The artistic director never dreamed of running off and joining the circus. Neither did the playwright he hired to put his vision of a circus on stage.
For "Cirque Ingenieux," the show that opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House, that's probably a good thing, because this "cirque" is intended to have more in common with the theater than with the circus.
"It's a little bit of the 'Wizard of Oz,' a little of 'Alice in Wonderland,' a little bit of a lot of fairy tales," says Neil Goldberg, co-producer of "Cirque Ingenieux" and founder and artistic director of its Florida-based parent company, Cirque Inc.
And, unlike the story of its creators, "It's the story of a little girl who decides she wants to join the circus, and by the end of the play she does, and her dreams are realized," explains Washington-based playwright Norman Allen, who wrote the libretto for "Cirque Ingenieux."
The result "is more about theater and imagination and spectacle than about circus," says Goldberg.
The producer, 42, has spent most of his career staging special events for clients ranging from the Super Bowl to Coca-Cola. "Cirque Ingenieux" gave him a chance to combine that career with his roots in the theater -- his college major and the field he originally planned to enter as a set designer.
He also had a pool of performing talent to draw from, since he often hires international circus performers for his corporate events. Three weeks ago, for example, he staged a one-night private cirque -- the word he prefers -- in Paris for European Nissan dealers. "It's one thing to open a car door and show what color it is. It's another to open a door and have five contortionists roll out," he says.
Staging a cirque for the public, instead of for a private audience, not only seemed the next logical step for Goldberg, there was also a role model.
As its name suggests, "Cirque Ingenieux" has something in common with the company that put the word "cirque" into common parlance, the Montreal-based company called Cirque du Soleil.
There are other similarities as well. Neither cirque includes animals, both blend acrobatic circus arts and theater, both use international casts and original New Age music; there's even been some crossover among personnel.
But the new kid on the block, "Cirque Ingenieux," offers some twists of its own. Instead of being performed in a tent, as its Canadian forebear usually is, "Cirque Ingenieux" is performed exclusively in theaters. And, where Cirque du Soleil's productions have broad themes (for example, "Quidam," which will be performed in McLean, Va., starting in Sept. 17, is about the facelessness of society), "Cirque Ingenieux" has a concrete plot.
Whatever the artistic distinctions, however, there's no denying that Cirque du Soleil is a phenomenon that has grown even beyond the expectations of its founders, one of whom is a former fire eater. Three of the nine productions the company has mounted over its 14-year history are still running -- "Quidam" is in Dallas, "Alegria" in Madrid, and "Mystere" in Las Vegas, with two more shows in the works for permanent theaters being built in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. A dinner-theater co-production with the German company Pomp Duck and Circumstance has been running in Hamburg since last June, and a film based on "Alegria" is scheduled for international release this spring.
"Definitely, what Cirque du Soleil has done is a great job of making Americans aware of the fact that there is this style of artistry that has existed throughout Europe since the early 1900s, and it's definitely something that has helped in terms of public awareness," Goldberg says.
His reference to a European cirque tradition, however, is where Cirque du Soleil begs to differ. "Cirque du Soleil is often called a European-style circus. In fact, we are a unique style of circus," says Lyn Heward, who holds the unusual title of "Creation Vice President" with Cirque du Soleil. "Cirque, the genre as we call it now, is something that is really new."
Cirque du Soleil, which has been written up in Forbes, had revenues of more than $106 million last year, a figure expected to double in the next 14 months, according to Jean David, vice president for marketing. David spoke from the Montreal headquarters, a $22 million complex that is one of the company's five international offices (the others are in Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Singapore and Tokyo, with a sixth due to open in Orlando this month).
Clearly, the Canadian cirque has become a worldwide industry, but even the up-and-comer, "Cirque Ingenieux," often has three shows running simultaneously. Besides the current tour, which has been extended from 30 weeks to more than 80, Goldberg still stages corporate cirque events and also has a cirque in South America that will play a three-month engagement in Atlantic City this summer.
The appearance of all these new "cirques" doesn't necessarily worry David. "There's room for everybody as long as what they're doing is done with quality, with taste," he says. "A few years ago, we were playing in New York City, and at the same time that we were at Battery Park, Ringling Bros. was at Madison Square Garden and the Big Apple Circus was at Lincoln Center, and the three companies were sold out."
One of the elements that makes both "Cirque Ingenieux" and Cirque du Soleil accessible to international audiences is the lack of dialogue. "Cirque Ingenieux," however, does not let this stand in the way of storytelling.
Nine acts linked
The plot of "Cirque Ingenieux" links together nine acts ranging from Mongolian contortionists to Polish strongmen. "It's a very simple story, not like you're going to see 'Hamlet,' but enough of a story so there's emotional resonance," says playwright Allen, who was hired after Goldberg teamed up with co-producer Kenneth H. Gentry, a Gaithersburg-based Broadway veteran, who also brought in a team of Broadway designers. "The audience can identify with certain characters. When you get to the end, you've gotten to know these people."
All this is accomplished using only about 15 words. "The entire story is told through movement and facial expression. Director Joe Leonardo puts it perfectly. He says it's the first time he's directed a silent movie," says Allen, whose credit in the program reads "librettist," the same term used in another wordless art form, ballet.
Goldberg spent years tracking down some of the acts connected by Allen's story. Jason McPherson, who plays the character of the Tailor, was a street performer the producer saw in San Francisco. Ekaterina Fedosseeva and Anna Shvetsova, the two young Russian girls who play Sarah, the little girl at the core of the story, and the circus performer Sarah emulates, have been working for Goldberg since 1993, when they were just 8 and 5 years old, respectively.
Alexander Streltsov, who plays Sarah's brother, is a Russian aerialist Goldberg first heard about six years ago. "In Russia, [he] had won every award for gymnastics. He was called the Flying Angel," Goldberg says. "I was trying to locate him because I had an idea about a flying act with fabric. I had been looking all over the world." To his surprise, Goldberg found Streltsov in Atlanta, where he was a freshman at Emory University, having immigrated to the United States with his family.
Goldberg continues to scout talent in every city he visits, dropping in at local gymnastics programs and street festivals. In Baltimore, he plans to take in the street performers at Harborplace.
The Baltimore engagement of "Cirque Ingenieux" is somewhat of a homecoming for Goldberg, who worked on two fund-raisers for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and two others for the Maryland Science Center in the late 1980s.
Back then, he was covering ceilings with twinkling stars and surrounding tables with light tubes. Now he's conceived an entire theatrical circus, even designing some of the costumes.
Four-legged stilts and tubing that looks like air-conditioning duct work are among the costume components bearing the Goldberg touch. It's the touch of a man who has finally realized his childhood dream of running off and joining the theater.
Some of the characters Sarah meets are:
1) A Singer (Tara-Lynn Wagner, left) with Sarah (Ekaterina Fedosseeva)
2) Twin contortionists (Biambahav and Biambsuren Janchivdorj) flanking trapeze artists (Chiharu Matsuki, Nathalie Hebert and Veronique Thibeault)
3) A Juggler (Jochen Schell)
4) Strong Men (Jaroslaw Marciniak, bottom, and Dariusz Wronski)
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 3: 30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Pub Date: 3/01/98