A circus with an attitude, Cirque du Soleil puts show about civilization on the road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Perhaps the most amazing aspect in the amazing growth of Cirque du Soleil is that it began less than a decade ago as the brainchild of a group of long-haired street performers, stilt-walkers and fire-eaters who had the crazy idea that they wanted to start a circus of their own.

Today, these graying, balding but still youngish entrepreneurs have become proprietors of a Montreal-based operation that is spreading its engagements, and its influence, on a global scale.

The highest profile in this enlarging empire belongs, of course, to the newest edition of the Cirque productions. There is, for example, "Saltimbanco," the fifth and latest presentation, which premieres in McLean, Va., at Tysons II Thursday.

But that's just the tip of the Cirque juggernaut.

Elements of Cirque productions were incorporated into the venerable Circus Nie in Switzerland last year; and "Nouvelle Experience," the Cirque edition that played Washington two years ago, went to Japan in 1992 in a tour that sparked interest in creating a permanent relationship there.

T-shirts and tote bags

Quick to pick up on the tie-in possibilities present in Cirque's scenic and costume displays, the producers also are marketing T-shirts, sweat shirts, posters, balloons, dolls, umbrellas, tote bags, coffee mugs, watches, baseball caps, key chains, lapel pins, children's pajamas, jigsaw puzzles and boxer shorts -- available on the site or by mail order.

Little wonder that in addition to such artistic prizes as a 1993 Obie Award honoring outstanding achievement in off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway work in New York, the Cirque won the 1992 "business of the year" category for small and medium businesses, in a competition organized annually by the Chamber of Commerce of the province of Quebec, Canada.

"We're not trying to do the [producer Cameron] Mackintosh trip," keeping a big show running indefinitely in dozens of productions around the globe," says Gilles Ste-Croix, the Cirque's veteran directeur de la creation.

"Our success rests on fragile things; the maximum run for any of our shows is four years, which gives the artists a certain job security but doesn't keep them tied up forever. We try to treat our people well, but it's very hard to keep a show alive and challenging and not let down the quality over a long period," he said.

The maximum first-run tour for a Cirque production is now two years, beginning in Montreal, its hometown, and then touring to large cities in the United States and Canada for the rest of the run.

While one show is making the grand tour, another show is being developed in workshops and think tanks at home. By the time "Saltimbanco" ends its travels this year, for instance, the new Cirque edition will be in preparation to premiere in April 1994, in Montreal. And once the initial two-year tour is over, there is now a possibility for further travel abroad.

The title chosen for this fifth production of Cirque du Soleil, "Saltimbanco," derives from a 16th-century Italian word meaning skilled street performers and acrobats.

Evolution of man

The general theme for the show, however, is described as "urbanity," or as Mr. Ste-Croix explains it, the evolution of man from a naked, newborn creature into a social being who lives and works in a complex urban environment.

In describing one aspect of the show, the program says: "In 'Saltimbanco,' the characters, like all human beings, are born nude. These are the Worms, at the very base of society. All similar in appearance, yet different one from the other, they must, with time, adapt themselves to their environment. Thus, as the show goes on, they embody various types of social characters, hoping to one day accede to the rank of Baroque, a cast of visionaries. The Baroques constitute the most important family of 'Saltimbanco.' Armed with a deeply perceptive vision of the world and sleeping under bridges, the Baroques, throughout the fable, reveal the countless contradictions of our civilization when imagination has not yet taken power."

Customers worried that all this might be too intellectual or rarefied should relax.

The tickets, reflecting the show's Broadway-grade production values, are more expensive than those for most circuses ($13 to $35.50 for adults, and $6 to $23.50 for children); but such traditional circus delicacies as popcorn and soft drinks are always on sale, and, more important, "Saltimbanco" carries a full load of thrilling and graceful circus specialty acts peopled with dTC top-notch jugglers, acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and clowns.

But, in the Cirque style, these are circus acts done with a difference, with a definite attitude. The trapeze act this year, for example, employs the elastic straps of bungee jumping to create a unique aerial ballet. And the tightrope performance is given more excitement by having the tightrope walker hop from one tightrope to another.

Each of the circus artists, in addition to performing his or her specialty, is given a personality that will fit within the structure of the show's environment; and all the players, whether developed by the Cirque staff or imported from other arenas, must be able to act and dance and (new this year) sing as part of their duties within the integrated production.

Creative talent

Over the last nine years, the Cirque team has developed into a solid core of creative talent. In addition to Mr. Ste-Croix and founder-creator Guy Laliberte, the team includes director Franco Dragone, costumer Dominique Lemieux, scenic designer Michel Crete, composer Rene Dupere, choreographer Debra Brown and lighting designer Luc Lafortune.

This season, according to Mr. Ste-Croix, the total effect of "Saltimbanco" may be "a little more aggressive, daring, more hard-edged" than in past shows. The singing, which the producers felt could finally be tackled by the performers, adds a fresh, operatic touch that fits the already established image of balletic grace in the proceedings.

Yet, even with this addition, "Saltimbanco" remains anchored in the tradition of Cirque du Soleil performance. It is like nothing else in the circus world.

"Through the last few years," Mr. Ste-Croix says, "we have been able to build up a good team. We function well. We understand each other. We know where we want to go. Our work is continuing, constant; it grows and develops. It's like a painter. You have to look at all of his pictures to see the complete range of his work, but they all clearly come from the same artist."

SALTIMBANCO

What: Cirque du Soleil.

When: Thursday through Oct. 31.

Where: Tysons II at Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, McLean, Va.

Tickets: $6.50-$35.50.

Call: (410) 481-SEAT.

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