“I’ve only been with this company for four months,” says Balthazar, the clown whose animalistic antics highlight the Cirque du Soleil. “But I’ve been part of its spirit since the beginning.”

The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil proclaims itself a “hip, new wave theatrical circus” dedicated to reinventing the ancient form. Founded in 1984 to help celebrate the 450th birthday of the Canadian province of Quebec, it sought to combine the stylishness and intimacy of the European circus with a jazzy festiveness North Americans would enjoy. One of the company’s guiding spirits since the beginning has been Guy Caron, who four years earlier had founded the National Circus School in Montreal. Balthazar credits Caron with introducing him to the circus as a profession.

“Twelve years ago, I was in college in Riviere du Loup, Quebec, studying to be a cultural organizer,” Balthazar recalls. “I happened to see a group of clowns. One of them was Guy Caron. I really enjoyed what I saw, and I decided to try and do the same.” Over the next few years, developed his style through street clowning and working private parties. Now, at 34, he says, “I’m known as an independent clown–I can work on my own or with a team.” When the Cirque du Soleil was putting together its 1989 international tour, Balthazar was available. “I’ve been on the road for four months,” he says, “and I dont expect to get home till 1990.”

A native of Quebec, Balthazar is one of 30 stage performers the Cirque du Soleil has brought with it to Chicago. He and Benny le Grand are the troupe’s two clowns, but they don’t usually perform as a team. Le Grand, outfitted with an Albert Einstein wig and mustache, specializes in droll, deadpan slapstick interplay with ringmaster James Keylon. Balthazar, dark haired and clean shaven, is prone to pantomimes. In one, he imitates a fly trapped in a spider’s web. At a recent show, I happened to be chosen out of the audience to play a lion to Balthazar’s lion tamer. Balthazar waved me into the ring with a gentlemanly gesture and a polite but insistent gaze, outfitted me with a lion’s mane (a dust mop with the center cut out), and put me through my paces. Each time I obeyed–sitting on a tiny stool, opening my mouth and letting him put his head in it–he adopted a bravura pose to the audience’s laughter and applause, and then rewarded me with a lollipop. When he brought out a flaming metal hoop and encouraged me to jump through it, though, I handed him back his lollipops.

“Each time it’s different,” Balthazar says later of the lion-tamer bit. “I try more and more to put the rhythm of the piece into the hands of the partner. Some circuses make you do a set routine; here I’ve been hired for myself, and the act is my own.”

There are no real lions in the Cirque du Soleil, no tigers jumping about the stage in response to the crack of a whip, no elephants standing on their hind legs begging for peanuts. This is circus for the animal-rights era–and for the music-video age, Each act is performed to a live jazz-rock score, with plenty of rock-and-roll lighting, stage fog, and trippy special effects to add dazzle to generally standard displays of physical prowess. The colorful costumes, blending contemporary chic with Renaissance commedia dell’arte styles, add an extra element of bold whimsy.

The young company–most of the performers are in their teens or early 20s, and several are current or former students at the National Circus School–delights the all-ages audience with aerial acrobatics, seesaw jumping, a hand-balancing pas de deux performed by Eric Varelas and Amelie Demay (two of the troupe’s most accomplished athletes), a tightrope ballet, a chair-balancing display, and “Rola Bola,” a routine in which the Shandong Troupe of China–two boys and two girls ranging from 13 to 15 years old–balance on boards placed over rolling cylinders and catch bowls on their heads.

The athletes give the show its excitement; yet, as with all circuses, it’s the clowns that win the heart.

The Cirque du Soleil appears through Sunday, June 4, at Cityfront Center, just South of the North Pier Terminal, which is at Lake Shore Drive and Illinois Street. Show times are 7:30 PM Tuesday through Thursday, 8:30 PM Friday, 4:30 and 8:30 PM Saturday, and 1 and 4:30 PM Sunday Ticket prices range from $5.50 to $35-50; for reservations call 559-1212.