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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cirques Go Berserk

Posted by on Thu, Jul 9, 2009 at 2:19 PM

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A male dancer catapults himself onto a small table on center stage. He slowly moves into a handstand, then contorts himself to lay perpendicular to the stage, supported by one hand. The audience clapped and cheered. It could only be a Cirque trick.

But which Cirque?

Obviously, what comes first to mind is Cirque du Soleil. I’ve never seen Cirque du Soleil live, but I grew up devoted to it on TV. Back in Bravo’s pre-Project Runway days, they used to air a lot of Cirque du Soleil specials, thus providing one of my first introductions to what I considered avant-garde theater. However, after the movie Knocked Up associated Cirque du Soleil with a bad mushroom trip in Las Vegas, the company probably lost a little of its claim to hipness.

In the past three weeks, I’ve seen two different cirques. However, neither was a Soleil. One was a media sneak peek at an upcoming show at Durham Performing Arts Center, and one was a performance with symphony accompaniment at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre.

The sneak peek was for a Florida-based outfit called Cirque Dreams, which has a new production it’s calling Illumination. Naturally, light is a major portion: The video consisted of glow-in-the-dark objects that resembled flags and a line drawing of stair-steps reminiscent of a page from Harold and the Purple Crayon. A character called The Director features prominently, whose main characteristic is blowing a whistle with such frequency to rival the Grandmother in The Triplets of Belleville. As much as we could glean from the film, the show is devoted to acrobatics featuring one-handed balancing acts and aerial spinning with rings and scarves.

After the video screened, three performers came onstage to entertain the audience. Two of the dancers in red hounds-tooth suits performed a pantomime involving one being controlled by the other. The third, clad in a sparkly tank top and sailor pants, balanced on a small platform and did the ever-popular one-handed handstand, gaining applause from the assembled media.

Cirque Dreams takes the stage at DPAC from Sept. 15-20. Here’s video from Illumination:

On a recent suburban Saturday evening, Koka Booth boasted a packed house to see Cirque de la Symphonie, an apparently new outfit that specializes in co-productions with regional orchestras. With patrons covering every inch of the available grass, the players in the North Carolina Symphony arranged into a semicircle onstage to allow the performers more room near the front. The program consisted of works by 19th-century composers, including Georges Bizet, Camille Saint-Saens and Antonin Dvorak.

The music was a nice touch, but it was clear that audience was there for the cirque portion.

An acrobat contorted through an oversize ring spinning in midair to the energetic tones of España, Rhapsody for Orchestra by Emmanuel Chabrier. A performer juggled neon-lit clubs—first four, then five, then six—to Leo Delibes’ “Procession of Bacchus” from Sylvia. Sustained applause earned the audience an encore: Two performers, one male and one female, wrapped themselves in twin scarlet-red sashes that stretched from ceiling to floor, showcasing balletic arches and stretches that were nicely complemented by Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz” from Swan Lake.

Here’s video from Cirque de la Symphonie: 

Comparing and contrasting these two productions left me wondering if the real Cirque du Soleil has ever performed in the Triangle. It turns out that Cirque du Soleil played locally as recently as April 2007, at Raleigh’s RBC Center. As far as we can tell, none of the five Cirque du Soleil shows currently touring North America will visit the Triangle anytime soon. In the meantime, Cirque Dreams brings Illumination to DPAC in September, and will return with another, Holidaze, scheduled for this December in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.

Because “cirque” is merely the French word for “circus,” no trademark exists on the “cirque” name. Knockoffs from around the world use the term. Much as the fashion world uses “couture” liberally, attempting to signify quality, and soft drink companies use the word “cola” to ride on the coattails of the most famous soda beverage, “cirque” is a catch-all term applied to over-the-top theatrical productions featuring trippy circus trappings—and, perhaps notably, with all-human performers.

In the circle of “cirques,” the leading brand is still Cirque du Soleil, and it’s unlikely that the Soleil juggernaut is under any threat from the imitators. Still, without (more) differentiation, audiences will notice that all these cirques are remarkably similar. One can only hope that the Triangle will get another visit from Cirque du Soleil, so we can find out if there’s still any difference between it and its competitors.

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