, the mountainous city of Chiang Mai is charming and unique. The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre organises evenings where you can watch music and dance performances by members of the hill tribes in this region. The first set includes Northern Thai classical dances while the second set includes Hill tribe and Northern Thai folk dances. About a dozen dances are performed over a period of two hours. Some of my favourites were the Fingernails Dance – a slow and graceful dance where each performer wears six-inch-long brass fingernails to accentuate their finger movements, and the Swords Dance, which is derived from the ancient martial art form and involves the use of twelve swords.
Tip: Tables are set around the performance area. Make sure you get there early to get a spot with a good angle. You can choose between floor seating and regular tables. Enjoy the khan toke dinner which is part of the show. Traditionally this meal is best enjoyed on the floor.
9. Meeting the natives at the Grand Canyon Cultural Centre, USA
The landscape of the Grand Canyon is bound to make your jaw drop. It most deservingly is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Even though the Grand Canyon has been a National Park for over a hundred years, it is not just a National Park, it is also home to 11 different tribes. The two most prevalent tribes that reside on reservations at the Grand Canyon today are the Havasupai and the Hualapai. If you like stories and folklore you must visit the Grand Canyon Cultural Centre. In a mid-sized auditorium, members from each of the 11 tribes, dressed in their traditional costumes present their culture, history, and arts. At first, the accent was difficult for me to understand but when you pay attention and listen closely you find yourself drawn to the fascinating stories describing life in the canyon. The deep-throated singing and chants had a hypnotic affect.
Tip: Though most performing members are almost six feet tall and big built; they are warm, friendly, and most happy to share information and even indulge in photo ops post the performance.
10. Lion King, Broadway, London, UK
This time I was sure that come what may I won’t miss this show. I booked my tickets online before I reached London, to avoid any disappointment. There was a spring in my step as I approached the Lyceum Theatre in London's West End. Having seen The Lion King as a child, I hadn’t imagined that a cast of human beings could ever recreate the magic of the jungle. The show is a display of the power of creativity, imagination, flawless execution, and brilliant performances. As wooden masks, colourful feathers, painted faces, digitally created backdrops, powerful storytelling, and stellar performances convinced me that I was in the forest, I experienced every emotion that I had felt when I had watched Disney's 1994 animated feature film. I shut my eyes tightly when the stampede of wildebeest took place and when Mufasa died, I sobbed. You just cannot miss this one.
Tip: Make your bookings well in advance.