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SALTIMBANCO

Cirque du Soleil

at Cityfront Center

Cirque du Soleil, the highly theatrical, multidisciplinary Quebec-based performance-art circus troupe, is presenting its fifth production since its inception in 1984, and it is a dazzling, extravagant, elegant, and at times awe-inspiring evening. There have been moments in performance art when the hybridization of disparate art forms combined with the raw athleticism and beauty of the human body spontaneously create a unifying force within the audience of overwhelming power. Such was the impact of the two hours spent in the presence of Cirque du Soleil's latest work, Saltimbanco.

As soon as the lights come up we see a lone figure in stylized white makeup and a high hat gazing down from his perch above the orchestra. He gestures a welcome and bows deeply. A group of clown/acrobats walk from the back of the stage and filter into the audience, chattering a sort of gibberish among themselves, interacting with the audience, teasing, chasing, running, squawking, and creating bits of absurd funny business. Right off, a pair of performers were able to make a little girl in the audience do a back flip. No one looked more surprised than she did as she bowed with the troupe. After that the two pulled forward a pretty woman in her early 20s who also did a back flip, much to her apparent surprise. They then pulled a slightly paunchy, affable, middle-aged man out of the audience and attempted to make him do a black flip. By this point the audience was wildly clapping and hooting. Later a young audience member "lost" his shirt, and at another point various audience members were removed from their seats only to reappear in other, rather surprising places.

Following this overture a trio of contortionists, the Tchelnokov family, performs work that's balletic, graceful, and otherworldly. And so goes the evening, in wildly divergent and exciting individual pieces that range from juggling to tightrope walking. The Renaissance-inspired, Fellini-esque costumes, by Dominique Lemieux, are perfect, framing and characterizing each performer, from the costume for "the dreamer" (Guennadi Tchijov), a blue-striped body suit with a tail, to the wonderful red-and-lavender flame-appliqued hot pants with red tights and gaucho boots worn by the two stunning dancers in "Boleadoras Duo."

At times the work was so overwhelming and the illusion and spectacle so completely absorbing that one could only sit transfixed, literally gasping in astonishment. In "The Russian Swing," for example, the acrobats are catapulted into the air and perform three or four somersaults (they seem to soar close to the tent top) before hitting a narrow mattress, bouncing off it into highly stylized and theatrical poses each of which seems to say "Voila!"

The evening has been structured to showcase the strengths of each performer--everyone's given a chance to show off his or her art. Unifying elements are a rousing rock-and-roll band playing live, breathtaking live singing by Francine Poitras, synthesized and prerecorded music, and the subtle and sometimes a little too baldly obvious antics of ringmaster Rene Bazinet.

One of the evening's showstoppers was the piece called "Boleadoras Duo": two dancers (Ann Bernard and Helene Lemay) accompanied by a single musician (Francois Beausoleil) perform flamenco-inspired movement with a twist. Their tap dance evolves into a flamenco dance with attitude, then evolves again into something so amazing that the audience is spellbound, partly because the performers never relinquish any of their control or slacken the pace. The dancers hold in their hands fluorescent green orbs attached to strings; when the balls are let loose they fall toward the ground like yo-yos, then rise up into a spin. It looks as if each dancer has a propeller spinning at each side, moving in a rhythm that's unconnected to the rhythm of their hands and feet. As they continue to dance, they change the axis, rotation, and height of the spin on the balls. The spinning itself is hypnotic, and the action of their hands is reminiscent of the rope twirling in double-Dutch jump rope. What is strange and exciting in this exercise is the way the dancers' torsos are so perfectly upright--they seem suspended in space by an invisible beam of pure energy.

Cirque du Soleil fuses theater, performance art, and such circus arts as riding the trapeze, tightrope walking, juggling, acrobatics, and clowning. Much in this extravaganza seems a hybrid of other forms--certainly other forms were called to mind. But the final product is an art form in itself, emerging as something truly original, visionary, and brilliant.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Seib.

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