Running Away With the Cirque

What did it all mean?
That was the lingering question many audience members pondered one recent Saturday afternoon after Cirque du Soleil loosened its formidable grip on their collective imaginations. Holding the sell-out crowd spellbound with a captivating performance of its current touring show, Quidam, the Montreal-based troupe received two curtain calls from spectators enthralled by its unique brand of circus-style entertainment with a theatrical twist. Or should it be termed an elaborate theatrical piece in the guise of a circus?

Shrewdly marrying art with sport, the production's creators have given life to an art form all their own. Drawing their inspiration most clearly from the theater, they have capitalized on an idea considered standard practice by most theater directors: Bombard an audience's senses with an eclectic mix of stage effects (including song, dance, mime and acrobatics), and audiences will respond to their cumulative impact instinctively and not intellectually. Thinking is never intended to be part of the picture under the big top, but it is supposed to take place--outside, after the show is over.

Eminently aware of that, director Franco Dragone's version of Quidam (which translates from the Latin as "nobody") seeks first and foremost to entertain its audience, second to move it, and only third to provoke reflection about the social commentary that's hiding in the shadows. Bolstered by the magnificent performances of a prodigiously talented company, the show does all three, at times simultaneously.

A clown (John Gilkey) serves as the silent ringmaster for the event and begins the program by introducing us to a contemporary family (roles are rotated among several performers from show to show) whose daughter is disenchanted with her humdrum existence. In response to her fits of temper, a headless person enters the living room, bowler hat in one hand and umbrella in the other. The cartoonish figure drops its sparkling chapeau onto the floor, a gesture that precipitates the effects of thunder and lightning on the stage. Instantly, the parents and furniture are hoisted upward, causing the room to disappear (borrowing a stage direction from August Strindberg's A Dream Play), and the little girl is transported to the magical world of make-believe.

Accompanied by a character (Karl Baumann) whose Pierrot-like face beams a perpetual smile, the child witnesses the infinite variety of experiences life has to offer, as elicited by the production's many circus-like acts. As the audience goes along for the ride, familiar signposts on the entertainment superhighway are replaced by acts that at first seem more like forbidding roadblocks. For instance, Olympic-grade acrobatics are interwoven with flashy elements from the Broadway stage, even as the hummable tunes that are that genre's hallmark are replaced by the continuous, synthesized sounds of a live electronic orchestra. Mime and balletic movement are used, but without an accompanying storyline to make sense of their imagery.

Sometimes this unorthodox combination of art forms, sans three rings or animals, appears to resemble a hodgepodge musical revue that has been dressed up as a circus just to attract a wider, unsuspecting audience. But once the acts take center stage, audience members--suspecting or not--couldn't care less, so enraptured are they by the breathtaking feats.

Olga Pikhienko, a seventeen-year-old Russian performer, sets the artful tone for the production as she balances atop a series of canes that have been embedded in the stage floor. Gripping the canes with only her hands and feet, she contorts her body incredibly, all the while contending with the fact that the huge stage platform beneath her is rotating.

Next, Isabelle Vaudelle appears just below one of five metal tracks suspended high above the 120-foot stage. Wrapped in a cocoon of two wide strands of red silk and working without any safety devices, she rolls her body through a series of gymnastic moves unmatched in their artistry by any other routine in the program.

Hoops spin onto the stage, and then jump ropes appear, twirled by acrobats costumed in the rags of street performers. The performers weave past one another, intertwining to create complex rope-skipping patterns. Suddenly the group gathers and slowly marches toward the audience, indicating for several uncomfortable moments that they are about to abandon their game in order to vent some sort of underlying menace in our direction. It is the first of a handful of episodes that evoke the show's credo: Individuals have a right to deviate from society's norms, and forgotten people must be brought back to the forefront of every culture's thinking.

The second half of the program is just as entertaining as the first, as Gilkey performs a charming dance with a hat stand and more acrobatics take place above the stage, this time with the performers dangling from bungee cords. Lying face-down on skateboards, four troupe members propel themselves about the stage, and two blue-suited clowns dazzle the audience with precision balancing tricks that involve red plastic balls and sheets of shiny, twisted metal. On the heels of this chaos, an act called "Statue--Vis Versa" appears on the program, featuring two performers who set about to combine their marvelously sculpted bodies into one form. The audience, entranced by their efforts, falls into a hushed silence.

But the most elaborate and popular act takes place in the finale of the program, as fifteen Slavs take the stage to present "Banquine," in which a spectacular series of human pyramids are formed with split-second synchronization. After turning several backward, airborne somersaults, one performer lands on another acrobat's shoulders, forming the top of an impressive four-man column. This one nearly brought down the tent.

Summing up the event more poignantly than any one moment, however, was the curtain call: Each performer strode to the edge of the stage clad from head to toe in a white protective suit similar to those used in decontamination rooms. Slowly the performers removed their outerwear, revealing their identities to us by way of their now-familiar costumes and welcoming, as a group, our applause.

Instead of indulging themselves in the spotlight, soaking up accolades like the matinee idols they had at that point become, this group chose to take one step backward, drop their heads and take a humble bow--an encouraging sign that, despite Cirque du Soleil's increasing forays into the commercial arena (a show is due to be permanently installed at the Walt Disney World resort in Florida sometime next year), its performers remain artists at heart.

Quidam, through November 9 at the Cirque du Soleil Big Top, adjacent to Union Station, 1-800-678-5440.


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