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Circus of the Scars

Cirque du Soleil
Al Seid

Will the Cirque Be Unbroken?: The German wheel is one of many acrobatic spectacles that keep Cirque du Soleil rolling.

Montreal's Cirque du Soleil injects existential melancholy into the big top

By Zack Stentz

'THERE'S NOTHING FUNNY about a clown in the moonlight," silent-screen legend Lon Chaney once said, referring to the feelings of sadness, dread and terror that lurk underneath the surface of the ostensibly happy rituals of the circus.

Montreal's celebrated Cirque du Soleil--which pitches its tent in downtown San Jose for an extended run beginning July 31--has long been in touch with that darker side of the big top. It famously eschews trained animals and Barnumesque hokum while incorporating movement and imagery from the realms of modern dance, painting and European art cinema. Cirque du Soleil's current production, Quidam, pushes that threshold even further in its appropriation of surrealism and its attendant darker palette of emotions.

"Compared to the previous shows, Quidam goes much more into melancholy," says creative director Gilles Ste-Croix during the troupe's preparations for its Oakland shows earlier this summer. "It explores and emphasizes the anonymity of the individual in modern society."

How one translates the big ideas Ste-Croix outlines into a modern circus performance is another thing entirely. The printed program certainly does nothing to clarify matters. "A nameless passerby, a solitary figure leaning on a street corner, a person rushing past," is the way in which the show is described, illustrating how microscopically thin the line between adventurous innovation and plain old pretentiousness can sometimes be (or maybe it's just a bad translation).

Ste-Croix, though, dismisses the notion that a Cirque du Soleil audience wants to see Sartre on a tightrope. "We're not trying to give people philosophy," he says. "It's entertainment with emotion that we're trying to present."

Pointing to composer Benoit Jutras, who has remained mostly silent during this interview, Ste-Croix says, "His medium is theater, and we've always been known for our theatrical approach."

Is there even--gasp!--a narrative thread connecting the surreal acts and images that unfold onstage during the course of Quidam? "Oh, sure, there's a narrative, but you have to pick it out," Jutras pipes up. "You may go with your mother, and she may get something different than you."

Cirque du Soleil

ACTUALLY, MY MOTHER didn't get much of anything out of Cirque du Soleil. Raised as she was on visions of Charlton Heston in The Greatest Show on Earth, she remained unconvinced that this imported spectacle fit the bill when I tried to convince her to come with me to see Quidam.

"What kind of a circus doesn't have animals?" she asked, a bit suspiciously.

"It's more of a European intellectual's idea of a circus, with aspects of melancholy and surrealism woven into the creative fabric," I explained, trying vainly to sound like a jaded Quebecois.

"It sounds like that horrible painting of the sad, crying clown your Uncle Bill used to hang in his dining room," she replied.

Was that static on the phone line or could I actually hear my mother's nose wrinkling in distaste? "No, nothing like that," I backpedaled. "It's genuinely emotional. You saw that Fellini movie with the broken-down strongman, right?"

"Anthony Quinn? What a bastard! Did you hear, his mistress just had another baby? He's 80 years old! And doesn't he have 12 already?"

Sigh. Not even an appeal to come show her support for Oakland's precarious commercial renaissance by patronizing Jack London Square could sway my mother's lefty soul. She went to see Ralph Nader in Night School instead.

It's too bad, because she missed a pretty decent show by skipping Quidam. She would have been charmed by the gaunt emcee John Gilkey, whose equine, elongated features morph by turns from winsome to sinister. And the young Chinese girls in the tin-woodsman outfits with the giant, whirling "diabolo" tops ought to be cast in the next Jackie Chan film. They'd make great villains' henchwomen.

The quoting of the famous Magritte painting of the faceless man in the bowler hat is particularly witty as well. Despite a few big emotional moments that veered closer to the swollen bathos of fellow Montrealite Celine Dion than to the last reel of La Strada, Cirque du Soleil for the most part succeeds in delivering its promised entertainment with feeling.

"But what about the mimes?" one might ask. Yes, there are mimes in Quidam (three to be exact), and they're just fine, thank you very much--funny and touching without sending the twee-meter into the red zone. Besides, mime-bashing is soooo '80s.

ASIDE FROM Quidam, the burgeoning Cirque du Soleil is concurrently running several other projects as well, including not one but two Las Vegas shows. "Mystere, which is playing now, is the most popular attraction in Las Vegas," Ste-Croix says proudly--only a little defensive that the Cirque is ensconced in a town better known for rhinestoned tiger tamers and cheap buffet breakfasts than for literate entertainment. "We were given complete artistic freedom in designing Mystere. And we feel that by not compromising what we do, we demonstrated that it's possible to do high-quality productions in Las Vegas."

He hastens to add that "it's also a wonderful way of reaching people. My mechanic in Montreal had never been to see Cirque du Soleil but saw the show when he went to visit Las Vegas."

But with the institution in a state of such rapid expansion, Cirque du Soleil's creative team would seem to be running the risk of draining the global talent pool dry. After all, how many artsy, existential jugglers, acrobats and tightrope walkers can there be in the world?

"Finding the talent has not been a problem," says Ste-Croix. "The 50 performers in Quidam are all new to us, and we have even more in training for the next show. It's on the shoulders of these new performers that our expansion rests.

"The free movement of artists from Eastern Europe--especially Russia, which has a long circus tradition--has helped us to expand. And we've had a relationship with China and the acrobats from that region of the world since 1986."

A bigger worry, according to Ste-Croix, is a more generalized sense of creative exhaustion. "That is always a danger," he acknowledges. "And it's why we always try to completely change what we do with each new show, instead of doing the same thing for a decade or more, the way many circuses do."

He laughs. "We get bored very easily, which is good for our audiences. When Quidam first premiered in Montreal last year, people came out of the show saying 'This didn't seem like a Cirque du Soleil performance,' " Ste-Croix recalls, smiling at the memory. "And to me, that was the greatest compliment I could have heard."

Cirque du Soleil runs July 31­Sept. 14 at the San Jose Water Company, 374 S. Santa Clara St., San Jose. Shows are Tuesday­Wednesday at 8pm, Thursday at 4 and 8pm, Friday at 6 and 9:30pm, Saturday at 4:30 and 8:30pm and Sunday at 1 and 5pm (Aug. 1 at 8pm only; no show Sept. 2; and one show Sept. 11 at 8pm). Tickets are $8.25­$45.50. (1-800/678-5440)

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From the July 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro.

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