When Circus Walks a Tightrope Into Theater

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL Creative Director, Gilles Ste-Croix, Directed by Franco Dragone. Under the big-top tent in New York's Battery Park City.

IT is by now no secret that Canada's Cirque du Soleil is not a conventional circus. Rather, it uses circus acts, and top-flight ones at that, and blends them in a swirling melange of movement, sound, and music to create a seamless theatrical experience. And it is one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences to be found today.

There are no animals in this intimately scaled one-ring circus, and its sophisticated nature is not particularly geared to children. The current production, called "Saltimbanco," is the third one to tour North America. Like repeated viewings of a movie, the more you see Cirque du Soleil, the more you will become aware of the technique that lies behind the magic. But knowledge of this technique in no way diminishes your enjoyment.

The evening begins like most circuses, with controlled mayhem in the crowd as clowns run wild and kidnap members of the audience. Soon, however, the performance begins, and you are transported to a stylized world that resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting, infused with a sensibility a la film director David Lynch.

The atmosphere is moody and mysterious, reinforced by the opening act, "Contortion Acrobatics," performed by the Tchelnokov family: a father, mother, and young son who intertwine their bodies in unimaginable ways.

Other highlights include: "Chinese Poles," which utilizes no less than 15 performers on four poles, and includes such feats as climbing them upside down; "Double Tightrope," which begins with Jingmin Wang walking up an almost-vertical rope and continues with her doing back flips from one rope to another; and "Russian Swing," which propels a team of acrobats so that they seem to be literally flying through the air.

There is a decidely sexual tone to some of the acts that evokes an eery, decadent atmosphere. These include the twin female trapeze duo of Karyne and Sarah Streben; the balancing act of the Lorador Brothers; and the "Boleadoras," who combine bolo swinging and flamenco dancing to hypnotic effect. Simpler, more conventional acts, such as juggler Miguel Herrara - who performs wonders with plain white balls - are no less stunning to watch.

In this edition the principal clown is Rene Bazinet, who is less sophisticated in audience manipulation than David Shiner (who graduated from a previous version of Cirque du Soleil to a starring turn in the current Broadway attraction "Fool Moon"). Bazinet began with tiresome routines in which he simulated the loss of bodily functions and played imaginary catch with audience members, but with the help of a particularly eager recruit he fashioned an entertaining mime routine involving a walk through a dan ger-filled forest.

Between acts there is a constant swirling of sound and movement. The sets, costumes, sound design, elaborate choreography, and musical score all combine to transport you to another world, a world where the human body is seemingly not confined by natural law.

* Cirque du Soleil travels to Toronto (June 18), Chicago (July 28), Boston (Sept. 9), Washington, (Oct. 14) and Atlanta (Nov. 19).

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