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BUSCADOR internet teatroenmiami.com
Cirque Du Soleil: Aiming Too High?
By POLLY SHULMAN*

MOST circuses have a straightforward goal: to dazzle, tickle and terrify the crowd as they strive to present the greatest show on Earth. But nothing so modest could satisfy Cirque du Soleil, whose 13th live show, "Varekai" (pronounced vair-eh-KAI), opened here last week in a blue-and-yellow tent on Randalls Island. The 19-year-old Montreal-based circus aims higher — it has its eye on Art. Cirque's director, designers, engineers and performers toss around the term constantly, and critics catch the ball and call it art.

So successful has Cirque du Soleil been at elevating the circus above its populist roots that it even has its own scholarly gadfly. In 1998, Ame Wilson, now head of theater history, criticism and dramaturgy at the Ohio University School of Theater in Athens, had just completed her master's thesis — "Artaudian and Brechtian Theatrical Techniques in the Works of Peter Brook" — and was all set to continue the theme in a doctoral dissertation. Then her sister gave her tickets to "O," Cirque du Soleil's aquatic show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Dr. Wilson said recently. "I started to cry, and I sobbed the whole night. I knew that was what I had to study."

Ame (pronounced aim) Wilson, then in her late 20's, was impressed most of all by the meaning behind the stagecraft. "I'd been a student of narrative theater, studying play scripts for two decades at that point — I started when I was kid. Now, here was something that didn't use recognizable language, but nevertheless told me a story, and did it through amazing spectacle."

When she told Cirque about her plans to study them, however, "they flatly denied me access," Dr. Wilson said.

"They were pretty rude about it," she added. So she went undercover, getting a job in the box office of "Saltimbanco," which was finishing up the stateside portion of its Asia-Pacific tour in Portland, Ore.

From April until July 2000, Dr. Wilson answered telephones and questions, sold tickets — and gossiped with her co-workers. "On my breaks," she said, "I would go tearing around taking pictures and asking questions. I was a big old snoop. I would eat with the performers in the cafeteria tent, find out where they were going drinking that evening, then tag along and dance with the clowns."

Dr. Wilson focused her snooping on Cirque du Soleil's creative process. She learned that the Cirque team sometimes wrote the music first, then based the show around it. Much of the content came from the performers, not the directors. For example, the character of the sleeper in "Saltimbanco" was the creation of Guennadi Tchijov, the clown who played him. The dialogue may sound like French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese — whatever Romance language you happen not to know — but the performers are actually speaking a form of nonsense that they call Cirquish.

Mr. Tchijov, Dr. Wilson learned, would go onstage and practice his gibberish for an hour before each show. And the flavor of Cirquish changed from act to act. In the pseudo-ballad "Kumbalawé," the first song in "Saltimbanco," the audience expects to hear a real foreign language, so that's what it sounds like. (The first line is: "Kumbalawé, kumbalawé mana.") "Kaze," another "Saltimbanco" song, is based on a scale associated with Chinese music, so its Cirquish lyrics sound Chinese.

When the Portland run ended, Dr. Wilson said, her supervisor — who happened to be Mr. Tchijov's wife — invited her to stay on with the group as they toured. Dr. Wilson declined, revealing her secret identity, to the delight of her co-workers. (She never did tell management.)

The dissertation that arose from the experience, "Cirque du Soleil Reimagines the Circus: The Evolution of an Aesthetic," examines Cirque's distinctive narrative structure — the wordless creation of story through spectacle that had so enchanted Dr. Wilson when she saw "O."

When she isn't teaching or working as a dramaturge, Dr. Wilson is busy expanding her dissertation into a book. One new question she plans to address is how success has affected the company.

"I worry about what's happening to Cirque," she said. "By making themselves so accessible on television, and by making tickets so expensive" — prices can reach three figures — "have they priced themselves out of continued growth? Will their popularity level off now that their style has entered our culture as a language of performance, with the element of surprise that's so important to them removed?"

While Cirque du Soleil may talk about art, it never loses sight of money. What began as a troupe of street performers — fire-eaters and stilt-walkers performing for loose change — has grown into a billion-dollar business, with a $40 million headquarters in Montreal,

five traveling productions on two continents, a permanent show at Walt Disney World in Florida and two more in Las Vegas, with another — an erotic show called "Zumanity" — to open there in July.


When the Arts & Leisure section invited Dr. Wilson to come to New York and accompany me to "Varekai," she had the opportunity to compare the new show to the older ones. Dr. Wilson turned out to be a leggy beauty with a cloud of blond hair and a brand-new belly-button piercing ("My students double-dog dared me"). She tempers her king-size enthusiasm and hunger for sensation (asking the waiter for the hottest dish on the menu at the southern Indian restaurant where we ate dinner, for example) with a strong analytical streak. And when her booming laugh rings out — which it does readily — as likely as not, she's laughing at herself.

We made our way to Randalls Island by ferry, where Cirque's enormous striped tent danced over the East River.

"Varekai" opens with the usual enchantment: a crowd of brightly costumed creatures mill around acrobatically in a clearing surrounded by bamboolike poles (for climbing on). As if to make up for the lack of circus animals, Cirque transforms the performers into beasts, adding feathers or spines, hoofs or snail shells. The air is filled with hoots, bird calls, bells and chuckles reminiscent of a rainforest — or a college production of "The Tempest."

The individual acts are as impressive as ever. Young men in flame-colored suits lie on their backs and fling one another into the air, spinning their partners with their feet and catching them the same way. A trio of tiny Chinese boys twirl metal cups at the ends of ropes, trading places and props with breathtaking grace. Four spiderlike young women writhe and intertwine on a triple trapeze, holding one another by an ankle or a shoulder in patterns of kaleidoscopic symmetry.

But what does it all mean? The message often seems obscure to the point of incoherence. The plot of "Varekai," such as it is, revisits the myth of Icarus, a Greek boy whose father built wings of wax and feathers. The original myth is about the danger of ambition: when Icarus flies too close to the sun, his wings melt and he falls to his death.

In "Varekai," the sun is friend, not foe (Cirque du Soleil is French for Circus of the Sun). A winged boy called Icare falls to earth, landing among ethereal characters. Of course, he survives. But his story — a love affair with a girl in a green insect suit, who may or may not be the same character as the creature in white spangles whom he marries at the end — is very hard to follow.

"This is the scariest, most chaotic, least polished Cirque show I've seen," Dr. Wilson raged during intermission. "It's punk Cirque on acid. It's like the apocalypse has come to New York City. The music is circus-y, not Cirque-y. They're even using English and French!"

Icare, played by the elegant Anton Chelnokov, makes his first appearance as he falls slowly from the sky. The creatures gather around while the Skywatcher, a master-of-ceremonies figure played by Gordon White, strips off his wings — huge single feathers, somewhat the worse for wear. The Skywatcher surrenders them to a terrifying creature, a black-clad character with a light bulb on his head, who tries to fly with them but fails. (Played by Rodrigue Proteau, he is called the Guide in the program, but Dr. Wilson and I both thought of him as Lightbulb Death.) The two bind Icare in a net suspended from the ceiling.
What follows is one of the show's most symbolically successful scenes, as Icare dances with his net in midair to slow, ethereal music. Technically, it's a variation on a trapeze act, with the usual flips and splits. But Mr. Chelnokov transforms it into a meditation on flight and, by extension, creative activity. The net becomes by turns an entanglement, a place of safety, a cocoon, a pair of wings; Icare slowly morphs from earthbound captive to soaring spirit.

Dr. Wilson saw Icare as the typical Cirque protagonist: an outsider who stumbles into an environment in which he can no longer function the way he did at home. The narrative tells the story of how he gets to know his new companions and joins their world.

Another success comes in the second act, when Vladimir Ignatenkov performs a dance choreographed by Brooklyn's own Bill Shannon, who uses crutches to walk —and to dance. Onstage, the crutches become at once wings and their opposite, connecting the dancer to the earth, while freeing him from it.

These and a few other soulful numbers add depth to the story. (Dr. Wilson and I both fell for "Aerial Straps," a twin-brother act full of love and longing.) Dr. Wilson saw a parallel with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with the clowns playing the Rude Mechanicals and Icare and his bride standing in for Oberon and Titania.

"In that sense, `Varekai' has a more traditional theatrical structure than appears on the surface," she said. "Nevertheless, I prefer

Cirque's more tightly constructed shows, where each act clearly moves the story forward, where we can watch it and understand it without trouble."

I agreed. Too often, I felt, the arc of the show seemed confused and self-indulgent. It's brave of Cirque du Soleil to take on the Icarus myth, especially in a circus, where the performers risk sharing the hero's downfall. The show's creators may have meant to transform the myth into an affirmation; instead, "Varekai" stands as a warning of what happens when you reach high — but not quite high enough.

*Polly Shulman is a freelance writer in New York.

Fuente: The New York Times
Mayo 2003

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