THERE are no elephants wearing tutus in Le Cirque du Soleil. There are no high-heeled women in bikinis, sprouting ostrich-plumed tiaras. There is only one, small performance ring in a 1,700-seat not-so-Big Top. There is, partly for just those reasons, subtlety, mystery, intimacy. Perhaps most to the point, there is theater. The chair balancing, bicycle pyramids, teeter-board flips, aerial acrobatics, and clowning support a single, performance-long story. Lighting, special effects, costumes, and live music unify this disparate phantasmagoria into one luxurious tableau. The organizers of the first international Los Angeles Festival were so taken with the slick otherworldliness of this young Canadian circus that they made it the centerpiece performance event for opening night and a month's worth of avant-garde festivities. And sold-out audiences give every indication of wanting to run away with Le Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) when it leaves town Sept. 27.
This was the United States debut of the small (30-member) Montreal troupe in its fourth season that is trying to enrich the standard North American concept of a circus by combining European artistry, Chinese discipline, and a return to the pre-Barnum, one-ring circuses of old.
``You appreciate how difficult and dangerous these acts are because you are not watching them from 5,000 feet away,'' says Andrew Watson, one-half of the Andrews, a high-flying trapeze act.
Cirque also tries to give audiences an alternative to the clich'es of circusdom. ``We don't pretend to invent the human performance of the circus,'' says artistic director Guy Caron, ``but the wrapping, the form and presentation, then tie it together into one theatrical whole - like the opera.''
To begin the evening's performance, eight shabbily dressed commedia dell'arte personages (characters) appear in kaleidoscopic mist at the tent's entrances. They wander into the main ring, seemingly astonished to find a waiting audience. As they begin to take turns at amateur entertaining, with handstands and somersaults, a ``King of Fools'' appears in a pyrotechnic flash, creating a dream in which the participants are turned, one by one, into real acrobats. The show that follows charts the various turns of fate encountered by each.
The theatrical threads that unite these miniplots are lighting, music, costume, and choreography. Masha Dimitri's slack-wire routine, for instance, is performed as a complement to the whole troupe dancing the tango. The balancing feats are subtle: A young girl seems to discover the delights of the high wire, rather than trying to impress with bravado.
The Planche Sautoir team of teeterboard performers is also painstakingly choreographed. The eight members hop in unison to the music, performing flips while wearing hats and formal tails - and also seem to be just discovering their craft.
Like most circuses, Cirque has its clowns. Probably the hit of the entire show is Denis Lacombe's ``Le Chef D'Orchestre,'' which won him a bronze medal at the World Circus of Tomorrow Festival in Paris in 1985. As a crazed music director whose score will not stay on its stand, Mr. Lacombe mounts a rigged stage which allows him to conduct while swaying wildly from side to side, bending forward far enough to touch his nose to the ground without falling over.
Cirque also uses the technology of the '80s. Music director Ren'e Dup`ere works with nine synthesizers and two electronic drums, composing, arranging, and performing original scores for each act as if it were a film short. Selections span jazz, classical, tango, and rock.
Part of what makes Le Cirque du Soleil's forays into circus metamorphosis so interesting, says Mr. Caron, ``is that there is no tradition for the circus in Canada. We're trying to create it ourselves.'' The Canadian government gave it its start: In 1984, Cirque was 97 percent government-subsidized; now that's only 10 percent of its $6 million budget.
Le Cirque du Soleil began in 1982 as a group of street artists performing in the village of Baie St. Paul, near Quebec City. Guy Lalibert'e, a fire breather who had worked in Europe and Hawaii, organized them in 1982 into F^ete Forrain, a traveling troupe. Three years later, when the Quebec provincial government wanted such a troupe to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the discovery of Canada, they debuted as Le Cirque du Soleil. In 1985 and '86, the circus toured Canada and last year played at Expo '86 in Vancouver and at the Vancouver Children's Festival.
About the time of the 1984 tour, artistic director Caron, a graduate of the highly acclaimed Hungarian Circus School, joined the troupe. In 1980, he had returned home from Hungary to found the 'Ecole Nationale de Cirque (National Circus School) in Montreal. He handpicks the Canadian performers for the troupe from the school of about 150 students. He tours Europe to find the others.
``When I find them, I tell them they can keep their act the way it is, but they will have to let me package it to fit,'' says Caron. ``Then we integrate them into the story - it's not just one day of rehearsal before tours, like the other circuses, but five weeks.''
``This is a very different circus, in that you have to be willing to let the whole performance be the star, not just your own act,'' says Masha Dimitri, the slack-wire artist from Switzerland. ``It makes for a much better show, though - no one goes back to their caravan to watch TV until it's time for them to go on, because everyone is helping with the other acts - rolling up carpeting, whatever. It's more like a theater troupe that way.''