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Date Night #6 - Joya

The Mexican Riviera Maya is famous for its year-round sunshine, fabulous white-sand beaches, crystal clear caribbean waters, exhilarating fresh-water cenotes, mystical ancient mayan ruins, lush tropical forests, and a seemingly endless parade of massive resorts - each meticulously designed to create the perfect vacation experience for its intended audience. Add Joya to this list of treasures, Cirque du Soleil's first permanent show in Mexico, and one of its only venues to intertwine its renowned stage performance with an equally stellar dining experience. Joya opened in November, 2014, and is located on the property of Vidanta, which happens to be our resort of choice whenever we go to Riviera Maya. Hence, it has become one of our regular date nights whenever we're down there, and we knew it had to be one of our "official" date nights on this trip.

Let's start with the venue. It's a truly stunning work of architecture, inspired by natural tropical organic forms, set prominently in the back of a majestic lagoon, and surrounded by lush tropical foliage. The building is bathed in dramatic lighting, that slowly and subtly changes colors before your eyes. The walkway to the theater straddles the lagoon, and every fifteen minutes or so, fire-dancers dressed in grass skirts and adorned with shells, appear on floating canoes to give an energetic performance complete with rhythmic drums, wiggling hips, blaring conch shells, and (of course) furiously twirling flaming batons. It's a very touristy experience, but hey - we're tourists!

The walkway hosts a vibrant restaurant / bar with great live entertainment for those who haven't opted for the Joya dining experience, or who want to grab a cocktail before the show. There's also a gift shop, which we made a point to visit before the show to buy a magnet. It's customary at our office to bring a magnet from wherever you travel to add to the growing collection on the company refrigerator, so we felt obliged! I was also possibly in the market for a Joya t-shirt that had caught my eye in the window. It didn't take long to find just the right magnet, and after searching high and low, I was finally able to find the t-shirt in my size. Then, after much consternation, I decided not to buy it because it would just be one more shirt to add to a closet full of shirts that I really like but never wear. So, feeling good about my new-found pragmatism, I instead bought a Joya hoodie that I also really like but will probably never wear. That was a good call, because I don't even own a hoodie, so it's not like I have a growing collection filling up my closet. Right? ;-)

After our mini-shopping excursion, we were ushered into the theater where we were seated at a four-top with a great view of the stage. The tables are supposed to be shared with other guests, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had this one to ourselves.

Shortly after we were seated, three musicians took the stage, and gave an outstanding performance. The band was comprised of a violinist, a harpist, and a percussionist. Each was extremely talented, and they played a wide range of music, from nostalgic american classics to spicy Latin favorites. Their vocals were top-notch, and their repertoire included a nice blend of instrumental-only pieces and pitch-perfect ballads. They were joined at times by guest vocalists and performers, including a dancer who did some amazing footwork on the tiny square in the center of their ensemble.

While the music played on, a completely separate performance was taking place at our table. Joya does a phenomenal job complementing the show with a dining experience that bursts with culinary creativity, including a 3-course menu that shadows elements of the show in each and every dish - from the edible menu that sets the stage, to a bread basket filled with breads and crackers shaped like vines, to a starter course that includes a salad with a flower from which you pluck the petals to sprinkle into its pot (which is the actual salad), to a main course that's encased inside an impressive meteor served with a theatrical flourish, to a dessert sampler that's hiding inside a giant book they place before you for "your reading pleasure before the show". All the dishes have a similar whimsical presentation, which in no way overshadows the meal itself, as each course is perfectly prepared and worthy of culinary praise. We both chose the short rib, which was amazing! The entire dining experience is one of a kind, and we thoroughly enjoyed it!

Once we finished our fabulous meal, the band took its bows and made way for the featured performance. Joya is "the story of an alchemist and his granddaughter embarking on a quest to uncover the secrets of life." It starts with the introduction of the granddaughter, who speeds into her grandfather's lab on a motorcycle and subsequently wreaks havoc on all his experiments. Soon after her mischief begins, a meteor falls from the sky, which activates a magical force inside her. The secret to this magical force can only be found in one of her grandfather's prized books, which is immediately stolen by a couple of bumbling parachutists who fall from the sky shortly after the meteor's landing. From there, the grandfather and granddaughter go on a grand adventure to chase down the book as it's passed from traveler to traveler in a series of increasingly bizarre and mystical encounters. Like most Cirque du Soleil performances, the plot is only a loose narrative designed to introduce a wide range of characters, all of whom demonstrate mad acrobatic skills as they steal the book from one another, and try to keep it from the desperate alchemist and his granddaughter.

The acrobatics are exactly what you would expect from Cirque du Soleil - featuring insanely difficult routines that seem to defy gravity. The first performance includes a couple of guys whose act mainly consists of one guy laying on his back with feet in the air, and the other guy being flipped, flopped, and thrown about at extremely high speeds on top of said feet. How they get through this act night after night without breaking any necks, backs, or limbs is a bigger mystery than the meteor could ever bring, or the book could ever solve. These guys reappear throughout the show, providing a comedic element as they incessantly squabble with each other in an unintelligible language. Next up is a trapeze act with a disturbingly determined dominatrix, followed by a group of feuding zombie-pirates who pull an unsuspecting audience member on to the stage.

Now that takes balls.

He ends up surprising them all by ripping off his shirt to reveal a perfectly chiseled six-pack and juggling more balls than one human being should be able to juggle, all the while standing perfectly balanced on a free-standing ladder he pries off the pirate ship. Go figure! After the juggler is done playing with his balls, the entire theater transforms into a magical under-water experience, complete with brightly lit jellyfish and exotic lion fish that swim through the audience, a haunting vocalist and her accompanying harpist who float effortlessly above the crowd among a herd of magical seahorses, and a highly entertaining fish ensemble on the main stage that quickly shifts from humor to horror as they demonstrate the harsh realities of the marine life food chain.

Amidst the scurry of marine life that swarms the theater, a beautiful woman elegantly drops from the ceiling and perches herself on a small platform right in the middle of the audience. The room quiets as she positions two stakes in the center of the platform, each with a small pedestal at its top, and places one hand on each of the pedestals. She then proceeds to gently and gracefully lift her body into the air, balancing precariously in a handstand on top of the pedestals. Ever so carefully, she slowly rotates clockwise while she moves her body to and fro, pointing her feet in every direction - seemingly effortlessly - as the audience silently holds its breath. Then, as if on a dare, she lifts an arm and casts one of the pedestals aside. She continues to contort her body, perched on only one arm, with the audience transfixed, mesmerized by her gravity-defying performance. As she finishes her act, a harness drops from the ceiling, and lifts her gracefully back into the darkness above while the crowd below erupts into a standing ovation. Now THAT'S a performance!

With everyone gazing upward, the attention shifts to another high-flying trapeze act, this time a duo. At least we think it was a duo. We didn't really look too much past the shirtless god-like hunk of a man with the blonde dreadlock mohawk, who's a solid mass of muscle, and a master of the rings. He powerfully thrusts himself across the theater while perilously dangling his partner beneath him as she flaunts her fearless gymnastic prowess. It's an exhilarating act, rife with high octane acrobatics and death-defying feats, fueled by screaming guitar and energizing drums. I would describe it in more detail, but frankly I'm finding myself distracted even now, just looking at his picture. Oh. My. Must move on...

The high voltage energy continues as the show climaxes with one of our favorite acts of the evening - the trampoline set. It's a simple premise, and frankly one that doesn't require an abundance of acrobatic talent, but it's highly entertaining nonetheless. A giant open book is rolled to center stage with three guys standing on top of it, brimming with brash and swagger. With hard rock blasting in the background, one of the guys leaps off the edge and immediately bounces right back to where he started. The others quickly follow suit, each one adding a trick as he goes. Soon there is a frenzy of leaping, bouncing, flipping, and flying - keeping in time with the raucous beat. The guys egg each other on throughout, as if they're just free-styling and seeing how far they can go -- one-upping each other, trick by trick --maintaining their cock-sure demeanor all the while. Whether it's all tightly choreographed or they're given the freedom to simply go with the flow, it's clear they're genuinely having a blast. What a gig this must be for them... a trio of young guys, in beautiful Riviera Maya, getting paid to do Xtreme trampoline twice a night in front of an energized audience. Where was that job when I was twenty-something??? C'est la vie.

Eventually, the whole cast joins in on the fun, and the stage bustles with acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists, contortionists, and 'trampolinists' - a culmination of all the acts in one grand finale. In the end, the granddaughter solemnly takes possession of the book, and assumes the role of her grandfather, who tragically passes away during their journey.

Apparently, over the course of her quest, she finally learned the secret of life along with some pretty rad gymnastic feats she can someday pass on to her grandchildren. With that, the cast took its final bows, the lights turned up throughout the theater, and we were ushered on our merry way back to the resort, pausing briefly to watch the fire-dancers on our way out.

Even though we've seen the show multiple times now, we enjoyed it every bit as much this time as each time before. We love the atmosphere, the performance, and the amazing cuisine - and it's a definite departure from what you would expect in Mexico. It's become a tradition for us, and we look forward to making it date night once again, next time we're back in Riviera Maya. For now... hasta la vista, baby!

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