We’re Off and Running, Part 3:
Le Cirque Réinventé, Part 3 (1989)

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. This month we continue looking at 1989’s reviews of Le Cirque Réinventé.

# # #

By: John Hughes | Sun Sentinel
April 5, 1989

So here is James Keylon, 41-year-old former pharmacist in black high-tops and baggy shorts, “le blanc” to Benny LeGrand, wearing little more than rollerblade skates and a 42-year-old rubber face, “le rouge.” Each is sweating out the gritty business of acting less than his age under a big top suspiciously free of the smell of elephant leftovers.

And here in an adjoining tent are youngsters half that age, stretching their bodies before rehearsing precarious balancing acts that require as much guts as muscle. A glance says that these kids have ample doses of each.

Outside are trailers with foreign plates and loaded odometers, abandoned more than arranged to form a dusty community of vagabonds inside the more carefully designed northeast Dade County community that is the Waterways at Aventura.

It is nasty hot inside the blue and yellow tent that marks the site at Northeast 207th Street as the launching point for 1989’s version of Cirque du Soleil. The troupe arrived from Canada three weeks ago, but the air conditioner is still on the way, making this a fitting day for the Circus of the Sun.

Benny LeGrand (translate: The Big Benny?), circles Keylon in controlled gracelessness, aiming exaggerated and distorted expressions at the crew overseeing this afternoon rehearsal. LeGrand’s ridiculous behavior is appropriate for the equally ridiculous song he is sort of singing. It’s something about PCBs and hair spray and dioxins, set to a screechy country- western melody and a Canadian accent.

The crew has seen LeGrand before, yet laughs are unavoidable, even though predictable. Less predictable is how Cirque du Soleil defines what a circus ought to be.

Forget what you know about circuses. You haven’t seen this one before, unless you’ve seen a version of it on a current HBO special. It’s never been in Florida and didn’t make it south of the Canadian border until a West Coast tour late in 1987.

Its motto is “We reinvent the circus.”

The reinvention begins with guys like Keylon, who would rather be a clown than a pharmacist, who prefer traveling with a troupe but would otherwise perform in the street. “I was a pharmacist for 10 years,” Keylon says. “I got bored with pharmacy, so I went to Paris and studied mime at Marcel Marceau’s school in Paris.” Of course. Then he became a ballet dancer. Then a clown.

In the language of French-speaking comedy, Keylon is “le blanc,” the white, as opposed to being “le rouge,” the red. Reds are the funny guys. Whites are the straight men. “I’m the intelligent fool,” says Keylon. “I’m a white, and this year they needed a white to be ringmaster, so they got me.” The job takes Keylon way beyond the “Ladies and Gentlemen!” boundaries of the traditional ringmaster.

It is part of Keylon’s role to not simply introduce the next group of performers, but to help weave a story line throughout the two-hour performance.

In “reinventing” the circus, Cirque du Soleil combines elements from the stage, vaudeville, gymnastics and, yes, the Greatest Show on Earth, into a story, a fantasy tale that mixes dance with daredevil.

There are no animals in this circus and the big top is a relatively small top, with seats for about 1,700. One ring, one tent, small enough that you can see the eyes of the trapeze artists. No net. Lots of talent — carved from the world’s toughest audiences on the streets of Canada and France. And from athletic competition, as in the case of two Bulgarians in this year’s performance who are world champions in rhythmic gymnastics. And even from the Canadian Grand Ballet, from which a Nutcracker defected to the circus.

Cirque du Soleil began in 1984, inspired by street theater and conceived by Guy Laliberté, who was 24 at the time, a college dropout, wandering minstrel, fire-breather, stilt-walker and big-time loser when it came to getting bank financing for his dream cirque.

Laliberté had organized Canadian street festivals since 1981 and based on their success, the Counseil Des Arts of Canada gave him a grant that helped pay most of 1984’s expenses. That year the Cirque toured Quebec province to reviews and receptions that sparked its current success as an almost-self- supported artistic enterprise that tours eight months a year, with a troupe of about 90, a traveling cafeteria, communications office and a live band that composes music to fit each act.

After almost a month of rehearsals, Cirque du Soleil will open on April 13 for 12 performances.

When it made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles, Cirque was such a hit that a three-week run was extended by four months. Columbia Pictures bought film rights. Life magazine did a photo spread; so did Vanity Fair. When it played New York, theater critic Clive Barnes called Cirque “Odd, but terrific. Absolutely terrific.”

Keylon, the pharmacist-turned-performer, says that Cirque du Soleil works because it combines so many diverse elements, and takes away one — the “fourth wall,” which separates theatrical actors from their audiences. The performers in Cirque du Soleil get right in your face, Keylon says.

“The theater is going more toward spectacle, with plays like Cats and Starlight Express,” says Keylon, who in addition to being a mime/clown/ dancer, is also a playwright. “But in theater they use acting as a base, and try to teach skill. Here, we’re using skill as a base which expands into acting.”

Cirque du Soleil’s story line is simple and childishly fantastic. It begins with a group of common people ambling into the circus ring, where they’re magically transformed into exquisite performers. “The audience can read what they want to into the show — the businessman, the housewife, the child who dreams of everything,” Keylon says. This gets them away to a land they never dreamed of.”

The story of the ordinary villager who becomes a polished ringmaster in Cirque du Soleil’s fantasy is closer to realism than magic in Keylon’s case. As a pharmacist in Vancouver, Keylon says he was “happy, but not content.”

“There was no upward road,” he says. “In pharmacy, there’s no place you can go except to chief pharmacist or something, which is boring.”

But if you leave your job as a pharmacist, go to Paris, end up as a street performer, the upward road is in almost any direction.

Before he was a pharmacist, Keylon might have been a football player. He played the game in Canada, where he was a high school quarterback and tight end. Then he went to the University of Oklahoma, where he was too small to play, even if he’d been asked. But Keylon had a more prohibitive handicap.

“I liked football because it is a performance,” he says. “I was more concerned with the audience than with the game. I would be out there during a game and all I thought of was the crowd, and the cheering…” And the performance. The art.

Keylon says that neither the school in Paris nor the dancing lessons, not even football, taught him to be a performer. That lesson was learned on the streets, which is the same school attended by many of Keylon’s colleagues in Cirque du Soleil. In this circus, jugglers, fire-breathers, bicycle riders and creators of unexplainable balancing routines — young gypsies and middle-aged clowns — find a home and a stage for street-corner talent.

“The street is spontaneous,” Keylon says. “In the streets, the crowd is much more critical. The street forces you to be good. In the streets they pay you after the performance.”

* * * * *

By: Sid Smith | Chicago Tribune
April 6, 1989

Cirque du Soleil, an internationally acclaimed, avant-garde circus from Montreal, will receive its Chicago debut May 18-28 in its own big top tent to be erected on an empty lot south of the waterway known as the Ogden slip. The site is in the Cityfront Center complex, bordered by the North Pier mall on the north, North Water Street on the south, McClurg Court on the west and Lake Shore Drive on the east.

The 35-member troupe, created in 1984 to celebrate Quebec’s 450th birthday, takes a novel approach to the traditional circus offerings of tumblers, clowns, acrobats, aerialists and tightrope walkers. The presentation is put on in the manner of a stage play with a simple plot, revolving around a group of villagers who stumble into a circus ring and magically become entertainers.

The show, which has no animal acts, employs an original jazz-rock score and staging effects that have been likened to the style of contemporary video. Cirque du Soleil will be launching a new, embellished show with its Chicago engagement, featuring the Shandong Troupe of China in the circus’ “rola bola” balancing act and a championship Bulgarian gymnastic team.

Cirque was founded by Guy Laliberté, a one-time wandering minstrel, student of nuclear engineering and aficionado of Hawaiian fire-breathing artistry. The troupe made its United States debut in 1987 in Los Angeles, playing to sellout crowds and rave reviews there and in later engagements in San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C., Santa Monica and San Diego.

While in Chicago, the performers and their directors will reside in a portable village set up on the Cityfront Center grounds, including lodging quarters and their own fully-equipped French commissary, which serves 300 meals a day.

* * * * *

By: Pat Curry | Sun-Sentinel
April 13, 1989

They are everywhere, these nimble sprites garbed in swirls of fuchsia and purple. But it is not enough that they leap and tumble and fly through the air. In mischievous glee, they draw mortals into their fog-filled realm of magic, twirling and tugging the hapless humans like marionettes.

The elegant lady in evening dress becomes a ballerina on the tightrope, balancing effortlessly on her toes. The frumpy businessman in thick glasses is crowned the ringmaster in this circus of the sun, the Cirque du Soleil.

This is a theatrical circus opening tonight in North Miami, entertainment at its most sophisticated, a new creation upon which a tradition can be built.

“We try to do with the acts as we would do in theater,” said director Michel Barette, who stepped out of the spotlight as the ringmaster this year after more than 1,000 performances. “We use them as emotional triggers to make the audience go from one emotion to another.”

Those who have seen the show in other cities will enjoy a new production here, which is the South Florida debut and the kickoff for the 1989 U.S. tour, Barette said.

“The acts are technically improved, and there are new acts, more comedy,” he said. “We have drafted some real actors and dancers. About 65 percent of the music is new because the acts are new. It’s a quasi-new show.”

One thing isn’t new: There still are no animals in this circus.

Rather, this one-ring circus has Olympic rhythmic gymnasts, Chinese acrobats, mimes and dancers, bicyclists, jugglers and a flying trapeze. There is original music, costumes rich in color and texture, flawless choreography and the funniest use ever of a picture frame and a piece of string.

The emphasis on theatrics and athleticism always has been the focus for Cirque du Soleil since it was first produced as a part of the 450th birthday of Quebec in 1984.

“The evolution has been show by show, city by city,” said its creator, Guy Laliberté. “We want always the artists to keep the passion and pleasure of what they’re doing. When you do 300 shows a year, you need flexibility.”

So there are subtle changes in presentation, he said. The chair-balancing act is as interesting for its vivid colors and geometric lines as for its acrobatics. The lighting, music and costumes play an integral part in all the performances.

As with any theatrical production, each act builds upon the last, so the caution is issued to be seated early. The opening is integral to following the rest of the performance, Barette said.

“The fairies come in and choose who will perform,” he said, once again outlining the plot. “It’s like a circus touring without all its performers. Then the magic gets in and changes a lot of expectations.”

* * * * *

By: Pat Curry | Sun-Sentinel
April 15, 1989

The Cirque du Soleil, Canada’s avant-garde theatrical circus, is everything you would never expect in a circus.

There are some familiar elements — a juggler, a tightrope artist, a trapeze act and teeterboard tumblers. But this is intimate, sophisticated and captivating theater, as much for its mood as its technical skill.

The performance opens with a magical tale of ordinary people transformed into circus performers by playful sprites.

Under a big top with only nine rows to the back of the tent, the troupe must indeed act as well as perform their routines. Facial expressions and movement are crucial to conveying the mood of each segment.

This is a circus where the audience is so close to the performers, there’s no need for the typically extreme makeup. You can see their faces, their concentration, and the smile breaking through after a well-executed move.

Aside from a case of opening-night jitters that came through in a few mistakes, the cast performed stunningly. A do-or-die attitude to keep trying until a move went off right kept the audience cheering during the kickoff to the 1989 U.S. tour.

The beginning of the transformation takes place in a chair-balancing act that is enthralling for its execution and its display.

The first marvel of the evening is juggler and contortionist Frederic Zipperlin, who emerges from what looks like a giant cellophane ball to perform an act that combines dance, juggling, acrobatics and balancing, set to a jazzy beat.

The music, all original, is perhaps as exciting as the performers, and certainly as integral in moving from comedy to sensuality to haunting drama. What other circus sells its sound tracks at the souvenir stand?

The audience took in stride an opening half-hour delay, thanks in part to the circus’s two clowns, Benny Le Grand and Balthazar. The 1/2-hour show is fast-paced and well-choreographed, although some routines between ringmaster James Keylon and the clowns tend to run a bit longer than the laughs.

Additions to the show this year include the acrobatics of the Shandong Troupe of China, a talented and winsome teen-age quartet. The trapeze act also features an unusual configuration, with two stationary catchers.

The performance concludes with a bicycle-balancing act and the astounding skill of Angelo Ballan as a solo bicyclist.

Although Balthazar uses a dust mop for a rather admirable imitation of a lion, don’t look for any animals at this circus. But you won’t miss them, either.

* * * * *

By: Sid Smith | Chicago Tribune
May 7, 1989

Benny “Le Grand,” a.k.a. Wayne Hronek, a clown and ex-cowboy whose gypsy, Czech-born grandparents traveled by covered wagon to stake a Canadian homestead, is unofficial Cirque du Soleil historian:

“I’m an old street performer and so is our founder, Guy Laliberté,” Le Grand says. “Quite a few of us started out that way, you know, surviving on Kraft dinners and passing the hat. There was a festival of street performers held every year outside Quebec, in a small place called Baie St. Paul, quiet, rustic, and a Woodstocky kind of area.

“For one week, hundreds of performers would show up to party, conduct workshops and put on their acts for tourists, sort of like a renaissance fair,” he adds. “Guy wasn’t the owner, but he was the idea man behind it, and someone eventually said to him, ‘Why don’t you take the festival of street performers on the road?’ ”

Cirque du Soleil (“Circus of the Sun”) has since become almost as cherished a Canadian emblem as the maple leaf. “We reinvent the circus,” boasts the ads, and no one who has seen them would argue the point. Everywhere they play, they cause at least a minor sensation, beginning with the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, where they arrived in November hoping to last until Christmas.

They didn’t leave until April. (“The Californians really did go crazy for us,” says one of the Montreal-based Cirque’s many French-Canadian workers. “We’re very young-the average age of the performers is 22-but also I think they liked that we’re so French. They love to pepper their conversation with French phrases in California, you know.”)

Perhaps, too, the much-maligned Californians know circus ingenuity when they see it. The Cirque allows no spangles, no stardust and no Las Vegas costumes. Much of the clothing is sporty, rainbow-colored, new wave-ish attire, and some of it is even artier, suggesting genies from a bottle or, in one acrobatic act, human penguins in derbies and tuxedoes. The lighting isn’t garish spotlights, but soft, pink-and-green theatrical shades, bolstered by such cadgy effects as billows from a fog machine and one entire sequence lit only by flashlight. There’s no piped-in calliope or organ music either-melodies come from a live, five-piece rock band.

And the only animals allowed are the trickiest of the litter-the human ones. Is this, many have asked, really a circus?

Chicagoans can answer for themselves beginning May 18, when the Cirque opens a 10-day visit to our shores. The shores in this case are literal. As elsewhere, the Cirque sets up its own big top (an air-conditioned, blue-and-tan tent) in an otherwise unused area of town, in this case, a bare plot just west of Lake Michigan, south of the new North Pier Terminal mall.

Those who go will see plenty of traditional circus fare: trapeze acts, clowns, teeterboard tumblers, jugglers, tightrope walkers and handstanding acrobats. But they’ll also go on a storytelling journey more typical of the stage than the circus tent. The show actually begins in the audience, where a dozen or so performers, clad in an assortment of street clothes, hide quietly, masquerading as ticketholders.

The performance begins as they are then “selected,” one by one, with a great deal of fanfare, to come into the ring and put on a little show. They make up a Capra-esque everyman’s village: A slouch-shouldered and bespectacled businessman, a prim schoolteacher, a little girl, a teenager in jersey and baseball cap.

Timidly, they perform a few pathetic tricks, showing off a couple of dance steps or maneuvering a simple handstand. Suddenly, amidst an explosion of light and smoke, an acrobat in turban and exotic golden costuming comes sailing out over the heads of these dowdy villagers. All are transformed (the bedraggled businessman becomes ringmaster in top hat and tails), and the Cirque is operating full force. Except that the metaphor of fantasy-invented- before-our-eyes never completely goes away.

The Cirque is not just a cavalcade of impressive acts; it’s also an ever- changing salute to the imaginary, woven in a spell with an ending as pointed and moving as a concoction from Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. Eventually, the “amateur” players return to the audience, transformed, on some level, forever. The idea, in part, is to transform us with them.

“Everyone has imagination, and the idea is that yours can take you as far as you want,” says Giles Ste. Croix, the Cirque’s artistic director. “In the end, when the ringmaster is returned to his street clothes, he’s left with his briefcase and his ringmaster hat. He throws away the case and keeps the hat. What we’re saying to the audience is, ‘Here is our show of magic and fantasy. Now, take it and use it however you want in your own life. But use it.’ ”

The nifty frame wasn’t always a part of the Cirque. As recently as 1986, it was only in vague outline-figures in trench coats coming into the ring and suddenly donning red noses. “Now, to put them in the audience, it means we can’t quite sell all the available tickets, and I get hell for that,” admits Ste. Croix. “But its part of what Le Cirque has been about from the beginning. At first, we were much more like a traditional circus, but much of that didn’t fit us. Circuses are part of a tradition, passed from family to family. But we didn’t have that tradition. We had to make it up. A lot of us came from the theater, so the theatrical elements were a natural place for us to turn to create our own tradition.

“That’s what it all stems from, really,” he continues. “So much circus tradition is American, but we’re not American. We’re from Quebec. Everything had to be communicated through our presentation. That’s why it’s more like a rock and roll show, with the lighting and music. That’s why, when you first walk into the tent, there’s almost a feeling of entering Ali Baba’s cave.

“We can’t compete acrobatically with the Russian teeterboard performers, but we go much farther in the way we present ours.”

Indeed, there are any number of individual “acts” of the Cirque, which, one by one, dazzle the audiences who see them. There’s Pasqualina, the French beauty and tightrope walker, whose skill includes walking the wire en pointe, in toe shoes; a quintet of dazzling trapeze artists; Mariela Spasova and Maia Taskova, two champion Bulgarian gymnasts, whose calisthenics go on as part of a dance with swirling streamers; and 13-year-old Hou Li, one of the troupe’s Chinese “rola bola” performers, who stands on a contraption atop a pair of shoulders, steadies himself on a board that balances on a cylinder, and, one by one, flips a half-dozen china bowls from one side of this footboard up through the air until they pile, one by one, on top of his head. (“The Chinese just joined the troupe this year,” explains Ste. Croix, “and, frankly, the first time we all sat and watched the act, we were speechless. We couldn’t believe it.”)

And yet, what distinguishes the Cirque is the way the acts all blend together, and the many individuals submerge themselves, as in a theatrical play, into a well-knit ensemble. At any given point, one can see these “stars” disguised in the Cirque’s red workman gear, setting up for the next act. Everybody takes turns helping out, and then towards the end, the performers join in multiple acts.

The finale, headlined by the ongoing acrobatic team who make up so much of the performance, is a bicycle extravaganza, topped when a single cyclist circles the ring carrying 12 fellow acrobats on his head, shoulders and anywhere else they can cling. This lone, barely visible acrobat, somewhat remarkably, and almost anonymously, brings the show to a finish by shouldering some 1,200 human pounds-in itself an act of support that mirrors the mechanics and spirit of the Cirque.

“That’s the challenge in choosing our performers,” says Ste. Croix.

“Nobody’s a star. Even a solo actor, like Pasqualina, has to help set up the trapeze net, serve as stand-in for the bicycle act and take part in the finale. They have to be open to the idea of participation.”

And to flexibility, to a willingness to learn new skills and take on new roles, he adds. That accounts in part for the troupe’s youth. Twenty-year-old Stephane Drouard came on board because of his trapeze background. Now, he’s also the turban-clad spirit who flies out over the heads of the first players to start the show. (“He’s unique among trapeze artists in that he always knows where he is in the air,” says Ste. Croix. “That particular maneuver requires that, because when he comes leaping out, the floor of the tent is covered with smoke. Few acrobats can manage that kind of leap not knowing where the floor actually is.”)

But that flexibility is key to some of the older talents as well. Benny Le Grand, twice the age of many of the performers, stays with the Cirque for that laissez-faire variability. “I’m like my own artistic director,” he says. “We’re building different clown acts all the time. They’ll be different by the time we get to Chicago. You have that kind of freedom. And naïveté. The youthfulness of it all is catching.”

In North Miami, where the Cirque recently launched its 10-city U. S. tour, half of its 30 performers brand new to the organization, Le Grand was strolling along the beach one day and spied one of the area’s telltale, fringed tourist carts, for golfing and beachcombing. He instantly put it into the act: At one point, during a dispute with the ringmaster, he takes an audience member backstage and they return in the cart, Le Grand acting as enthusiastic tour guide.

(“In Chicago, it’ll be something entirely different,” Le Grand says. “Maybe motorcycles, or even a pizza wagon.”)

While on tour, the circus is a traveling community as well as a cast of players. The 30 performers, 5 musicians and 55 support personnel eat their meals together at a special tent set up on the circus site wherever they travel. But they spend plenty of time in their host community, too, and they make their presence felt.

Along one section of beach in Miami, for instance, two of the acrobats worked out a deal with a local “jet-ski” operator, doing cartwheels and other stunts to lure customers in return for free rides. And one night a bunch of tumblers went to one of the area’s more exclusive restaurants, ordered a fancy meal and then sat back to wait for its arrival.

Next time, the waiters may try to serve them a little more quickly. When the servers arrived with the meal, their young customers were still at the table.

But, much to the astonishment of the rest of the clientele, they were all standing on their hands.

* * * * *

By: Richard Christiansen | Chicago Tribune
May 20, 1989

In all the world, there cannot be anything quite as joyous or enchanting as the Cirque du Soleil, which opened in Chicago Thursday night in an absolute blizzard of delight.

Cirque du Soleil, which means Circus of the Sun, is a show that comes to us from its home in Montreal. But do not worry about any of that. For what this show really is, is heaven-sent magic: the magic that great theater offers when it takes us from our ungainly world into a heightened, poetic universe in which grace, beauty and amazing power become delightfully, deliriously possible for humans even such as we.

For starters, the Cirque is a terrific circus; filled with unbelievable feats of juggling, balancing, bicycling, tightrope walking, teeter board bouncing and trapeze swinging. And the clowns, only two of them, are wonderful, their slapstick as inventive as the miraculous acts they precede.

(There are no animals in this youthful, spanking fresh one-ring circus, but the clowns, in a hilarious bit of audience participation, take care of that, too.)

What elevates the Cirque into sublimity, however, is the ingenious way in which it metaphorically but also literally takes us out of ourselves and transports us into a glorious orbit of colored lights, brilliant costumes and enrapturing sound.

And then, when it’s all over, and the final, incredible parade of extravagant beauty has climaxed, the show gently and joyously returns us to Earth, leaving us breathless and ecstatic with pleasure. (On a lovely evening, such as Thursday, coming out of the Cirque’s big striped tent set up at Cityfront Center and into the sparkling skyline of Chicago’s lakefront is an added bit of bewitchment.)

Tremendously sophisticated contemporary stage design has been used to create this magical illusion. Rock concert lighting, elaborate special effects, elegant choreography and a never-ending stream of new wave electronic music provided by a five-man band bring all the elements together and create a seamless wave of delight.

There are times when the balletic juggler drops a ball or a muscled trapeze artist misses a hairsbreadth handover; and, in perhaps the most spectacular act of all, it takes the youngster-who is balancing himself on a rola bola board perched on a table balanced on the shoulders of another acrobat who is balancing two young girls and himself on a rola bola placed on top of another table-a couple of tries to flip the fifth bowl into the four other bowls already balanced on his head.

But these imperfections must surely be there to assure us that the show’s 30 young wonders, whom we might otherwise mistake as heavenly beings, are human after all.

They’re glorious. Go see them. You’ll have the time of your life.

* * * * *

By: Albert Williams | Chicago Reader
May 25, 1989

“I’ve only been with this company for four months,” says Balthazar, the clown whose animalistic antics highlight the Cirque du Soleil. “But I’ve been part of its spirit since the beginning.”

The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil proclaims itself a “hip, new wave theatrical circus” dedicated to reinventing the ancient form. Founded in 1984 to help celebrate the 450th birthday of the Canadian province of Quebec, it sought to combine the stylishness and intimacy of the European circus with a jazzy festiveness North Americans would enjoy. One of the company’s guiding spirits since the beginning has been Guy Caron, who four years earlier had founded the National Circus School in Montreal. Balthazar credits Caron with introducing him to the circus as a profession.

“Twelve years ago, I was in college in Riviere du Loup, Quebec, studying to be a cultural organizer,” Balthazar recalls. “I happened to see a group of clowns. One of them was Guy Caron. I really enjoyed what I saw, and I decided to try and do the same.” Over the next few years, developed his style through street clowning and working private parties. Now, at 34, he says, “I’m known as an independent clown–I can work on my own or with a team.” When the Cirque du Soleil was putting together its 1989 international tour, Balthazar was available. “I’ve been on the road for four months,” he says, “and I don’t expect to get home till 1990.”

A native of Quebec, Balthazar is one of 30 stage performers the Cirque du Soleil has brought with it to Chicago. He and Benny le Grand are the troupe’s two clowns, but they don’t usually perform as a team. Le Grand, outfitted with an Albert Einstein wig and mustache, specializes in droll, deadpan slapstick interplay with ringmaster James Keylon. Balthazar, dark haired and clean shaven, is prone to pantomimes. In one, he imitates a fly trapped in a spider’s web. At a recent show, I happened to be chosen out of the audience to play a lion to Balthazar’s lion tamer. Balthazar waved me into the ring with a gentlemanly gesture and a polite but insistent gaze, outfitted me with a lion’s mane (a dust mop with the center cut out), and put me through my paces. Each time I obeyed–sitting on a tiny stool, opening my mouth and letting him put his head in it–he adopted a bravura pose to the audience’s laughter and applause, and then rewarded me with a lollipop. When he brought out a flaming metal hoop and encouraged me to jump through it, though, I handed him back his lollipops.

“Each time it’s different,” Balthazar says later of the lion-tamer bit. “I try more and more to put the rhythm of the piece into the hands of the partner. Some circuses make you do a set routine; here I’ve been hired for myself, and the act is my own.”

There are no real lions in the Cirque du Soleil, no tigers jumping about the stage in response to the crack of a whip, no elephants standing on their hind legs begging for peanuts. This is circus for the animal-rights era–and for the music-video age, each act is performed to a live jazz-rock score, with plenty of rock-and-roll lighting, stage fog, and trippy special effects to add dazzle to generally standard displays of physical prowess. The colorful costumes, blending contemporary chic with Renaissance commedia dell’arte styles, add an extra element of bold whimsy.

The young company–most of the performers are in their teens or early 20s, and several are current or former students at the National Circus School–delights the all-ages audience with aerial acrobatics, seesaw jumping, a hand-balancing pas de deux performed by Eric Varelas and Amelie Demay (two of the troupe’s most accomplished athletes), a tightrope ballet, a chair-balancing display, and “Rola Bola,” a routine in which the Shandong Troupe of China–two boys and two girls ranging from 13 to 15 years old–balance on boards placed over rolling cylinders and catch bowls on their heads.

The athletes give the show its excitement; yet, as with all circuses, it’s the clowns that win the heart.

* * * * *

By: Lawrence Bommer | Chicago Tribune
May 26, 1989

Benny Le Grand is one clown who loves to mock his work. At the end of each night’s performance with the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, now playing across from the North Pier Terminal, Benny gleefully tells the crowd they would have been better off if they’d spent the evening with a six-pack sitting in front of a television set. He even urges them to ask for their money back. But you can’t fool a circus crowd. Despite his self-effacement, Le Grand- his name especially chosen for its fulsome grandiosity-knows how to keep folks coming back for more. For one thing, he changes his act to suit each city the Cirque plays-and also varies it from night to night depending on the mood of the fans. Le Grand: “For Chicago, I’m going to make it a little rougher than usual. Chicago audiences seem pretty awake to me and they can take it.”

The “it” is Le Grand’s constant sparring, not just with the audience, but with ringmaster-mime Alfredo Di Carbonaro. Di Carbonaro, it seems, is what’s called in the trade a “white” clown, a sort of straight man who becomes the butt of ridicule for the Cirque’s two wild and crazy “red” clowns, Le Grand and Balthazar, the other master of mayhem.

Le Grand: “I keep letting the ringmaster know he’s boring, unfunny and without any talent”-which, of course, sets up an ongoing feud full of pratfalls and slapstick. Le Grand is also one of that rare breed, a theatrical clown who stays in character and deepens his personality as the show goes on. “Benny’s a klutzy guy who keeps trying to get to the top but never quite makes it,” he says.

Now appearing in what’s billed as Benny’s “9th Farewell World Tour” with the Cirque, Benny is so combustible the Cirque playfully issues a disclaimer: “The Management does not endorse any actions perpetrated by Benny Le Grand in the Ring or in the stands, and respectfully apologizes for said actions in advance.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

* * * * *

By: Misha Berson | LA Times
September 21, 1989

The first time Cirque du Soleil pitched its sky-blue-and-goldenrod-yellow big top on California soil, it was in Little Tokyo. The year was 1987; the targeted occasion, opening night of the Los Angeles Festival. According to Cirque founder-director Guy Laliberté, the entire future of the Montreal-based troupe was riding on that single show.

“If the critics didn’t like us, we wouldn’t have had the money to put gas in the trucks and get home,” said Laliberté recently in San Francisco, where Cirque was playing to 98% capacity houses. “We were gambling our whole circus on a one-night deal.”

That gamble paid off handsomely. Reviewers loved Cirque du Soleil’s youthful one-ring extravaganza, a glossy animal-free mélange of high-wire and teeterboard stunts, rambunctious clowning and thrilling acrobatics, all wrapped up in fanciful costumes and choreographed to a synthesized rock beat. Audiences loved it too, packing the 1,756-seat tent nightly. The circus wound up with plenty of gas money for the ride home to Canada. And they had no trouble returning in 1988, this time to perform at the Santa Monica Municipal Pier on the first leg of a triumphant six-city U.S. tour.

Cirque du Soleil is back at the same spot offering another lively demonstration of the uses of enchantment through Oct. 15. Or, as its distinctive print ads would have it, “la magie continue. . . .”

But stage magic alone can’t account for the wildfire success of this young circus troupe. In just five years of operation, Soleil has blossomed from a small upstart circus into a major North American touring attraction. It now has 150 employees, a budget in excess of $10 million, an annual audience of more than 500,000, and a mystique that just won’t quit.

“We’re successful because we’re different,” said Laliberté. “We came from the street as a bunch of 23-, 24-year-old kids. I think we’re changing the whole image of circus. Coming to Cirque du Soleil is like going to make a picnic.”

Cirque du Soleil’s popularity, and its special brand of polished whimsy, have a lot to do with Laliberté’s exuberant stewardship. A former stilt-walker and fire-eater, the blond, puckish 30-year-old combines a street artist’s freewheeling spirit with a sharp instinct for business.

Speaking in English flavored by a French-Canadian accent, Laliberté described himself as “a great conceptor. Cirque du Soleil to me is a show inside a concept.”

That concept was born in 1984 as an outgrowth of a street artist’s festival Laliberté produced in the tiny town of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. On the strength of the festival, the Canadian government agreed to subsidize Cirque du Soleil’s first season. Initially, the group toured only in Canada, but the United States was much on their minds.

“We already knew we were condemned if we didn’t have something for export,” said Laliberté. “A circus can’t perform in Canada more than three, four months a year because of the bad weather. We had to have a big U.S. market to survive.”

In 1985, the group moved a step closer to that goal when Laliberté came home from a trip to Italy with a spacious new big top. “Everybody thought I was crazy because we had no money,” he said. “I was buying $400,000 worth of equipment with only $10,000 in my pocket. Then I had to go out and (find) $2 million to make the season happen.”

While Laliberté was out wooing and winning support from Canadian airlines and other corporate sponsors, the group’s artistic staff perfected a performing style. A marvel of slickness and spontaneity, Cirque du Soleil blends some of the flash of commercial circuses with some of the intimacy of one-ring outfits like Circus Oz and the Pickle Family Circus.

“We had no tradition of circus in Canada, so we were free to do something new,” noted Gilles Ste. Croix, an early Cirque performer and its present artistic director. “We are really theater people so we used a lot of references to theater and dance. And we’ve always been very careful about our visual aesthetic.

“We are trying to say that through the powers of imagination anyone can be creative,” said Ste. Croix. “Our motto has always been, ‘Free the imagination.’ ”

The troupe’s current edition boasts all new acts and a more lighthearted, comic flavor than the 1988 edition. Ste. Croix also points out that last year’s entry “was what we call fleur bleue –soft edges, romance, and characters acting like poupees, little dolls. Now we have characters more like humans, and the design is more hard-edged and geometric.”

The cast of 35, drawn in part from the company-run National Circus School, contains familiar and unfamiliar faces. Benny LeGrand, a splay-haired, mischief-making clown, is back for his fifth consecutive year. The sexy acrobatic team of Eric Varelas and Amelie Denay has returned for its second season. Among the newcomers, the Shandong Troupe of China stands out. This remarkable group of teen-age balancers defies gravity on the “rola bola” board. Another more orthodox edition is the graceful gymnastic dance routine by Maia Taskova and Mariela Spasova, a pair of champion athletes from Bulgaria.

As Cirque du Soleil embarks on its sixth season, Guy Laliberté talks enthusiastically about “diversifying.” Tours to Japan and Europe are on the horizon. An entirely new show with a new theme is in the works. When it’s ready, Soleil will have two troupes on the road, Ringling Bros.-style. The organization is also managing a growing number of offshoot enterprises: a circus school, a film and video outfit, several ticket outlets, and a merchandising unit.

Though he refers fondly to Soleil’s street-artist past, Laliberté acknowledges that he is running an entertainment corporation now: “For the first five years it was a family trip. Now it’s become a business. But a goal and a big step is keeping the family spirit in the business. In the next five years we’ll see just how much we can do with our success, financially and in the integrity of our performing. We want to go as far as we can and still keep the soul of Cirque du Soleil alive.”

* * * * *

By: Sylvie Drake | LA Times
September 22, 1989

Has success spoiled Le Cirque? Well, of course not, Jean-Claude.

Spoiled isn’t the word for this French Canadian company of upscale mountebanks who only last Sunday won, of all things, an Emmy (in a four-way tie for Outstanding Special Event).

Why, the mere sight of Le Cirque du Soleil’s encampment as you approach Santa Monica Pier is a boon for smog-sore eyes. There’s still nothing under the soleil quite as enchanting as that sparkling blue and gold tent on the beach and the palpable excitement that surrounds this magical enterprise.

But an enterprise is what it has become much more in the brief span of two years.

And the changes are subtle.

Le Cirque’s founder, Guy Laliberté, for instance, is now listed as president and CEO of Les Productions du Cirque du Soleil Inc. An overlong preamble to the start of the show included a welcoming address by Laliberté that belonged in the boardroom. Saperlipopette, owners of the Loews Hotels, a Cirque sponsor, were even introduced! The faintly acrid smell of all that billowing dry ice–a Cirque staple–has become laced with a soupcon of corporate je ne sais quoi.

Aside from Le Cirque’s splendid redefinition of the very idea of circus (one ring, excellence and only human animals), marketing shrewdness and general acumen have distinguished this Quebecois company since it took local audiences by surprise as the spectacular opening act of the Los Angeles Festival in 1987.

And a lot has happened since, most of it very good for Le Cirque. But how good is good? The show Wednesday was heavy on clowning and short one of its key first-act attractions: the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe of the People’s Republic of China. Red tape, not politics, has allegedly delayed the troupe in China, according to a Cirque spokesman. Amazingly–and unforgivably– no announcement was made about it to the audience.

A lot of slapstick comedy was offered as a substitute, between ring master James Keylon (new) and Le Cirque’s resident clown Benny Le Grand, master of the active garden hose (a return engagement of dubious hilarity).

It didn’t quite cut the moutarde, in spite of Le Grand’s soaking and smearing of one patron and his ruining of another’s necktie.

(Are we having fun yet? . . .)

Le Cirque’s real strengths lie elsewhere: in the superiority of their specialty acts (the superb young jugglers, gymnasts, cyclists, trapeze artists, aerialists and contortionists) and Le Cirque’s exceptional, extraterrestrial special effects; the resplendent, rainbow-hued costuming by Michel Crete and Dominique Lemieux; the fantasy lighting by Luc Lafortune, and Rene Dupere’s striking original music, under the adroit musical direction of Benoit Jutras.

While the second half of the evening was considerably livelier than the first, there were still not as many breathtaking acts as one remembered from past incarnations. True, the French trapezistes are terrific (despite a couple of well-recovered fumbles), but no better than the trapezistes of 1987. Bulgarian acrobatic dancers Maia Taskova and Mariela Spasova do nice things with streamers and hoops and balls, and Frederic Zipperlin’s contortionist juggling (with spheres of all sizes) is admirable, but not nearly as amazing as the contortions of Angela Laurier in Le Cirque’s 1988 visit. These new acts’ overall level of competence appears down a notch from the company’s formerly uncontested A+ level.

All in all, it is the older routines that continue to dazzle most: gymnasts Eric Varelas and Amelie Demay; the daredevil cyclists, the balancing chairs, the teeterboard act of the “businessmen penguins.”

The fruit of too much success? Perhaps. Or is it simply that when Gilles Ste. Croix replaced Guy Caron as artistic director the sensibilities changed? That’s more likely. But it’s all remediable, and the arrival of the Shandong Acrobats on Tuesday will probably do much to relieve this malaise.

Le Cirque is still a remarkable entertainment. It’s just that we all know by now how remarkable it can be and won’t settle for less. So cut the comedy and get on with the acts, because this time you walk out humming the scenery, lights and, naturellement, the music.

Good but not good enough.

# # #

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

• 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)