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Circus of the Scars

Cirque du Soleil
High Wired: John Guikey and Karl Baumann get surreal in "Quidam."

Photo by Al Seid

Cirque du Soleil injects narrative and 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 perhaps to the feelings of sadness, dread and terror that lurk under the surface of the ostensibly happy rituals of the circus.

Montreal's celebrated Cirque du Soleil has long been in touch with that darker side of the big top, eschewing 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, in Oakland promoting the upcoming performances. "It explores and emphasizes the anonymity of the individual in modern society."

How one translates the big ideas Ste-Croix describes 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 how the show is described, illustrating how 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 is coming 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."

"His medium is theater," he says, pointing to composer Benoit Jutras, who's remained mostly silent during this interview, "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 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."

Aside from Quidam, the burgeoning Cirque is concurrently running several other projects, including the show titled Mystére now touring Europe and playing in one of the two Las Vegas venues. "The one Mystére is the most popular attraction in Las Vegas," Ste-Croix says proudly, only a little defensive that the Cirque is playing a town better known for rhinestoned tiger-tamers and cheap buffet breakfasts than literate entertainment. "We were given complete artistic freedom in designing Mystére and our new aquatic show which will open soon. And we feel that by not compromising what we do, we demonstrated that it's possible to do high-quality productions in Las Vegas.

"It's also a wonderful way of reaching people who would never go to see a Cirque du Soleil show otherwise," he adds. "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. 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," Ste-Croix says. "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 relation 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.

"We get bored very easily," he laughs, "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."

At Oakland's Jack London Square starting May 29, multiple shows Tue.­Sun; $8.25­$45.50. Call 800/678-5440.

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From the May 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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