We’re Off and Running, Part 8:
Alegría, Part 1 (1994)

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 on with 1993’s reviews of Saltimbanco.

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CIRQUE DU SOLEIL AIMS HIGH, FALLS SHORT
By: Dion Nissenbaum | UPI
July 13, 1994

In the 10 years since a group of Canadian street performers found their home under a blue and yellow big top, Cirque Du Soleil has transformed the stagnant circus world into an evolutionary art form. By combining live music, theater and Broadway-influenced costume design with the traditional circus elements of breathtaking artistry, athletic prowess and — lest we forget — pratfalling clowns, Cirque Du Soleil has helped reinvigorate the circus. Now returning to the United States with their latest incarnation, ‘Alegria,’ the Montreal-based troupe continues to set its sights on the heavens, but falters slightly by relying on many of the staid elements that once set it apart from the crowd. Making their U.S. debut in San Francisco Tuesday night under their trademark blue and yellow tent, the newest members of the international Cirque Du Soleil family captivated the audience with two hours of aerial acrobatics, modified trampoline work and a pair of young contortionists. Using the Spanish title expressing jubilation as its starting point, ‘Alegria’ relies on ethereal and bird-like imagery to touch on themes of revolutionary change and the constant tension between resistant elders and idealistic youth. In that vein, the clear stars of the show are a young Chinese tightrope act and a pair of Mongolian contortionists. Balancing a modified wishbone-shaped pole with a tightrope upon her shoulder, 12-year-old Li Sha Zheng delicately crossed the stage as 11- year-old Hui Kang performed an amazing series of flips, backflips and spins on the thin wire above the crowd.

In the second act, Nomin Tseveendorj and Ulziibayar Chimed, two 9- year-old Mongolian arists, flawlessly performed as contortionists. Not to be outdone by the youngsters, the older acrobatic performers spun, flipped and soared through a ‘fast track’ modified trampoline performance and ended the show with a graceful synchronized trapeze act featuring seven artists in constant motion. Cirque Du Soleil has always prided itself on combing the globe for unique acts and adds Russian-born Mikhail Matorin to its list. Matorin manipulates a large transluscent cube in his aerial acrobatic ring performance, adding a new element to the routine. Such artists have been a mainstay of Cirque Du Soleil and have helped establish the group’s reputation as a thinking-person’s circus that appeals to both adults and children. But ‘Alegria’ falls back on more conventional performers that detract from its continuity and mystique. The cadre of clowns spent more time filling space than providing levity, and strong man Rick Zumwalt seemed quite out of place in the group, but still drew cheers by tearing a Yellow Pages in half and arm-wrestling two men at once. Still, Cirque Du Soleil rises to the challenge with ‘Alegria’ and continues the troupe’s growing tradition for elevating the circus to new heights. As always, the musicians, led this time by the raspy chanteuse Francesca Gagnon, set the circus apart from the others with a unique blend of styles. ‘Alegria’s’ run over the next year will take the performers to San Jose, Calif., Los Angeles, Costa Mesa, Calif., New York, Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

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THE CIRQUE’S GLOBAL STRATEGY
Irene Lacher | The LA Times
October 2, 1994

Looking like a star is one thing. Acting like one is something else entirely.

And so when Cirque du Soleil’s very own Flying Fabio, more prosaically known as Vladimir Kekhayal, and his chair-balancing compatriot Vassily Demenchoukov arrived from Russia with all the attitude they could pack in their bags, their star quality was considered, well, a bit de trop .

“It was like ‘If I’m here, I’m the star, so you have to treat me as a star,’ ” says Gilles Ste-Croix, Cirque’s artistic director.

Au contraire, mon frere.

“I would say, ‘Listen. Cirque du Soleil is not like this. Everyone is the star. But if I need you to bring a carpet for another performer, if you need them to bring you something for your number, we all share.’

“They said, ‘But that’s communism.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s Quebec communism. But that’s how it works.’ ”

So went the occasionally rocky debut of Cirque du Soleil’s first Russian imports for its early ’90s show “Nouvelle Experience.” To get them to Cirque’s base in Montreal, Ste-Croix had grappled with Russian bureaucracy and an American producer for six months in the thick of perestroika in 1989. But at least Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms had propped open the gates for Russian artists to perform abroad. And with the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, even more of Russia’s best talent has made an exodus. This year, Cirque du Soleil has plucked its largest Russian contingent ever–16–for its latest shimmering production of circus theater, “Alegria,” which opens Thursday at the Santa Monica Pier and on Jan. 24 at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

The Russians’ arrival heralds growth for the 10-year-old Canadian company, which has become increasingly multinational as Cirque du Soleil evolves far from its street-performing roots. It’s also fitting that so many Russians should be part of Cirque’s eighth production, which celebrates the era’s global changes in power. Unlike traditional circuses, which string together unrelated acts, Cirque du Soleil cloaks its acrobatics and clowning in lavish costumes, lighting and dance, all designed around a theme. And for “Alegria”– joy in Spanish–the phrase that shapes the evening is: “The fools have lost their king.”

“Everybody now has a global concern, but they’re also living in a world of uncertainty and complaining a lot about this,” Ste-Croix says. ” Alegria is like a scream of joy, a scream of life against the moroseness. We would say, ‘The king is dead. Alegria !’ Because there is life after death in the sense that something new is coming.”

*

In this $3-million production, something old is evoked in Cirque-speak, a visual language that may not be immediately decipherable. The old regime, for example, is represented by feathers and performers in bird costumes, inspired by the “gilded year” at the turn of the century ruled by railroad and petroleum barons.

As for the new world, simply look down. “Alegria” has more performers under 18 than any other Cirque production.

“When you have a child of 12 who does incredible feats and comes straight at you on the stage and looks at you in the eyes with a smile and goes, ‘Hey!’ ” Ste-Croix says, “you are really taken by that power because they are there to be the future, whereas the old birds represent the period that we are living through that is dying.”

If Cirque’s 12-year-old Mongolian contortionists are prized for their youth–and preternatural flexibility, to a degree peculiar to Mongolians, Ste-Croix says–the Russians are sought after for their aerial abilities. That’s because many former Russian gymnasts and acrobats with Olympic aspirations turned to the circus later in their career, says Pavel Brun, Cirque’s artistic coordinator and choreographer of Andrei Lev’s Flying Trapeze Team in “Alegria.”

Cirque du Soleil’s first attempt to build a Russian act after the fall of the Soviet Union went much more smoothly than earlier enlistment efforts. In 1992, the mayors of Moscow and Montreal signed an agreement joining the innovative Cirque with the more traditional Moscow Circus in staging a flying trapeze act.

The deal called for the Russians to recruit a group of 25 trapeze artists, from which Cirque selected 12. Then Brun and another coach worked with the troupe at the Moscow Circus’ elaborate $50-million facility. The act was designed for Cirque’s show “Mystere,” now in its first of five years at the company’s permanent theater in Las Vegas. (A third production, “Saltimbanco,” will tour Europe next year.)

The Moscow-Montreal agreement had been lauded as the beginning of cultural exchanges between the two cities, but the circus flow has largely been headed in one direction–to the West.

“I don’t think they got anything out of it,” Ste-Croix says of the Moscow Circus. “We could have had a collaboration that could have gone for years, but I think the system turned into a very rotten thing that is worse than what communism was.”

Artistic standards have sagged, Brun says, and corruption has left its mark on the Russian circus. A few days before the Cirque trapeze troupe left Moscow in 1993, the commercial director of the Moscow Circus was shot dead in the door of his apartment with a hunting rifle.

“Maybe he knew (why),” Brun says. “Maybe not. Maybe it was financial. Is it normal that at the end of the 20th Century, you’re opening the door of your apartment and somebody shoots you three times in the stomach? That’s an example of (organized crime) involvement. Is it connected with the circus? Is it connected with the Las Vegas project with Cirque du Soleil? I don’t know. But it makes me really sad.”

Under Soviet rule, the govern ment prized the circus, but its attentions were like a cobra’s embrace. Hailing the circus as the art of the people, the government institutionalized the big tops, sending it into a spiral of ruin and eventually prompting its artists to flee the country.

The popular appeal was price. Two years ago, a ticket went for 15 rubles–9 cents. The big tops had come down in the ’60s and ’70s, and up came 69 permanent circus buildings in every city of more than 200,000 people. Shows were held 11 months a year, a droning continuity that clashed with the tradition of itinerant companies whose briefer appearances drummed up expectations and audiences. Audiences shrank, and a financial crisis for the circus mushroomed.

“Since you have buildings, it was like ‘All right, this is the circus,’ ” Brun says. “It’s like a gas station. It’s like a supermarket. It exists. No celebration anymore.”

In that period, too, the Communist Party ordered the arts to bow to politics. In addition to acrobatics, audiences would be treated to party posters and portraits; beneath a bust of Lenin, poets would declaim their love of the red flag.

Under the Soviets, travel to countries with more liberal circus traditions–often impossible anyway–required Communist Party membership. Even then, artists needed approval from the KGB, the Ministry of Culture and the Soyuzgoscirk, the bureaucracy that governed the country’s 7,000 circus artists and told them where they had to perform. And when artists were allowed to perform abroad, their pay went to Soyuzgoscirk.

“It was very administrative, like everything at those times, and I would say that Soyuzgoscirk was a real product of totalitarianism,” Brun says.

Even the perestroika years of the late ’80s held bureaucratic roadblocks. In the ’80s, Brun, who had studied at the Moscow Circus School, was performing mime with Moscow’s top free-lance jazz-rock musician, Aleksei Kozlov, whose performing group, Arsenal, melded jazz, movement and puppetry. The group, described in Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians,” was famous in Russia, wildly popular with youth but detested by Communist officials in part because it was beloved by Americans in Moscow–the U.S. Embassy invited the group to perform at its July Fourth and Thanksgiving celebrations.

When Arsenal was invited to participate in the Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1985, the Ministry of Culture responded that travel would be complicated because the group was in Mongolia.

“In those years, you say the word Mongolia and it seems almost impossible to reach you,” Brun says. “They say, ‘OK,’ but forget about it. But we were in Moscow.”

Still, Brun, 36, says there was a payoff for performers coming of age in difficult times.

“All this pressure, all this frustration, all this stupidity made us very, very resistant. To be a modern dancer, to be a jazz musician, to be an avant-garde circus performer was prohibited. It made my generation a lot stronger because we did it anyway. And I would say a lot of artistic achievements of the ’70s and ’80s were a lot higher than now in Russia, where everything is legal and you can do whatever you want to do.”

Brun quit Arsenal in 1988 and began working with the Moscow Circus’ experimental workshop. He met Cirque founder Guy Laliberte in 1990 in Paris at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Laliberte later went to Moscow to see the workshop.

“And that was it. I was hooked by my heart,” Brun says. “Because I realized that Cirque du Soleil was the exact place where I can express myself as much as I can, where I can have–what’s the American word?–fun, where my experience will be appreciated.”

Clown Slava Polunin was widely appreciated in Russia via the most official of channels–national television–even though his Yellow Clown persona was an alternative meld of influences ranging from Antonin Artaud to Samuel Beckett to Robert Wilson.

Polunin, who performs for Cirque with his 8-year-old son Ivan, is credited with creating the first Russian clown theater in the ’70s, a time when politics had turned circus clowns into chilly technocrats. Polunin’s Academy of Fools revived the art of clowning by incorporating philosophy, social criticism and surrealistic painting.

Polunin’s tragicomic character Asisay (a bit of baby talk with no real translation) would speak in a kind of “double language,” as Brun, who interprets for him, put it. “You can speak of one thing, but you can keep in your mind totally different things.” The authorities didn’t catch on to his double meanings, “because his childish image was like an excuse.”

By the beginning of the ’80s, Asisay was a fixture of Russian television and Polunin became a star. “His fame in Russia was equal to the fame of rock stars,” Brun says.

For cube gymnast Mikhail Matorin, 29, joining Cirque du Soleil was a simple matter of picking up the phone. The former Moscow Circus performer had seen Cirque acts at the Paris circus competition in 1990, and he had applied two years ago to join the company. Ste-Croix called him in Moscow a couple of weeks before the Montreal debut of “Alegria” in April. By then, Matorin was in the enviable position of being courted by circuses in France and Canada, and he needed only to pick up and go.

“I had to choose between Cirque La Luna, which is the moon, and Cirque du Soleil, which is the sun, and I chose the sun,” he says. “They just amazed me by the movement, by the music. It was beautiful, and when I changed my act and created new things, I was always thinking about the Cirque du Soleil.”

Matorin performs with a five-foot-square cube, manipulating it while on foot and dangling from an aerial wire. Matorin’s signature act, a highlight of “Alegria,” was created by his father, an artistic director of the Moscow Circus. The idea of juxtaposing the human body with a cube was inspired by drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and such Salvador Dali paintings as “Gala Looking at the Hypercubicus Christ.” It took a year and a half to develop.

For Matorin, joining Cirque has meant realizing a dream:

“It’s more interesting to perform here. Even if we forget about the financial side, the convenience, it’s more interesting to perform in front of happy people.”

For Brun, joining Cirque has meant understanding that a dream will never be realized.

“There will be a wonderful Canadian big top,” he says, “and you will see lots of Russian performers and a wonderful international troupe, but for me it’s kind of painful that it’s unrealistic to expect that this big top of Cirque du Soleil could be created in the Red Square in Moscow. I want to do that, but I know it will not happen in the near future. Because the needs of the people over there are unfortunately a lot different. They are thinking about what they are going to eat, how they are going to dress, are they going to be killed tomorrow because of some street gangs or will they stay alive. I’m not afraid of that, but it makes me very, very sad because we were expecting something different.”*

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THE USUAL, UNUSUAL CIRQUE
By: Laurie Winer | LA Times
October 8, 1994

Cirque du Soleil is back in town with its new show, “Alegria,” under the big top at Santa Monica Pier. AT&T is producing, and, since the company makes its way rather prominently into the show’s introduction, I thought I’d stick it in my introduction, as well. The opening-night crowd on Thursday was half expecting a raffle for free phones by the time the show finally started.

The postmodern, Montreal-based circus first stormed L.A. in 1987 with its new blend of acrobatics, contortionists, hip percussive music, strange costumes and plumes, sophisticated lighting, absence of elephant manure. On its raked, double spherical stage (a nod to the circus rings of old, perhaps) and generally surreal setting, performers display the distinctive Cirque attitude–they look like aliens who refuse to tell you whether they’re benign or hostile but who expect to be admired nonetheless. They create another, parallel universe that is peopled by, well, weird circus performers.

This year’s version contains less derring-do than previous Cirques, although there is a tumbling act where men in gold mesh seem to traverse the entire stage horizontally, and a trapeze act featuring men in aviator caps who perform at the tippy top of the big top (these acts became known among my co-watchers as the “golden bounders” and the “prancing eunuchs”).

If “Alegria” has a theme, it looks to be ethereal children. (The creators, director Franco Dragone and artistic director Gilles Ste-Croix, said in the San Francisco Chronicle that the show was inspired by the recent upheavals in the former Soviet Union and South Africa and is about the inevitable replacement of the elders by the young. But you wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t told you.) There are some fascinating acts that might make you wonder about the child labor laws in Mongolia and China.

One act features a tiny, smiling doll who maneuvers her way across a portable tightrope that is being held up by a slightly older, totally unsmiling child who intently balances a long pole on her shoulder. They look like China’s version of Louise and Baby June from “Gypsy.”

The tiny contortionists from Mongolia, Ulziibayar Chimed and Nomin Tseveendorj, look like twins but aren’t. In another era they would have been introduced as “the wonders of the Orient!” and they are quite remarkable, if eerily placid, as they wave their limbs around their heads like spider legs. As they explore the mysterious shapes that the human body can take, a sad clown on stilts wearing a Rembrandt hat and coat looks on, somehow thickening the mystery.

“Alegria” features the addition of songster Francesca Gagnon, who looks like a cross between Madonna and Connie Stevens in sparkly Martian ears. She manages to be quite chic in a corset, cage skirt and white hair that looks as if birds put it together out of twigs and spaghetti. Even if you understand French, you can never make out a word she’s singing, except “Alegria,” which you hear over and over again. Her doppelganger/backup singer Isabelle Corradi is dressed similarly but all in black and is never allowed to get too close to the audience.

Unfortunately, Cirque has never recovered from the loss of the incredible clown David Shiner, who went on to appear with Bill Irwin in “Fool Moon.” But there are a couple of good routines by Russian clown Slava Polunin, who has a touching affair with a coat and hat on a coatrack. He also gets blown mightily across the stage, a la Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill Jr.”

Some of the other acts–a Fabio manque aerialist who performs with a huge silver cube, a flabby strong man, a flame thrower/eater–left this viewer cold.

Christian Racoux, the master of ceremonies, is a hunchbacked, pot-bellied bird man who cares for his flock, what I like to call the corps du Soleil, with interesting ambivalence. Their weird masks and scraggly hair and their strange relation to the performers are mesmerizing in their own, impenetrable way. That’s the way of the Cirque du Soleil.

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REVIEW: CIRQUE DU SOLEIL ALEGRIA
By: Jonathan Taylor | Variety
OCTOBER 10, 1994

The expansively creative team behind Cirque du Soleil finds itself with a challenge somewhat akin to what God must’ve confronted on the eighth day: What to do for an encore? The previous Cirque productions did nothing less than reinvent our notion of the circus, and reintroduce audiences to the concept of wonderment. For the company’s fifth show, “Alegria,” the team returned to the formula that has worked four times already. If Cirque veterans bemoan the absence of mind-bending new acts, it’s nonetheless likely all but the most cynical will come away dazzled and delighted. Packed houses are assured under Cirque’s trademark blue-and-yellow big top.

The expansively creative team behind Cirque du Soleil finds itself with a challenge somewhat akin to what God must’ve confronted on the eighth day: What to do for an encore? The previous Cirque productions did nothing less than reinvent our notion of the circus, and reintroduce audiences to the concept of wonderment. For the company’s fifth show, “Alegria,” the team returned to the formula that has worked four times already. If Cirque veterans bemoan the absence of mind-bending new acts, it’s nonetheless likely all but the most cynical will come away dazzled and delighted. Packed houses are assured under Cirque’s trademark blue-and-yellow big top.

That formula consists of a few key elements: A handful of acts of death- or physics-defying human

derring-do; an at-once humorous and vaguely threatening emcee; a stunning visual style that owes more to street theater than Las Vegas; and a troupe of clowns and performers who entertain between acts and always seems to include (for reasons not at all clear) a fat person with weird things sticking out of the side of his or her head.

Each Cirque du Soleil production hearkens back to the very earliest, prehistoric roots of circuses — of people doing odd things for the amusement and amazement of others — while encompassing a thoroughly modern sensibility.

Most Cirque productions also purport to advance a vague theme or plotline that links the various acts, albeit loosely. With “Alegria,” there’s a recurrent image of stepping through the looking glass into a new and wondrous world, and a stronger-than-ever motif of man defying nature.

The program opens with a trapeze duo performing near-mirror images on separate bars, and ends more than two hours later with the far more thrilling Flying Lev. This Russian team of aerialists combines the art of trapeze with uneven parallel bars gymnastics that leads audiences to conclude that the laws of gravity just don’t apply here.

Second on the program is the “house troupe” of acrobats (the other acts join for just this production). Working on springy mats that seem to emerge from below the stage, they fly, flip and float like pinwheels freed from their moorings. The how’d-they-do-that amazement of this routine couples with the beauty of their movements.

The house troupe — whose head-high, shoulders-back prancing about the stage gives them the look of heraldic hood ornaments — returns in the second act for a Russian bars routine that is something like the balance beam of gymnastics, but with a flexible board held up by two people.

If these acts contradict gravity, Hawaii’s Lisiate Tuione Tovo challenges the laws of fire. Alternately twirling, licking, lying on and otherwise commanding a flaming bar, Tovo’s performance touches an almost primal fascination with the beauty and hazard of fire. This is likely to be the act most people are still talking about days later.

Or perhaps it will be Mongolian contortionists Ulziibayar Chimed and Nomin Tseveendorj. These small, impossibly flexible young girls elicit applause — and a healthy dose of the creeps — as they bend and flow as if the limitations of the human skeletal system are irrelevant to them.

Between acts — when the hood ornaments aren’t prancing about — clowns Dmitry Bogatirev, Serguei Chachelev and Slava Polunin perform. Their miming sometimes comments on the previous feat, acting as inept surrogates for us in the audience. Other times they perform self-contained routines. A couple seems poignantly to address fears of closeness and friendship.

And the clowns’ final routine explores the classic clowning motif of people befuddled by themost mundane of matters, in this case picking up a small piece of litter. Before they are through, they must confront a full-blown hurricane that sends confetti, seemingly miles of toilet paper and the clowns themselves hurtling into the audience.

It’s a hilarious routine, although one that wouldn’t seem out of place in a more conventional circus, which is something early Cirque shows never did, and which is the main gripe about “Alegria.” The joy and wonder of Cirque du Soleil is that it offers a unique series of acts and way of seeing a circus, different even from other circuses.

Christian Racoux — he of the misshapen body and slightly ominous, panther-like movements — is fine as comedian/emcee. But audiences miss the hilarity and danger and sheer silent genius of David Shiner, who played that role in Cirque’s “Nouvelle Experience” a few years ago, before going on to star with Bill Irwin in the magical “Fool Moon” here and on Broadway.

Most disappointing is strong man Rick ZumWalt, who appears to be, well, not all that strong. When he pulled a man out of the audience to arm-wrestle, he very nearly lost. He looks the part, but breaks the magic spell cast by the other performers.

It’s not hard to imagine that new, awe-inspiring acts are harder to come by for the Quebec-based company’s fifth incarnation. But there’s enough that’s unique and unimaginable about “Alegria” to move virtually everyone. If it succeeds at nothing else, this production serves to reaffirm that we mere mortals still have the ability to be amazed.

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THE STRONGMAN: STEEL ARMS, WARM HEART
By: Irene Lacher | LA Times
November 5, 1994

Rick Zumwalt, Cirque du Soleil’s first strongman, is what you might call a minimalist. His professional photo lists, “Height: tall, weight: heavy.”

If you insist on numbers, how about these?: He’s 6 foot 4 inches tall, down to a “slim-trim” 310 pounds, and his chest is 5 feet around, his biceps, 2 feet.

“I used to tease the little guys at the gym who were trying to get to 19, 20 and 21 (inches),” says Zumwalt, the muscleman of “Alegria,” Cirque du Soleil’s eighth production, which is running at the Santa Monica Pier until Dec. 18.

“I said, ‘You boys measure in inches. You gotta do it in feet if you’re a real man.’ ”

A little gym humor there. His secret?

“I’m into the mega-eating program,” confides Zumwalt, who began his young athletic life with the shotput when asthma ruled out more mobile sports.

Take all that muscular muchness and process it through the Cirque-ulator and you come out with this amazing feat of pure unadulterated manpower: Zumwalt plucks a woman out of the audience for a tug-of-war–and loses.

Come again?

“It’s part of the changing world and changing values as well,” says Cirque du Soleil artistic director Gilles Ste-Croix, whose latest show celebrates the recent changes in world power. “A big macho guy has to learn there is other stuff than being macho. He’s so huge, he’s a mountain. But he has a heart of faience, of very delicate porcelain. He’s a very sensitive man.”

OK, so Zumwalt bends steel too. And he’s working on potentially new derring-do in which he would pick up the entire troupe–6,800 pounds of acrobats, clowns and contortionists–and carry the world on his shoulders.

That would be child’s play for the Hisperia resident and former world arm-wrestling champion. A dragon tattoo crawls down his mighty left breast. A long-ish braid snakes out the back of his otherwise bald head. And of course, there is the porcelain heart.

“I was arm-wrestling a guy one time,” says Zumwalt, 42. “I looked at him, and said, ‘This guy’s a joke,’ very slender and very animated. So I just decided to give him a hard time. I locked up and held him there, and he’s trying all these different angles. This was in the middle of a mall where they had a state championship going on.

“He was standing up and his belt broke, and his pants fell off and he didn’t know it. I stopped in the middle of the match, walked behind him and pulled his pants up and walked back. He was blood red. We started again and I went through him real quick. Mercy killing.”

Of course, put the pants on a movie star and it’s a different story. The star in question was Sylvester Stallone, who helped launch Zumwalt’s brawny film career when they arm wrestled for 1985’s “Over the Top.” The scene was shot before a crowd at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“Actually, Sly wanted to lose, but (director Menahem Golan) put it up to the audience. ‘Who do you want to win? Do you want Rick to win?’ And I got a very nice amount of applause.

” ‘Do you want Sly to win?’ And it was overpowering. ‘OK, Sly, you win by popular demand.”‘

But Zumwalt won parts in 15 more (mostly action) movies. In fact, Zumwalt was a faux strongman in films before becoming a real one for Cirque. For “Batman Returns,” he played a tattooed strongman.

So when a show business friend of Zumwalt heard of Cirque du Soleil’s plan to harken back to the company’s street-performing roots by casting a strongman, he suggested Zumwalt for the job.

“I said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ I said, ‘I’m 42 years old.’ I said, ‘No way. I think the stage scares me.’ ”

Ste-Croix says the transition to the stage from film, which offers the safety net of multiple takes, wasn’t easy for Zumwalt.

“At the beginning, we say, ‘Oh, we made a mistake,’ ” he says. “But a performer onstage has to have show-biz reflexes and that is growing on him slowly.”

Travel with Cirque has also given Zumwalt, a recovering alcoholic for 10 years, fresh venues for his talks to teens about the perils of drugs and alcohol.

“I say, ‘Pal, I’ve been there. Put down the bottle. Put down the pipe and come with me.’ ”

In the end, Zumwalt’s experience muscling his way around Cirque’s big top has given new meaning to the words stage fright .

“I scare me in a dark alley.”

# # #

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

• 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)