Cirque du Soleil

at Cityfront Center, through August 27

Considering the slick-tech wonder of its presentation, the greatest triumph of Cirque du Soleil’s spectacle is its paradoxical simplicity. As we sit under the troupe’s big top and watch act after act–a parade of beautiful, androgynous, anonymous creatures–we realize we know all the “tricks.” And that knowledge nullifies not just the tricks but their very nature. Indeed, the Cirque producers aren’t trying to trick us at all. What we’re left with is not the seemingly impossible but its opposite: the magic of what is possible.

The players in Cirque aren’t superbeings. They’re as ordinary as the men and women sitting next to us. In fact, on one of its last pages the program invites the audience to audition for the show. Unlike photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, Cirque is searching not for freaks but for folks who want to develop their potential and have a “grand adventure.” It’s this ordinariness, which is never lost in the extraordinariness of the show, that makes Cirque du Soleil such terrific performance art.

After the opening number and parade of clowns and other personages comes a two-person trapeze act that embodies much of what is Cirque. Beautifully costumed in form-fitting togs adorned with sequins in an otherworldly design, the two young, sinewy aerialists–one male, one female–are ministered to by clowns and hags. Just before the performers ascend to their sky-high swings, the hags snap wires on them. It’s a reassurance. It means sit back and enjoy the beauty. If anything is death-defying at Cirque–and perhaps much of it is–it’s denied. The thrills come from what happens, not what might happen if something goes wrong. So the aerialists fly to their swings on those wires and begin an almost slow dance, rhythmically pumping back and forth in perfect symmetry.

All the while the Cirque orchestra plays backup in a lesson learned from MTV and sports highlight films. It will do this for every act, playing not “circus” music but contemporary, engulfing sounds, with heart-racing rhythms, pounding bass, and eerie vocals that soar. The music replaces the barking carnies on the midway, introducing every act, swelling with each majestic gesture, murmuring with anticipation and then relief. There are no traditional drumrolls for spotlighted moments, because the music is a whole score, a movie or a dream. (It’s also a sound track, available on CD for $18 a pop.)

Up in the air the trapeze artists roll over the trapeze bars, hang by their ankles, dramatically drop their bodies this way, then that. At one point they swing in opposite directions so that we focus first on the male, then on the female. Effortlessly, in one or two passes, they regain their symmetrical rhythm and finish in unison. As they take their bows, we applaud their grace and agility, the choreography of their flight.

No sooner have the hags unclipped the aerialists’ wires and escorted them offstage than the stage swiftly opens into a deep black cross with what look like mattresses at the four ends. Suddenly, alien creatures–rubbery men and women dressed like distant cousins of the Borg–bounce like pinballs off the cross and onto the mattresses.

This is of course a whole different choreography, a whole different kind of magic. It’s energetic and muscular, busy and exuberant. The rubber creatures somersault and roll, jump and fly. They go across alone and in twos, missing each other by what looks like inches. There’s no trick to this at all. It’s the stuff of gym classes and Olympic broadcasts, but in collaborating units and faster, better.

This too is Cirque–the notion of teamwork and trust. Because while one tumbler twirling is a sight to see, many tumblers twirling are breathtaking. And for those tumblers to twirl so precisely around each other, for the music to hit the beats so keenly, and for the lights to adorn them just so, each player must be completely dependent on the others. To do her or his part with such elegance, each player must trust completely that every other player will reciprocate. Cirque’s is not the notion that more is better, but that collaboration provides a different kind of spark, an electricity that’s wholly human generated, whether it’s provided by just two aerialists or by dozens of tumblers.

There’s much exaltation and perfection in Cirque: The snakelike twin contortionists who remind us of the invulnerability of childhood (we look at them and think, yes, this is why babies fall from high-rise windows and suffer no harm–because they’re made of some pliable flesh lost to us as adults, just like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and monsters under the bed). The well-sculpted acrobat who, like a da Vinci drawing come to life, poses on and in a wire 3-D cube way up in the air, then flies horizontally around the ring like a superman. Or the fairylike hula dancer who appears to be Tinkerbell giving off light.

But there’s also imperfection and frailty at Cirque: When the tumblers tremble after a jump, or lose their balance and need the helping hand of a hag waiting there precisely for that purpose. Or when Tinkerbell, swirling a multitude of hoops, simply can’t keep them going and they cascade down around her ankles. Or when the tiny tightrope walker misses her step and becomes, for a second, a marionette held up by a black wire.

There’s beauty in all this too: the hag, after all, lends her hand to the tumbler, a multitude of hags bow to Tinkerbell and lead her offstage with dignity, the wire saves the child.

It’s perhaps verging on the sentimental to say there’s something about love in all this, but Cirque isn’t sentimental in asserting that. In spite of the name, Cirque’s is not a sunny world, but one in which light is constantly contrasted with darkness. One of Cirque’s most moving moments involves a clown who finds comfort in the embrace of an empty coat–a coat that encircles him because of his own powers, that assuages his loneliness because of his own capacity to love. In Alegria that embrace is sustained–it lingers, it nourishes.

Cirque seems to promise that, with love and trust, darkness will not be eliminated but will be rendered helpless–it can be overcome. Just before the last group, a team of flying men who throw one another all over the big top, a black mechanical vulture descends from the sky and teases the crowd. Minutes later it hovers above the stage floor, where a tiny Asian baby–a real toddler–reaches up and innocently pats its ugly curved head.

When the bird begins to carry the child away, the crowd gasps. The baby drops back down, smiles, and runs off. The flying men then begin defying gravity and death, and the vulture has no option but to disappear into the darkness of the big top’s sky.

Here on the earth the flying men bounce off the net, flip down to the ground, and take their bows. The vocalist comes forward, the aerialists and contortionists return, the tumblers and hags peel off their masks and reveal a world of fresh human faces, with sweat and tousled hair and lopsided smiles. They look remarkably like us. Love triumphs. It’s that simple.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Seib.