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Cirque du Soleil
For years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey dominated the
circus scene in the United States. Several generations of Americans grew up knowing only
the large-scale three-ring circus with lots of animal acts and side shows peopled with
bearded ladies and other exotica.
August 10 - October 8
Brisbane, November 9 -
Effective Relief from Back Pain
But since 1984, a new, more contemporary vision of circus entertainment
has been developed by the French Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil, which is more rooted in
the one-ring circus traditions of Europe, with its rich heritage of commedia dell' arte.
In keeping, too, with modern sensibilities, Cirque du Soleil omits the animals and freaks,
focusing instead on astounding human skills placed in spectacular settings of visionary
state-of-the-art stagecraft and costuming, accompanied by contemporary music and
choreographed from start to finish.
The concept and the productions have been fabulously successful,
growing from the first show in 1984 to a current roster of three permanent shows (two in
Las Vegas, one in Disney World) and five different shows currently touring in North
America and Europe. The most recent addition to the roster is Varekai (in the
Romany language, "wherever") now touring the United States. It's a completely
absorbing, eye-filling, ear-filling, mind-blowing couple of hours of thrills, enchantment
and laughs, all based on feats of accomplishment and artistry, rather than on genetic
accidents or caged wild beasts under the whip.
From behind a great puff of smoke, the proceedings begin with a
variation on the traditional circus' opening parade, but this a parade like none seen
before. A wild menagerie of imaginary creatures--performers in costumes to make a drag
queen weep--walk and crawl and squirm their way onto the thrust stage as musicians parade
through the aisles of the great tent. One of the lead characters, a shirtless, bearded,
bird-like clown (John Gilkey) wheels in a calliope straight out of a Rube Goldberg
cartoon. It's anyone's guess whether Gilkey actually makes the sounds as he squeezes here
and taps there, or whether it's all prerecorded. The timing is impeccable and the sound so
well coordinated that the system can make you believe there's a car and an airplane,
though none is to be seen.
At the heart of the show are the tumblers, acrobats, contortionists,
aerialists, twirlers, trapeze swingers, and a juggler, too, all of whom perform with
breath-taking skill and balletic grace, creating ever-changing visual patterns like a
living, breathing kaleidoscope. There's a plot meant to link the whole together, based on
the story of Icarus, the guy who tried to fly into the sun on wings made of
feathers. It's a bit confusing to follow, but it matters not at all. Icarus could not
defeat gravity, but the performers in Varekai do, and in spades.
There are a pair of clowns, Claudio Carniero and Mooky Cornish, doing a
variety of different interludes for comic relief. They do a magic act in which the tricks
don't work as the zaftig Cornish goes skidding around the floor. Carniero does a crooner
singing Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitee Pas" plagued by a follow-spot that prefers
leading to following. Their schtick might be summed up as comedy of physical errors, but
it goes beyond slapstick, grounded, as it were, with genuine wit.
The roar of the crowd at the conclusion of the show provides clear
evidence that Varekai creates wildly popular entertainment in tune with audiences
of the new millennium.
San Francisco, November 29,
- Arthur Lazere