We’re Off and Running, Part 2:
Le Cirque Réinventé, Part 2 (1988)

A few weeks ago, as I was flipping through a few classic Cirque du Soleil programme books (as is my wont), I was happily caught off-guard by a brief history of the company that it had written about itself in Saltimbanco’s original European Tour programme, published sometime in 1996. Not because the historia was in English, French, and Spanish, but rather I found the wording a bit more colorful… haughty… than what you’d find from the company today. Something about its whimsical and heady nature spoke to the way Cirque du Soleil saw itself then, containing a youthful verve and arrogance that is simply no longer present. When did Cirque lose this dynamic sense of self, this liveliness, and vivacity about its past, present, and future? Unfortunately, not long after. Thereafter the speak becomes less joie de vivre and more lié aux affaires, and Cirque du Soleil turns from a rag-tag band of street performers into a bona fide corporate entity right before our very eyes. This is not a new revelation – far from it in fact – but this re-discovery struck a chord of curiosity within…

How did others see Cirque du Soleil during this period?

Think about it: as Cirque’s multitude of shows travel around the globe in either arenas or under the big top, at each stop, in each city, there is a write-up in the local press. Sometimes the coverage is just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there’s a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times it’s an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. But the reviews we see today are too current, discussing these shows through a contemporary lens; shows that have/had 15 to 20 years touring the globe, shows we would refer to as “classic” or “signature”. What I’d become interested in knowing was what some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of these shows were as they took their first steps across North America. How did the press see Le Cirque du Soleil in 1998, 1994, 1990, 1987?

It was time to peck through the archives.

What I found was extraordinary, and more than I expected. And I’m sharing these discoveries here in Fascination through a series of collections, beginning with the 1987 tournée of Le Cirque du Soleil (better known today as Le Cirque Réinventé), and continuing on from there. Last issue was Part 1 of 16: Le Cirque Réinventé, Part 1 (1987); this month we continue looking at 1988’s reviews of Le Cirque Réinventé.

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By: Anna Kisselgoff | New York Times
May 17, 1988

Everything comes together beautifully in Le Cirque du Soleil, an enchanting circus troupe from Montreal that lives up to its name as a circus of the sun. More than a little poetic sunlight filled the night air Wednesday evening at Battery Park City, where a blue and yellow tent had been pitched just off West Street at Battery Place for the circus’s New York debut.

To say, as every one does, that Cirque du Soleil has no animals is akin to saying that Shakespeare has no prose in his plays. There is, in fact, a touch of the Bard in the concept behind this wonderfully witty and theatrical show. Like Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the rustics who open the performance enter a temporary dreamworld in which they are transformed.

Children will understand this fantasy sphere immediately and adults will appreciate the several levels of artistry through which this connective thread of a narrative is always maintained. From hip comedy and art rock music to ancient Chinese acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil’s totally choreographed theatrical production has something for everyone.

The basic message is that fantasies can be fulfilled, if only in the imagination. A fuddyduddy is transformed into the circus’s master of ceremonies and a gaggle of folk in loud shirts and dresses turn into graceful aerialists and acrobats.

The line between cliches and universals, however, is magnificently understood by the circus’s creators. You will find traditional circus acts here, but also a comment and twist on these acts. The veneer is refined and innocent, often transmitted through the glowing face of a child performer.

The two-hour show, scheduled through June 5, is a synthesis of easily recognizable art forms pioneered by others and yet the final result is deeply original. There are echoes of Montreal’s avant-garde dance troupes and comedy routines from the new vaudeville. Chinese acrobats have left their influence in the acts with balancing chairs, contortionists and bicycle riding tricks.

The point is that it all comes up looking like nothing else. On this occasion, the evening was opened by Guy Laliberte, Soleil’s founder and president, and Governor Cuomo, on behalf of a benefit for two organizations concerned with the homeless, HELP and the Coalition for the Homeless.

The tone of the evening is set immediately by the irreverent clowns amid the audience, but its component of magic, real and simulated, comes clear only when four young genies in exotic robes act as our guides. A clump of fugitives from Samuel Beckett enter amid an enveloping mist; Michel Barette is transformed into the ringmaster and introduces the chair-balancing act.

Here as elsewhere, the accent is not on the death-defying risk, but on beauty of design. Bravura mixes with art. There is no tension. What a relief.

Thus, some of the youngsters doing handstands on the tower of tilted chairs are attached to wires – a touch of Peter Pan. And when Antoine Rigot flies down from a high wire and leaves his raincoat in the air, the surreal imagery is apt. His duet on a tightrope with Agathe Olivier, who bourrees along the wire on toe, recalls Picasso’s acrobats as do the witty acrobats from Paris who add a flick of flamenco – the petite Amelie Demay and Eric Verelas.

Fairground history has its echoes with Daniel Le Bateleur, whose juggling is sheerly artistic, especially when he makes a rope tie itself into knots. The faceless tumblers who trot out with attache cases comment on rat races and use teeterboards as metaphors. Benny Le Grand’s disappearing act is too good to give away, but Daniel Lacombe’s pie in his own face clowning and his second solo is too good not to reveal. Mr. Lacombe’s mad conductor, tilting forward from his ski boots as he conducts the 1812 Overture (on a walkman) with a thigh bone while throwing batons into the air is Walter Mitty gone berserk – also hilarious.

For poetic relief, there is are Andrew Watson and Jackie Williams in a trapeze act that has a fantastic touch, as Ms. Williams flies out toward the audience when least expected. Angela Laurier was the smiling contortionist.

Guy Caron and Mr. Laliberte created this magical show, with Debra Brown as choreographer.

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By: Andrew Pollack | New York Times
May 25, 1988

Two dancers are flirting. He plays the oboe as she pirouettes toward him. Then he advances toward her, leaping and doing a somersault, only to be pushed away. It could be ballet or modern dance – but it’s a tightrope act.

Later, a young couple is doing a steamy tango. Suddenly, she is standing on her head in the palm of his hand. She remains there as he drops to the ground, rolls over and stands up again, all to the Latin rhythm.

Such combinations of dance and acrobatics exemplify Le Cirque du Soleil, a circus from Quebec that has been drawing standing ovations in Canada and California for performances that are part circus, part theater. The four-year-old troupe, whose name means Circus of the Sun, will make its East Coast debut in Battery Park City in Manhattan on Wednesday. Adding Art to the Spectacle

Le Cirque du Soleil is one of a handful of so-called new-wave circuses that try to present the circus as art, not merely spectacle. Participants perform in one ring to specially composed music, and try to establish an intimacy with the audience often lacking in the three-ring extravaganza that has become customary in the United States.

Other such circuses include New York’s Big Apple Circus, San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus and Australia’s Circus Oz. But among them, Cirque du Soleil is the least traditional and the most theatrical, producing a brightly polished high-tech show that aims its appeal as much to adults as to children.

Many of its acts are the same as those found in traditional circuses or Chinese acrobatic shows. Thirteen people ride one bicycle. Three men and two women balance on a tower of chairs. And a contortionist folds her body into shapes that are impossible to describe, let alone do. One big departure, however, is that there are no animal acts. From Tourists to Stars

Technically, the acts are no more proficient than those found in other circuses. What really sets Cirque du Soleil apart is how the acts are packaged. There is no loud ringmaster here, warbling “La-a-adies and ge-entlemen,” no drum roll before each stunt. Instead of being composed of isolated acts, the circus flows from one act to another, and all the acts are loosely united by a common theme: A group of frumpy tourists wanders by mistake into a circus. The Queen of the Night appears in a cloud of smoke and transforms the motley visitors into circus performers wearing dazzling costumes, allowing each to act out his or her fantasies.

Almost all the acts are choreographed to pulsating new-age music composed by the circus’s musical director, Rene Dupere, and played live by a five-piece band. The music is so coordinated with the performance that each juggle seems to have its own special note.

Like much of what is now called the new vaudeville movement, this circus had its origins in street performing. Guy Laliberte, the troupe’s founder and president, abandoned his plans to study nuclear engineering in his late teens and began traveling around the world learning such skills as fire breathing and stilt walking. Support From Governments

In 1984, the provincial Government of Quebec gave Mr. Laliberte, then 23 years old, a grant to organize a troupe of street performers as part of the celebration marking the 450th anniversary of the discovery of Quebec by Jacques Cartier. Le Cirque du Soleil has grown ever since, with backing from both the Canadian and Quebec Governments and several corporations.

The 28 performers of the troupe are mainly in their 20’s and not bound by old approaches. In a reversal of the usual roles, women occasionally lift up the men in the acrobatic numbers. And audience rapport is helped by the fact that the troupe’s blue-and-gold tent seats only 1,750 people.

This circus makes little use of conventional clown stunts and at times seems to mock that tradition. “We hate circuses the way they’re done right now,” said Denis Lacombe, who is the troupe’s leading clown. Mr. Lacombe, who prefers to call himself a “visual comedian,” presents one of the shows most crowd-pleasing acts: a portrayal of a symphony conductor who gets carried away by Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” swaying so hard that his body is parallel to the floor. Mr. Lacombe performed the same act last year with the Big Apple Circus.

Fred D. Pfening 3d, president of the Circus Historical Society, an organization of circus enthusiasts in Columbus, Ohio, said he believed that by appealing to adults, Le Cirque du Soleil attracts new audiences to the circus. “It was almost like watching a Broadway production about a circus,” he said. “They’ve brought the yuppies back to the big top.”

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By: Mel Gussow | New York Times
June 5, 1988

The Cirque du Soleil is not only a captivating entertainment, it also provides a cautionary lesson in a theatrical time when musicals are becoming more elaborate and more expensive. With Cirque du Soleil, the French-Canadian one-ring circus scheduled to conclude its brief run in Battery Park City next Sunday, less is, legitimately, more.

Take, for example, the climactic sequence, “Tower on Wheels.” In related circumstances in a three-ring circus, this might be an extravaganza with gymnasts jumping back and forth on motorcyles or on the backs of prancing horses while above adjoining rings high flyers switched trapezes in mid-air. Here the act is performed with one bicycle, whose rider is joined by three friends, then by three more, and so on, until, before we know it, 13 people are perched on a bicycle built for one. The cycle is so layered with passengers that it is almost invisible as it glides smoothly around the ring. To emphasize the fact that a single cyclist can be the equivalent of a one-man band, Luc Tremblay rides a bicycle into the arena and takes no passengers. He flips, turns, spins on one wheel, rides backwards and treats the vehicle as an extension of his own anatomy.

At such moments as this the Cirque du Soleil is imaginative in the extreme (and certainly indebted to Chinese acrobats, some of whom act as trainers). Not only has the company banished all animals from its acts, it offers no large-scale production numbers and has severely limited its use of mechanical equipment. Though we are sitting in a big tent, with, at capacity, some 1,700 other patrons, this is an intimate backyard circus, the lower-case garden variety, and its considerable pleasures are enhanced by being so close to the action. We do not have to strain our eyes or our necks to catch a distant flip in the sky. Despite all the pre-opening fanfare that made it sound as if the Cirque du Soleil were unique, the troupe has to be considered within a context. This is not the first small circus to make a large impression. One-ring circuses tour throughout Europe. The Big Apple Circus is a New York favorite and the Pickle Family Circus is an equally admired company in San Francisco. Among other migrant troupes, there has also been Le Cirque Imaginaire, the fanciful, two-man, toy circus, invented by Victoria Chaplin and her husband, Jean Baptiste Thierree, and in several locations in New York it has been possible to see Huck Snyder’s vest-pocket play entitled “Circus,” in which actors portray animals. Though it is on a grander scale, in common with Ms. Chaplin’s and Mr. Snyder’s companies, the Cirque du Soleil is an adjunct to performance art.

Following tradition, the Big Apple Circus is a series of acts, some more appealing than others, only glancingly linked by an annual motif. The Cirque du Soleil is a cirque with a difference. It offers a cohesive theater piece – conceptual art in perpetual motion. The individual acts flow into one another, unified by music, movement and point of view. The principal idea, which sounds simpler than it actually is, is that anybody can do anything, that the most ordinary person can be transformed into an equilibrist – with, of course, a maximum of practice and determination. One does not have to train with a flying fraternity of Wallendas or Gaonas in order to win circus wings. In fact, many of the members of the resourceful company have a double or triple expertise and all are marked by their youthful vitality.

As Agatha Olivier and Antoine Rigot dance and change places on a low wire, sometimes to the tune of Mr. Rigot’s oboe, the two are like incarnations of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan, practicing in a secluded country garden. They are experts in slow motion. On the other hand, there are Jacqueline Williams and Andrew Watson, spinning each other at a high speed on a high trapeze (without benefit of a safety net). They twirl so quickly they become a blur.

Slow or fast, these performers are perfectionists, including Angela Laurier who, using her body as her instrument, raises contortionism to an art. Twisting her apparently boneless frame into awesomely intricate positions, she seems to have grown additional limbs – whose legs are those around her head? As is also true of her fellow performers, she makes the effortful look easy.

Although there is humor in some of the acts, such as the teeterboard ensemble, whose shower-capped members look like refugees from Woody Allen’s futuristic “Sleeper,” the Cirque du Soleil is weakest in the clown department (a weakness shared by the Big Apple Circus, whose funniest performers are elephants). Denis Lacombe’s slapstick stunts, especially his conducting of an imaginary orchestra while his feet are strapped in “lean shoes” on a trampoline, has a manic fervor. But Mr. Lacombe is not to humor what the artful Eric Varelas and Amelie Demay are to balancing acts (each takes a turn in balancing the other upside down on his head). Also, there were too many forced attempts at involving reluctant members of the audience in routines.

Watching these clowns go through their moves, one wishes for one of the Olympian gymnasts of New Vaudeville comedy to enter the ring. Many of them polished their techniques with the Pickle Family and other circuses, and are throwbacks to the clowns of silent movies. One might suggest that the Cirque du Soleil performing artists are themselves throwbacks to the saltimbanques, the circus performers recorded in paintings by Picasso. The Cirque du Soleil shares that saltimbanque feeling of spontaneity, of theater being created as we watch it. As such, the company is in stunning contrast to the computerized, overamplified world of Broadway show business.

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By Herbert H. Denton | Washington Post
September 4, 1988

In the dreamy, opening scene of the performance of Cirque du Soleil, the sassy and poetic, avant-garde French-Canadian circus that debuts Friday in Washington, a ragtag collection of backwoodsy Quebecer types totters into the ring, the men in their loud, mismatched plaids, the plain-jane women in kerchiefs and aprons, and they are magically transformed one by one into dazzling circus performers.

What is truly amazing about that little fairy tale routine is that something like it actually happened in real life. In the true story, a bunch of vagabond Quebec buskers, street performers in their twenties and early thirties who shared the outrageous fantasy that they could create a new kind of circus without freaks or animals, a hip one-ring circus that would be wildly cheered across North America, joined forces four years ago and, with a lot of pluck and a lot of help from the government, surprised nearly everyone, most of all their parents, and succeeded beyond all expectations.

Performing under the bright, blue-and-yellow striped big top of Cirque du Soleil — literally, the “Circus of the Sun” — are trapeze artists, jugglers, acrobats, contortionists and clowns, and an act in which 13 performers climb onto one bicycle and wheel around the ring. But forget about the musty old Barnum & Bailey-style circus. Think about the musical “Cats.” This is a fluid, modern circus with music, lighting and circus feats seamlessly interwoven. The troupe worries as much about the artistry of its stunts as it does about technique. There are lots of high-tech special effects; the performers segue from one act to another with choreographed dirty dancing to the rhythms of sensual tangos and syncopated reggae beats. The humor is fresh, set in the year 1988. It is a circus that lives up to its feminist ideals by having a standing, sylphlike young woman performer balance her male partner atop her head.

The playful performers and creators of Cirque say one of their aims is to surprise and unsettle spectators. Nobody does that better than the pugnacious clown with the stage name of Benny le Grand who wanders through the crowd before the show begins, hectoring ticket holders as they search for their seats. Sometimes he snatches women’s pocketbooks and examines the contents. On occasion, he will mischievously spray perfume from a stolen purse on others in the crowd. “Whatsa matter?” le Grand shrieked at some somber customers who came to see the troupe perform in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City this past spring. “Didja get into a bad batch of Valium?”

Before they ran off to the streets to begin inventing the nouveau circus, the founding members of Cirque had led fairly ordinary lives. Gilles Ste.-Croix, now 38, studied architecture before deciding to chuck it all and found happiness performing on stilts in the streets. “I was brought up to be a very serious guy,” he says now.

Technical director Richard Bouthillier, 35, worked as a railway diesel mechanic, which he says was good training for the circus. “Doing the job of technical director is doing a lot of pipe fitting. Everything is custom-made.” Cirque’s “Queen of the Night,” contortionist Angela Laurier, 26, whose insectlike inverted-body bends are among the hits of the show, used to worry her father when as a child growing up in Montreal she not only would twist her body in weird shapes and bring her legs backwards over her head for fun but also persisted in trying to teach neighborhood children how to do that. “Now he’s happy,” she says, “but he still asks me what I’m going to do with my future.”

Guy Laliberte’, 29, the cocksure president and driving force of Cirque, had been in a post-high school course preparing to study nuclear engineering when he decided to drop out and play an accordion on the streets. Later, he learned how to juggle and then to breathe fire. Although his parents were anguished by his decision to quit school, they were probably not all that surprised. Earlier, at the wise old age of 14, he had left home, leaving behind a note that, among other justifications for his bold act, quoted the cult philosopher Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s call to life.” He is so proud of that youthful wisdom that he now describes the incident in his autobiographical blurb in Cirque’s souvenir program.

The roughly $10 million-a-year operation the founding trio built got rave reviews when it first appeared in the United States last year at the Los Angeles Festival, or as Quebec newspapers put it at the time, went south of the border for the “conquest of California.” It also won effusive praise from New York critics this spring. In a breathless paean of a review, The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff gushed, “To say, as everyone does, that Cirque du Soleil has no animals is akin to saying that Shakespeare has no prose in his plays.”

At their home base in Montreal, Cirque is extolled almost as much for its financial success as for its creative invention. Year by year since 1984, the troupe has increased the number of shows it performs and at the same time weaned itself from dependence on government funding. According to spokesmen, more than 90 percent of the funding comes from the box office. Although the circus itself is still a nonprofit organization, Laliberte’ and two partners have spun off the concessions as profit-making operations.

The enterprise reflects the confidence of a new generation of Quebecers who are less fixated with politics than were their inward-looking ’60s-generation brothers and sisters who toyed for a decade with the idea of having the province secede from Canada, before finally rejecting it in a referendum. After the long years of wearying political conflict, Quebecers have become less self-conscious, less introspective, more secure in the belief that their Gallic culture will endure as the distinct exception that it is in English-speaking North America. They are more confident, like the founders of Cirque, that they have something to show off to the rest of the world.

Although government grants from the regime of separatist Quebec Premier Rene Levesque gave Cirque the money to turn the dream into reality, Laliberte’ says he and most of the other street performers involved in its creation had not been very political. Instead they had for the most part favored Quebec’s now-defunct satirical Rhinoceros Party, which intended among other things to sell patronage jobs for $15 a post.

Out of the politics of the absurd, there has emerged, mystifyingly, a new civil religion in Quebec, the gospel according to Adam Smith. It is an ethos that has prompted long lines to get into business schools and a mind set that has helped to spawn a whole new class of French-Canadian yuppies with BMWs and gentrified homes. The partners in Cirque are very much a part of that trend. Laliberte’, for one, likes to refer to himself as a marchand de bonheur, a “happiness merchant.”

“We’re action people and I think that is the big difference in our generation,” he said in an interview just before the group finished playing for a month this summer to adoring, packed houses on Toronto’s lakefront.

“We have that Latin blood in us and we realized that in North America we could turn that to our advantage,” he went on exuberantly, punctuating his comments with frenzied gesturing. “We do believe in our creativity.”

Although Canada has no indigenous circus tradition, there had long been the dream of starting one, especially among the legions of street performers and government cultural officials. In 1980, the government established a Circus School in Montreal that has become something of a prep school for Cirque.

Cirque did not get started until 1984 when Laliberte’ and company persuaded somewhat skeptical government officials that they could put on a touring circus as part of the celebration of the 450th anniversary of explorer Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada and were awarded a $1.6 million grant. The core group had previously put on a provincial festival of Quebec’s street performers, but in truth, the organizers did not know very much about putting on a circus, and, most critical of all, none of them knew how to pitch a tent. And neither did the man they hired to do it. Just after the alleged tent master put it up, there was a heavy downpour that blew it to the ground. But the show had to go on and for its first efforts, Cirque performed outdoors or in local arenas of Quebec while the damaged big top was being repaired.

But the show, even staged unexpectedly alfresco, proved to be a big hit from the beginning, and the troupe traveled the province constantly experimenting and altering its acts. They were avid students when circuses from Europe and China came to Canada, and began traveling abroad both to recruit performers and borrow techniques.

Acrobat Ame’lie Demay, 19, and her partner came from Paris, where both had attended circus school. She says she enjoys being in the troupe because people are so open to new ideas about acts. “I think they have a very different way of thinking,” she says of the Quebecers. “They are French but we are in the continent of North America. In Paris, someone once said to me that in America you can be at the top of the world in a month, {in Paris} it will take you a lifetime.”

Debra Brown, a dance choreographer and gymnast coach, was so excited when she saw Cirque perform in Vancouver two years ago that she went backstage after the show and volunteered her services, explaining some of her ideas for bringing more style and coherence to the performance. She was hired.

“Our goal was to get the circus back to where it was at the beginning of the century when it was a recognized art, just like opera was,” says artistic director Ste.-Croix. “So in that sense, we are really reinventing the circus. We’re a young group and we think that if you live in the 1980s, you ought to have that in your show as well.”

In their salad days, the core group of performers who created Cirque traveled around Quebec in a beat-up old school bus that served both as sleeping quarters and a storage facility for props. But, the long caravan of 52 trucks, trailers and semis that will roll into Washington and set up on the Mall across from the Air and Space Museum is considerably more elaborate.

About half the touring group of 85, roughly 28 of whom are performers, will live onsite, as they do whenever they travel. The operation is virtually self-sustaining, bringing in its own power generators and a traveling French restaurant that serves 300 elaborate meals each day to members of the company. There is a laundry and shower trailer and a classroom for young performers and the dozen or so school-age children who travel with their parents and are instructed by two teachers in the entourage. Among other facilities, there is a massage trailer, a welding shop and dressing and makeup rooms.

But as the operation itself has gotten more elaborate, the organizers have strived to maintain the intimacy of the show itself. The tent is only 140 feet in diameter and seats 1,700 people, so that no one in the audience is more than 15 rows from the ring. “The intimacy is very important to the show,” said Cirque’s chief publicist Jean He’on. “We want you to see the expressions on the performers’ faces. We want you to see them sweat.”

The Washington tour is scheduled for only two weeks, which is standard for Cirque. But in other cities runs have been extended by popular demand.

“My dream is to bring all the people of different opinions under one big top,” says the frenetic president Laliberte’. “You know, I think people should take more time to laugh.”

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By Martha Sherrill Dailey | Washington Post
September 8, 1988

Five stories up in the air, on top of a rising circus tent, a couple of guys slide around. Another hangs from all fours on a taut wire rigging. They’ve pulled off their black T-shirts. They’ve wrapped them on their heads, turban-style. They all wear Ray-Bans, not eye patches. And still, they look like pirates.

“Hey, bay-beeee,” says one, leering from the rippling Big Top’s top. And from way up there, you can hear his Quebecois accent. Another guy claps.

Acrobatics, oui, but this isn’t the wire act. The real performers haven’t arrived. It’s just some of the Cirque du Soleil production crew of 25. Along with some local muscle, they are setting up their tent on the Mall. The French Canadian circus, which has landed next to the Air and Space Museum, opens tomorrow night.

“It’s easy today,” says Richard Bouthillier, technical director and vice president of the Cirque, under the bluest sky and whitest clouds in months. This athletic-looking man is in charge of the tent, and the 460 tons of stuff it takes to conjure up a one-ring circus. “No rain. No heat. No wind.”

Below the grinning pirates is the Cirque encampment. It takes up 140,000 square feet of Mall and looks very organized. There’s a careful circle of azure trailer cars and glossy red pickups that announce Cirque du Soleil in gourmet typeface and tiny gold stars. The name, the stars, the colors — everything looks as imported as Evian water.

Even the crew. They aren’t your seedy circus types. They hang out with real attitude. They are French, after all. Style prevails. There are lots of faded black jeans and good haircuts. (The average age is 28.) You don’t wonder if the clown’s an alcoholic and how the animals are being treated. There are no animals. There isn’t even sawdust. It’s a feel-good, hip circus. Maybe it’s not the Greatest Show on Earth, but it’s the cleanest. It’s a young, wholesome group — they smile a lot and touch your arm when they say good-bye.

Even the tent has style. But, then, what tent doesn’t? There isn’t a hokey phrase, exactly, for “under the Big Top” in French. They say “sous un chapiteau,” which means “under the capital.” It’s somewhat classy, you have to admit. But a tent is a tent, and the Cirque tent is a bright blue and gold — fat stripes — that screams CIRCUS! in a fairly inelegant way. At first sight of it you can almost hear charging band music, or smell the popcorn — but that’s about all you’d smell, since the only animal in sight is a black Scottie.

The tent is new, purchased four months ago from Bourdin Enterprises in France. It cost $300,000, red poles, cupole, cornices, chains and pegs not included. It’s made of shiny PVC, not canvas. “After three years of touring, the old one was getting worn out,” says Bouthillier. “And it was leaking a lot. We have a wood circus ring and bicycle acts. We had to be careful they didn’t slip and hurt themselves.”

It holds 1,734 people — 400 chairs, and grandstands with cushions for the rest. It’s big enough to hold the wooden ring, the moody purple theater lights, the five-piece band with synthesizers, the clowns and trapeze. Big enough to hold the standing ovations that Cirque du Soleil has gotten in Santa Monica, San Francisco, New York and Toronto. But there’s a lot of talk about intimacy.

“The front row could put their feet on the circus ring — but they are not allowed to,” says Bouthillier, wholesome as the rest of the Cirques. He has been with the show for eight years — since before it was officially a circus — and lives on the road with his whole family. His 8-year-old daughter Annie performs in the bicycle act — 13 people on one bike (they must have needed someone little). His wife Marie works in the ticket office, and his 4-year-old son Jean-Cimon grows and plays all day.

And he knows everything about tents. Bouthillier is a “tentmaster,” as they say. His idol, the tentmaster of tentmasters, is nearby — an aged, wiry fellow from Switzerland named Marcel Rosseel. Rosseel stands in the cool, dark shadow sous un chapiteau. Bouthillier doesn’t want to bother him. “He worked with the Circus Knie,” he explains. “He has put up tents all over the world for 40 years. Now he’s retired. He’s on pension. He’s just visiting Washington. He’s the greatest tentmaster in the world.”

Putting up the tent isn’t everything. The crew doubles up on jobs. The tent guys become welders, ushers, sound and light technicians, drivers.

“Everything fits like gears,” says Danny Pelchad, the preproduction director. He’s interrupted constantly with questions from the crew. (“Comment? Comment?” he jokes with them.) Pelchad has been in Washington a month — getting sewer permits, water permits, that kind of thing. But once the circus vans arrive at the site, 28 hours is all it takes to make camp. The pegs go down. The tent masts — the main supports — go up. The electrical system, phone system, water system and kitchen are set up. And then the tent, the bleachers, the stage ring, the lights.

Very last, a wooden sidewalk is laid over the grass, around the tent’s edge. “It’s the only circus that when you walk,” says Pelchad, “it’s not in the mud.”

Jean He’on takes off his sunglasses and relaxes over coffee on the terrace of the portable kitchen. He is used to talking about the Cirque. He’s the press attache’; he should be in a Campari ad. “The kitchen is the main room,” says He’on. “It’s the soul of the company. It’s where we all hang out.”

The we are the 85 Cirque members on the road. Half of them have taken over a local Holiday Inn — probably in a big way. The other half live on site, mostly in the kitchen, where there is cafe’ cre`me and cappuccino all day. There, He’on is joined by a sudden herd of crew members — some of them Washington free-lance technicians. There are wraparound Polaroids on top of heads. More black T-shirts. Orange leggings. Shaggy hair.

“I can unicycle and I can juggle,” says Julie Howard, 24, a student at George Washington University. After reading about Cirque du Soleil in the newspapers, Howard looked into helping out. A wee thing from Liverpool, England, she’s been lifting and hammering with all the big guys. “Oh, they are really fun,” she says of the troupe. “Yesterday it was the best. We were hanging out and someone shouted: Everyone to the Big Top! We gathered together and helped roll down the sides. It was like a scene from a movie.”

“Yeah, like a Fellini movie,” says Lorraine Dozer, 24, who describes herself as a “roadie from Ithaca.” She’s used to following rock bands around, setting up the sound equipment. “I came down from New York for four days to help put up the circus,” she says. “I have a 6-year-old daughter back there, in her first week of school. I can’t wait to go back and tell her about being here. It’s such a romantic thing.”

“Yeah,” says Howard, scowling. She isn’t all that thrilled about going back to school, ever. “I feel like I’ve run away. I’d stay if they’d have me.”

* * * * *

By David Richards | Washington Post
September 12, 1988

A round-faced, flaxen-haired French Canadian, Guy Laliberte’, is credited with founding Cirque du Soleil. But I can’t help wondering if somehow Lewis Carroll, Federico Fellini and Louis XIV didn’t also have their say in the way things turned out — which is remarkably, indeed.

Forget your preconceptions about the circus — and your prejudices, too. Circus of the Sun, as it is all too mundanely translated, is a creation unto itself.

You can watch it for the audacity of the youthful performers, who lend themselves joyfully to the tightrope and the teeterboard, climb in impossible numbers onto a single bicycle and do perilous handstands on a stack of wooden chairs.

You can watch it for the constant shimmer and swirl of color — an effect that might otherwise be achieved by dynamiting a ragpicker’s bag and then filming the explosion in slow motion.

Or you can watch it as a foray into the wonderland of the subconscious, where logic is suspended, fantasies prevail and our lumpen selves soar through the air. In the end, that may be this lovely show’s deepest appeal. It has both the terrible clarity and the sweet evanescence of our dreams.

Operating out of a yellow and blue tent on the Mall, Cirque du Soleil opened its flaps this past weekend on a run that has already been extended until Sept. 25. At that, the engagement is ludicrously short, considering the throngs that will be laying siege to the ticket booth. Condescending to no one, this outing truly qualifies as entertainment for the whole family.

Cirque du Soleil is the antithesis of everything we’ve been raised to think a circus extravaganza should be. There isn’t a wild beast in sight, if you discount Benny Le Grand, a clown given to amusingly aggressive behavior. The band is made up of five musicians, playing a fluid rock-jazz score that wraps around the performers like a charmed snake. No ringmaster blows a shrill whistle to direct eyes to this or that corner of the big top. The spectacle has been so adroitly staged and choreographed that there’s never the slightest question where you should be looking.

To an endeavor usually marked by excess and a brawling vulgarity, Cirque du Soleil brings an artist’s sensibility and a decorator’s taste. If Barnum & Bailey is the K mart of circuses, then this is the designer boutique. The display counts as much as the merchandise. Even the logistics of setting up an act or changing the scene have been inventively incorporated into the flow.

It all begins when a group of ragged peasants, as round of cheek as they are wide of eye, stumbles into the darkened ring. As it dawns on them where they are, they make a few awkward stabs at entertaining an imaginary crowd. Silly, potato-like creatures they are, until the mists, magically gathering at their feet, envelop them, and the Queen of the Night (Angela Laurier) transforms them into the supple creatures who will beguile us for a couple of hours.

The bill features its share of astonishing acts. Laurier herself is a first-rate contortionist, whose spidery delicacy prompts comparisons to a daddy-longlegs even as her flashing phosphorescent eyes suggest a dangerous black widow. To the pulsating beat of a tango, Eric Varelas and Ame’lie Demay engage in the rigorous art of hand balancing. That generally means that she is upside down, her head in his raised hand, unless it is the other way around. Sometimes, however, she does her headstand on his head. That the two are mere slips of things further beggars the imagination.

On the tightrope, Agathe Olivier and Antoine Rigot conduct themselves like woodland sprites, gamboling and leaping about with no awareness, apparently, that they do not have a grassy knoll underfoot. He turns flips; she crosses the wire on point. Later, meeting midway, they simply slip past one another without so much as a jostle or an “excuse me.” Don’t ask me how.

As for Andrew Watson and Jacqueline Williams, they work from a bar at the very top of the tent. Joined only at the wrist, they perform some dazzling aerial twirls and twists. Turnabout being fair play — or, perhaps, this just being an age of sexual equality — she gets her chance to dangle him in space. The climax comes with one of them — I won’t say which — taking a startling leap into the void.

Heart-stopping as such moments can be, it would be folly to pretend other circuses don’t boast as much. Plucked out of context, in fact, some of the acts in Cirque du Soleil are downright pedestrian. The juggler (Daniel Le Bateleur) relies more on optical illusion than dexterity to achieve his effects, which are limited. By the same token, while it may be surprising to see a dozen or so bodies squeezed on a bicycle, as feats go, it’s really not that far removed from the 1950s fraternity fad for packing telephone booths. Using the teeterboard for leverage, the troupe manages to construct a human tower three persons tall. But I’ve seen five elsewhere.

The difference, I daresay, is the packaging. Take, for example, those teeterboard acrobats. They have been costumed like new age penguins — with yellow face masks, black derbies and fuzzy briefcases at their waddling sides — and between tricks they scurry about as if they were headed off to work on Wall Street. The precision choreography does a lot to dress up the number, and provide it with resonance beyond the actual stunts.

Another factor also enters into play. Wherever you sit under the tent, you will have a close-up view of the performers. And frankly, when it’s all but performed in your lap, a simple flip off a teeterboard is more impressive than a triple somersault undertaken by a performer so far away he could be an ant. Here you actually see the sweat, the concentration, the spontaneous smiles of accomplishment.

The Barnum & Bailey approach has always been to confront the spectator with three sets of trapeze artists, a dog act and a jalopy spewing forth clowns, all at the same time. Underlying such profligacy is the cynical notion that the only way to astonish the jaded public is to lard it on. Not so. Cirque du Soleil astonishes by restoring a human dimension to the proceedings.

No one benefits as much as the clowns, probably because the clown, if he is to be more than just a sight gag, counts on his rapport with the spectators. From the start, Benny Le Grand makes it clear that he is no respecter of audiences and that misbehavers can expect his wrath. If not his wrath, then a healthy squirt of water. Or even a bucket over the head. He’s all around the tent — his bulbous red nose leading the way, his flyaway hair catching up the rear — the self-appointed principal in the anarchic school of life.

Denis Lacombe is the other zany, although he himself tends to be the victim of his rampages. As a mechanical wind-up doll, he comes across a trunk full of cream pies, emits a shriek of delight and then proceeds to hit himself repeatedly in the puss with the splattering pastries. Later, he returns as a disheveled maestro, who conducts the “1812” Overture with such vigor that his swooping body very nearly touches the floor. It’s done with trick shoes, but Lacombe has you believing the music has carried him away.

And yet whatever is happening, one of the round-faced peasants is never far away — gaping, as we are, at the miracles or trying with sweet clumsiness to duplicate them. They are our surrogates at the fete, until the pastel clouds start billowing into the ring once again and the performers vanish from view.

From dust to dust, the Bible says. From colored mists to colored mists, counters Cirque du Soleil.

# # #

That’s all I have room for in this issue, but there’s plenty more to come!

• Issue #162, JUL 2017 – Le Cirque Réinventé, Part 3 (1989)
• Issue #163, AUG 2017 – Nouvelle Expérience, Part 1 (1990)
• Issue #164, SEP 2017 – Nouvelle Expérience, Part 2 (1991)
• Issue #165, OCT 2017 – Saltimbanco, Part 1 (1992)
• Issue #166, NOV 2017 – Saltimbanco, Part 2 (1993)
• Issue #167, DEC 2017 – Alegría, Part 1 (1994)
• Issue #168, JAN 2018 – Alegría, Part 2 (1995)
• Issue #169, FEB 2018 – Quidam, Part 1 (1996-1997)
• Issue #170, MAR 2018 – Quidam, Part 2 (1998)
• Issue #171, APR 2018 – Dralion, Part 1 (1999-2001)
• Issue #172, MAY 2018 – Dralion, Part 2 (2001-2003)
• Issue #173, JUN 2018 – Varekai, Part 1 (2002)
• Issue #174, JUL 2018 – Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)
• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)