Circus Reinvented

Cirque du Soleil illuminates what seems humanly impossible in haunting the Alegria.

What is there to say about the organization that reinvented the circus, losing the kitsch and keeping the razzle-dazzle, removing tormented performing animals and substituting the extraordinary potential of the human body, giving us clowns with intellect and soul instead of rubber-nosed horn honkers in tiny cars? If you've seen Cirque du Soleil before, there's not much I can add. Its style is as specifically memorable as it is hard to describe. For those who, on the other hand, have never experienced a Cirque performance, all the dizzy adjectives in the world won't communicate its flavor. A critic is bound to try, however: We get paid for it. Besides, it's our only way of dealing with the little personal labyrinth we inhabit. If there are no words for something, how do we know it exists? So here goes.

Alegria, like most Cirque du Soleil productions, has a story, though no one could tell you exactly what it is -- and since the genius of Alegria's creators is clearly more visual than verbal, the ecstatic babble in the program provides no enlightenment: "The old man's cracked cackle careens over the wall and wails into the nearby vale where a goat grazes..." At any rate, this story has to do with a kingdom and some birds and a jester. It features three androgynous bird-clown figures with jutting hair, pudgy butts, bellies and even knees, and a peculiar head-bobbing way of walking. Perhaps they're older versions of the beautiful young bird-women who periodically leap across the stage. Maybe they're related to the two feather-robed contortionists, the mechanical flapping raven or the strange dark figure on three stilts who seems to represent the angel of death.

It doesn't matter, because all these figures are interesting and evocative, and meaning in Alegriais communicated through movement and images, not narrative. The production values are stunning. They show what can be achieved when mega-money and artistry come together. We've seen costumes this exquisitely designed and detailed in touring Disney shows, but the intention of Cirque designer Dominique Lemieux is different. In a musical like Beauty and the Beast, the costume tends to dictate movement, wearing the performer instead of the other way around. In Alegria, the outfit may blur the outline of someone's body or revise the contours of a face, but it's responsive to the actor-athlete's persona, often seeming to bring out and accentuate something deep within the wearer's soul. The three clown-birds of the beginning are almost identically dressed, for example, but they're also intensely individual.

Ulziibayar and Ulziijargal Chimed inhabit the world of Cirque du Soleil's Alegria.
Ulziibayar and Ulziijargal Chimed inhabit the world of Cirque du Soleil's Alegria.

Alegria is introduced by a humpbacked, potbellied man carrying a staff. He's actually gymnast Ebon Grayman, but in the enchanted argot of Cirque, he comes across as both bigger than life and barely human -- leering, prancing, chivvying or chuckling his way across the stage. Many of the figures evoke scenes from myth or fairy tale. A blond singer (Francesca Gagnon) with a stiff bell skirt, who looks like one of Tenniel's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, is shadowed by a singer (Eve Monpetit) identically dressed in black. (The haunting music of composer René Dupéré adds immeasurably to Alegria's power.) Glowering strongman Ginaud Dupuis, the only traditional circus figure in the show, appears to love the white singer. His hoarse bellow closes the show.

Everything -- costumes, props, setpieces -- is at once functional and laden with meaning. The set, by Michel Crete, is simple. It consists of an irregularly shaped block in front of a circle. The orchestra (once it's made a triumphal tour of the tent) sits in the very back of the circle to play. But somehow the platforms communicate a sense of depth and perspective, so that a clown walking away from us appears -- assisted by a bit of mime hocus-pocus -- to be ascending and then descending a long hill.

The Cirque provides a far more sophisticated style of clowning than we're accustomed to. Brokenhearted, Yuri Medvedev tears up a letter (letters and messages are almost as ubiquitous in Alegria as birds) and tosses the pieces in the air. They come fluttering down like white moths; the flutter slowly amplifies until it's metamorphosed into a blizzard.

But the Cirque soars -- literally -- on the backs of its dancers, gymnasts and acrobats. The company has its pick of some of the most physically gifted athletes in the world. You see people not only doing things you never thought the human body could accomplish, but doing them with extraordinary grace. We watch, frozen between fear and exhilaration, as Gaston Elie and Paulina Räsänen fly above our heads on trapezes. The bouncing, leaping and turning of the Fast Track gymnasts induces something close to ecstasy. Flying Man Alexandre Dobrynine -- centered, poised and self-contained as he manipulates his unique bungee device -- seems to have repealed the law of gravity. You find yourself gasping every time he soars upward, even though you've just watched him preparing for that very moment. It's like watching Baryshnikov's leaping loops around the stage, except that every leap is ten feet high. A pair of teenaged Mongolian sisters, Ulziibayar and Ulziijargal Chimed, cause you to forget for moments at a time how the body is supposed to be put together. Wait a minute, you think, don't the head and the feet normally point in the same direction? The sisters move like one exotic creature, resembling a sea anemone furling and unfurling underwater. There are the swift, heart-stopping (and surely limb-wrenching) moves of the Russian acrobats on the high bars. And then there's Maria Silaeva, fifteen years old and breathtakingly beautiful, making supple, exquisite shapes with her body and working with silver hoops and a furling ribbon as if these objects were extensions of herself.

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