On a High Wire, Cirque du Soleil Balances Pure Art, Pop Art

Once again, Cirque du Soleil reminds us that there's more to the circus than lion tamers and the flying trapeze - there's the circus as art. The company from Montreal is touring the United States with a new show: "Quidam" (Latin, meaning in this context, an anonymous face in the crowd).

With 53 performers - acrobats, clowns, and no animal acts - "Quidam" manages to tell a kind of story without nailing down a narrative too firmly. A little girl sits and broods with her bored parents, whose benign neglect has made the child certain she has already seen everything. A stranger appears at the door - a ghostly, headless character in a top coat, umbrella, and blue bowler. The stranger gives the child the hat, and when she puts it on, her parents fly off (their chairs are wired and actually fly up) leaving the girl to begin a quest in search of wonder.

Along the way she sings a lovely hunting song. She sees astonishing sights such as an aerial contortionist whose grace defies gravity and reason, angels flying through the air, and rope jumpers' tricks that sparkle with the life of childhood memories. Young women on aerial hoops make trapeze artistry look banal by comparison, while little Chinese girls astonish and delight us with their dexterity on the "diabolos" (an elaborate string and yo-yo game).

In this circus theater, all kinds of acrobatic acts, including a fabulous Russian team dressed in apocalyptic rags, draw admiration and exhilaration from the audience. Each artist demonstrates courage and skill, grace and humor - and all in the service of one unified vision of wonder and beauty meant to honor the human spirit. Visually stunning, it is like Chagall meets Fellini. And all is yoked together by the comic antics of a brilliant clown - one of the girl's guides through mystery.

Since Cirque du Soleil sprang into being 13 years ago, 15 million people around the world have thrilled to its special magic. It has won dozens of awards in Canada, the US, and Europe and has found critical and popular success everywhere it has been, including Asia. The big top holds an astounding 2,500 people, and still manages to maintain a surprising intimacy.

Cirque has a permanent home in Las Vegas, Nev., and has two offices - one in Montreal and the other in Amsterdam, which oversee the European operations. So far it has produced nine different shows, developing new ones every other year or so. And a film based on Cirque's show "Alegra" will be released next spring.

Artistic director Andrew Watson says creator Franco Dragone starts out with a feeling, a phrase, a single word. With "Quidam," he began with the idea of each person's individuality despite the appearance of anonymity in a crowd.

"When we sat down in the beginning [of the 'Quidam' project]," explains Mr. Watson, "we had become aware of enormous numbers of displaced people - and these groups of people have names to describe them: 'the homeless' or 'the refugees.' But these groups are all made up of individual people who have their own histories, who have their own lives - yet in our eyes they are all lumped together. So at the top of the show, the family is dispersed, and everyone is in white. Bit by bit we discover each other as individuals."

The development process is a collaboration with the artists built upon the feeling Mr. Dragone is trying to elicit.

Asked why he thinks the show raises viewers' spirits, composer Benoit Jutras says, "It's close to pure art." He explains that the open, collaborative spirit among artists serves a unified vision as they draw inspiration from one another.

Watson echoes Mr. Jutras's emphasis on openness. "The artists try so hard to create an open-ended experience that even the words used in the songs are often just invented language," he says. "When you put words [to the show], you are narrowing the experience quite a bit."

A successful marriage of pop art and high art elements, "Quidam" is more than a good time. "It is deeper than that," says Watson. "The pop art element is the circus acrobatics, which transcends all cultures and ages - every one of us can understand circus acrobatics. To feel frightened, exhilarated, amazed by dexterity - is for ever and ever - and nearly every country has a circus. But Franco has something to say about life."

* Cirque du Soleil performs in Denver through Nov. 9. The tour then continues in Houston and New York. For information and dates, visit the company's Web site: www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/odyss/index.html

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