We’re Off and Running, Part 9:
Alegría, Part 2 (1995)

A few months 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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By: Jan Herman | LA Times
January 19, 1995

Backstage between shows at Cirque du Soleil, dozens of performers saunter into the company bistro tucked behind the blue and yellow big top. They look nothing like the exotic creatures who have just taken their bows to the wild applause of happy, dazzled circus-goers.

They’ve shed their fabulous costumes in less time than it takes to say “Alegria”–the name of this spectacular production–and they are chatting breezily in half a dozen languages: French, English, Russian, Walloon, Mandarin and even Mongolian.

The bistro hums with gossip about everything from newborn babies to holiday travel. It is just days to Christmas here in Santa Monica. The whole globe-trotting company has a month’s vacation before the next stop on its North American tour–a six-week stand in Costa Mesa, beginning Tuesday and ending March 5.

Everybody is itching to take a break. Some will be heading for ski resorts, others for the tropics. Many will be flying home to see their families for the first time in a year. Ulan Batur, here they come. Look out, Moscow.

“I like this life,” says Emilie Therrien, 17, a slim Canadian acrobat who hails from Sherbrooke, Quebec. “But now it’s a lonely time. I’ve been too long (since early October) in the same city.”

Therrien, who intends to become a circus choreographer, earned her high school diploma on the road. When was that? “I graduated in San Jose,” she replies. Cirque’s touring performers tend to think geography is chronology. The troupe was in San Jose in August and September.

Jean-Luc Martin, 29, a veteran of several tours, measures the years in countries. He joined the Montreal-based company in 1990 and has performed since then in Cirque productions all over Europe.

A tumbler, aerialist and juggler, Martin leads “Alegria’s” crusty old gaggle of not-too-bright “nostalgia birds.” They personify the core theme of the show–the old versus the young–and seem to have lost their bearings in the cosmic barnyard.

You’d never recognize Martin out of his weird chicken get-up. He not only looks as handsome as Prince Valiant, but also knows exactly where he belongs.

Martin is a Louisiana native who moved to Canada at 13 and took up rock-climbing at 17. Before he ever thought of becoming a circus performer, he made the mountain walls of British Columbia his home away from home.

“What excites me most right now is just doing my job,” he says. “It’s work that is set in stone. But every morning when you wake up, the stone crumbles. You’re always changing something. There’s always someone injured, or something unexpected happens. You have to make adjustments.

“The other day a father put his child on the edge of the stage and turned around to fix his chair. Well, this child kept staring at me. So I got him to come to me. He held my finger, and the two of us became an act–me in my bird costume and this child in his innocence.”

Martin notes, as every good clown will: “You can never predict what’s going to happen. You have a formula to follow, but you have to be able to improvise. You keep your nose in the wind and your eyes open.”

Of course, circus performers don’t always see life on the road through the same lens.

“I was just talking to one of the little girls,” Martin says. “She plays a nymph. I think she’s 16. She said, ‘My God. I wake up, go to school, practice, do the show, go to bed, wake up, go to school, practice, do the show, go to bed. My life is always the same.’

“For me, the routine has more variation. I’ve made a lot of friends in L.A.”

Meanwhile, the Tongan fire-knife dancer Tovo Lisiate Tuione is just getting used to circus life. He joined “Alegria” in San Jose in September, after the artistic directors realized the production lacked an essential element.

It had music (folksy). It had risk (breath-taking). It had humor (bittersweet). It struck dark chords (despite the title, which means “joy” in Spanish). It had a strong man (not too friendly). It had contortionists (young). It had brilliant acrobats and aerialists (many). It had humanity (clowns). It had hoops (gorgeous).

But their stellar back-to-basics show, a $3-million production intended to celebrate Cirque du Soleil’s street-performance roots, was missing–what?

Of course! A fire act!

They dispatched one of their talent scouts to the Pacific. He found Tovo in Hawaii.

Costa Mesa will be Tovo’s third stop on the tour. But already this spectacular 18-year-old performer can’t get enough of it.

“This is my first time off the islands,” he says. “I want to get around, see the world.”

There are plenty of women out there who want to show it to him, too. Tovo has been getting mail. Lots of mail, with hand-drawn hearts. More, it seems, than any Cirque performer since that flamboyant Russian heartthrob of four years ago. (Remember Vladimir Kehkaial in “Nouvelle Experience”? He soared like a spectral Icarus and looked like a smoldering tease who set pulses fluttering with a mere toss of his jet-black mane.)

Rest assured, Tovo is no tease. He swoops out of the darkness, carrying a flaming baton, wearing nothing but fringes of leather. In the yellow glare of the firelight, his smoothly muscled body has the glow of burnished teak. His million-watt smile takes care of the rest.

Then he begins to do things–dangerous things. He eats the fire, and he’s not timid about it, either. He doesn’t take a split-second lick. He makes it a three-course meal. Then he dances with the fire, twirling one and two and even three flaming batons. And he does it all with remarkable grace and relaxation.

“I love performing,” he says, sitting demurely in jeans and a T-shirt at one of the bistro’s corner tables. “My manager told me I’m supposed to make the dance look hard, not to make it look easy. But it’s hard to make it look hard.”

It’s only when he’s injured–Tovo reveals scars on his feet and taped burns on his hands–that his act is difficult, he says.

But nobody else in the cast seems to agree. The heat from his flaming batons is so intense that even the show’s most agile acrobats won’t grab them without three-foot tongs.

Pavel Brun, a lanky, blond Russian, works behind the scenes. He is the major-domo, officially titled the “artistic coordinator-on-tour,” which suggests a desk-bound corporate bureaucrat.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’m the pompous entertainer for everybody here,” he quips, pulling up a chair and gesturing toward the crowd behind him. “I keep them all alive. I’m the crop and the carrot, the baby-sitter, the shoulder to cry on.”

Brun, 37, has the right experience. Born and raised in Moscow, he trained in pantomime, juggling, acrobatics, classical and modern dance. He made his escape to the circus as a teen-ager, “if nothing else to protest against my parents,” he says. “They wanted me to become a designer or an architect, just like them.”

Instead, at 14, Brun began performing with a troupe of pantomimes “in the Moscow underground.” By that he doesn’t mean the subway. He means “unofficial performances.” It was the ’70s. “Everything was illegal,” he says, “rock music, jazz, avant-garde painting. We had a very tough government. Very stupid, not just tough. If you were in pantomime, it meant you were gay. If you were gay, you were not normal. If you expressed yourself without words, it meant you must have something secret to say.”

At 16, Brun realized he needed serious circus training. He auditioned for Russia’s most prestigious company, the Moscow Circus, and won an apprentice slot. For each slot, he says, there were 150 applicants.

In the late ’80s, working as a choreographer, he was creating new acts at the experimental workshop of the Moscow Circus when Gilles Ste-Croix, Cirque du Soleil’s founding artistic director, invited him to Canada. Brun loved what he saw.

“They were doing what I was always thinking about,” Brun says. “It was a totally different kind of circus performance. It was a fusion of the arts–music, theater, acrobatics, singing, dance. It was crazy and romantic.”

In 1992, he left the Moscow Circus to become assistant choreographer for the Cirque’s “Saltimbanco” show, which toured North America for two years, went on to Japan for six months and will begin a two-year tour of Europe in March.

Ironically, Brun’s own kids want no part of circus life–“They’re lazy intellectuals,” he says in jest–and he’s not about to push them. His daughter Valeria, 19, visited him on the tour but left it in San Francisco in July and returned to Moscow, where she attends the Russian Academy of Theater Arts.

“My daughter did not follow me,” Brun says. “She is a historian of theater. When I need to know something now, I ask her.”

He says he has seen “many frustrated circus families with very well-trained kids. They perform at a very high level, but they have no fun doing it. It is a paradox.”

On the other hand, there’s Bochka, the backstage mascot of “Alegria” who just had his fifth birthday and already thinks he’s the Cirque du Soleil ringmaster.

Bochka’s mother, Otgonjargal Shirnen, who hails from Ulan Batur, Mongolia, and coaches the contortionists, says Bochka has seen every performance of the show since Montreal, where the tour began 10 months ago.

“He knows the acts by heart,” she says. “He thinks he can do all of them.”

Bochka, rapidly becoming bilingual, agrees. Asked in English whether he wants to join the circus, he shakes his head up and down. His answer is vigorous and to the point.

“Yes!” he says, grinning like a magnificent imp.

* * * * *

M. E. Warren | LA Times
January 16, 1995

COSTA MESA — Rain soaked the big top, but nothing short of a tsunami could have dampened the enthusiasm of audience and performers alike as Cirque du Soleil opened its latest extravaganza, “Alegria,” at the South Coast Plaza mall Tuesday.

Alegria means “joy” in Spanish, and in its best moments, when bodies are free falling in curlicues or snaking themselves into outlandish profiles, this new Cirque production conjures whoops and laughter. At its not-quite best, it still works an alchemy of incredible athleticism and pure showmanship that rivals anything, anywhere.

The story of “Alegria,” however, doesn’t come together as compellingly as we have come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. Instead of focusing on the persona of a central master of ceremonies, “Alegria” features a trio of wistful clowns and a chorus of old birds mincing about in plumped suits and feathered hats.

The slightly sardonic edge that characterized the humor of previous Cirques is gone, too. The clowning is often touching rather than hilarious, and the pervasive bird imagery is engaging but thematically elusive. The overall impression is of a kind of contemplative ecstasy, of the human spirit in flight, yet anchored to life by the melancholy that is inextricably part of the human condition.

The magic of human grace and strength in Mikhail Matorin’s spectacular cube act is combined with the kind of visual poetry that is Cirque du Soleil at its most triumphant. Spirit and space in conflict and balance, Matorin and his cube brought images of Leonardo da Vinci to mind, particularly that famous drawing of the man with his arms outstretched standing in the midst of geometric patterns. So fluid is the Russian artist’s suspended performance on the rings that the cube, which he manipulates around himself with his feet, seems to be moving him.

The undeniable queens of the evening, 10-year-old contortionists Ulziibayar Chimed and Nomin Tseveendorj from Mongolia, mesmerize with the unearthly flexibility of their bodies. These girls bend in ways that make you wonder whether the parts will stack up again when they straighten. They leave you questioning whether they are actually put together like other people.

For those of us who cannot keep even a Hula-Hoop off the ground, the extraordinary performance of Elena Lev is humbling. This Russian artist is too young to have hips, but she doesn’t need them. She can swing a hoop in any position with any part of her body, and she doesn’t stop at one hoop, either. Her finale is a dynamite impression of a human slinky.

Acrobatic displays abound in “Alegria,” starting with Fast Track, a crisscrossing trampoline routine that is as graceful as a polished ballet and looks like the kind of fun kids have when they fly out over a river on a long rope.

Multiple flips and gainers are tossed off by the golden-clad Fast Trackers and later by the silvery Russian bar artists. The Russian bar is half tightrope, half balance beam suspended on human shoulders.

The act that crowns the evening, the Flying Lev, is trapeze artistry taken to untraditional heights by eight aerialists who fell from the top of the tent almost as steadily as the rain beat down outside.

Promotional material claims that “Alegria” aims, in part, to hark back to the street-theater, carnival roots of circus. Rick ZumWalt’s strongman act certainly evokes images of 19th-Century sideshows, but director Franco Dragone has yet to find a jazzy way to showcase a Sampson. ZumWalt undoubtedly is very strong, but his routine isn’t.

There’s nothing weak about the production design, however, which features Dominique Lemieux’s fabulously expressive costumes and a Luc Lafortune’s three-dimensional lighting design that makes the spinning cube look liquid and sews the air with spangles.

Rene Dupere has created another powerful score, performed to perfection by the six-member orchestra and augmented by chanteuse Francesca Gagnon.

* * * * *

By: Jon Pareles | New York Times
March 31, 1995

Should a circus lead viewers to contemplate mortality and geometry? Should it evoke Russian winters, European cabarets and tropical rain forests? For those who think so, the Cirque du Soleil — whose latest production, “Alegria,” will be under its big top at Battery Park City through May 14 — is the only game in town, and perhaps in the world.

Cirque du Soleil, which is based in Montreal, is probably the most pretentious circus anywhere, but it earns every pretension, using costumes, music and balletic motion to turn a variety show into a dreamlike unity. “Alegria” provides laughs and gasps, as a circus must; it also has a note of apocalyptic melancholy. Its trilingual (Italian-English-Spanish) theme song, declaimed by Francesca Gagnon with husky Edith Piaf peaks, calls for joy in an elegiac minor key.

In “Saltimbanco,” its 1993 New York production, Cirque du Soleil was sleek and otherworldly. “Alegria” looks earthier and more baroquely costumed, full of fringes and glitter, with hints of Fellini and Hieronymous Bosch, “Cats” and Hindu temple carvings. Its music, by Rene Dupere, also gets around, from klezmer to tango, from cabaret waltzes to wordless pomp suggesting Pink Floyd.

While Cirque du Soleil does not use animals, it has not forgotten them. For “Alegria,” its trapeze artists are exotic birds, its gymnasts gold-lamed fish, and the screeches of jungle birds and monkeys fill the tent as the audience enters.

Cirque du Soleil’s acrobats, clowns, fliers and contortionists perform feats that are common to circuses everywhere. They offer the bread-and-butter astonishments of bodies twirling through the air toward perfect catches and landings. In a trampoline-and-gymnastics routine, an androgynous corps of acrobats liquefies air and space, as their ranks criss-cross the stage in flips and somersaults with pinpoint timing, faster and faster. They return for a different test: Russian poles, long flexible boards held on the shoulders of a pair of comrades, on which they land after leaps of ever-increasing difficulty. Trapeze teams pose in midair, or whirl across the tent’s dome toward catchers’ waiting arms.

There are also children so poised and limber they seem to be another species entirely. “Alegria” includes a pair of 10-year-old Mongolian contortionists whose paired bodies twist and invert themselves so smoothly they might almost be morphing, and a 13-year-old Russian gymnast, Yelena Lev, who twirls one silver hoop on a toe extended straight above her head, another around the knee of the leg supporting her.

As the children perform, there are onlookers onstage: a clown in shabby clothes on extra-long crutches, standing on a single stilt, or a gaggle of birdlike harpies, wearing jowly masks and gray wigs. Those harpies, along with a scuttling, big-bellied, hunchbacked character in a red tail coat, silently introduce the show and hover at its edges, reminders that even the most vigorous and graceful bodies cannot conquer time. They hold up ornate frames to the other performers, as if to suspend them while their perfection lasts.

The oval frames are part of the play of geometry in “Alegria,” as are spherical lanterns and Miss Lev’s gleaming circles. During the second half, Mikhail Matorin appears with the skeleton of a silvery cube. He is bare-chested, holding the cube with his arms outstretched like a Christ figure; as organ music plays, he is raised aloft, resurrected. Later, he spins another cube around himself, while the lights turn its reflective surfaces into streaks of red and blue; then he sinks to the floor, prostrate, awaiting another rebirth.

The clowns in “Alegria,” part of the circus’s infusion of talent from the former Soviet Union, are existential sad sacks, perpetually wandering. One shadows another in a Marxian (Groucho and Harpo) pantomime, with its slapstick turned mysterious by slow, spooky music. In another routine, a clown hangs up an overcoat, puts one arm into a sleeve, and enacts a couple’s tender parting. A rope ladder becomes the railroad for the train to take him away, into the wind and snow of an enveloping storm.

Circuses show off mastery, the triumphs of trained bodies. “Alegria” makes that mastery seem more precious, revealing the circus as a temporary refuge from time and fate.

* * * * *

By: William Stevenson | Back Stage
April 21, 1995

Blending expert acrobatics, haunting music, existential clowning, and extravagant costumes, Cirque du Soleil is not your typical circus. There are no animals–just humans who perform incredible feats with their bodies. And there is never a dull moment in this year’s fast-paced edition, “Alegria,” which is a credit to director Franco Dragone and artistic director Gilles Ste-Croix.

After an introduction offering superfluous plugs for the tour’s sponsors, the fairy tale-like show opens with a parade of company members, who come from around the world but are based in Montreal. Then two young trapeze artists, Xavier Lamoureux and Caroline Therrien, perform a difficult routine that is all the more exciting because it’s done without a net and close to the audience. Its mysterious mood is partly due to Rene Dupere’s evocative music, smokily sung by Francesca Gagnon.

Three clowns get ample opportunity to shine. And a crew of gymnasts do double backflips with ease. After a superb performance by Elena Lev, in which she stretches her body unbelievably while spinning one or more hoops, the first act ends with more clowning and a kind of indoor tornado that blows confetti into the audience.

The second act includes Mikhail Matorin, who ably maneuvers on rings with a giant metal cube, which he supports himself. Then the gymnasts return, this time performing double backflips on hand-held balance beams. After more clowning, two tilly contortionists, Ulziibayar Chimed and Nomin Tseveendorj, bend themselves into unfathomable positions. Finally, Andrei Lev’s troupe ends the evening with a rousing trapeze act in which each member soars through the air to be caught by another.

Every act is individually remarkable, but all are fused into a unified production, with fine sets by Michel Crete and excellent lighting by Luc Lafortune. With its neo-Baroque music, lighting, and costumes, the whole affair might be laughable if it were not so beautifully realized. Cirque du Soleil creates its own enchanted world, and considering the troupe’s international popularity, it’s clearly a world that audiences want to return to often.

* * * * *

By: Richard Christiansen | Chicago Tribune
July 23, 1995

In the beautifully illustrated book that celebrated the 10th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil in 1994, there is a black-and-white photo, taken in 1982, that shows Gilles Ste. Croix, a lean, mustachioed, long-haired stiltwalker, setting off on a solitary walkathon to help raise funds for a new circus entertainment that he and his street-performer colleagues had launched in Quebec.

Now move forward 13 years. Ste. Croix is still lean, but he no longer has a mustache or long hair. For a fund-raising device, he has traded in his stilts for a cellular phone, through which he keeps in touch with the ever-expanding, far-flung empire of the Cirque.

The little summer festival that he and his friends started just outside Quebec City in 1982 grew into a full-blown circus that they put under a blue and yellow striped tent and called Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun, and so called because founder Guy Laliberte believes he gets his best ideas under the the influence of a tropical sun) in 1984.

Their first circus cost $50,000, employed 62 people and ran for a little less than three summer months in Quebec. The performers brought their own costumes.

Today, with year-round operations on three continents, the Cirque spends about $2.5 million on each show and charges a top ticket price of $41. The organization’s annual budget runs around $55 million and there is a payroll of 600 persons. There are 45 performers wearing 90 costumes in the latest creation, “Alegria,” with each costume custom designed for the particular magical environment of this production.

The astounding growth of Cirque du Soleil is evident in miniature in the attendance figures for its Chicago visits alone. When Cirque first set up its tent in 1989 in the Cityfront Center area, it played to about 65 percent capacity in a 1,750-seat big top. In 1991, on its second visit, but now in a 2,500-seat tent, it played to 84 percent, and two years later, it did a near-capacity business of 99.84 percent.

Similar sell-out business is expected for “Alegria,” which opens a 4 1/2-week run Wednesday in its old stamping grounds at 400 N. McClurg Ct.

And Chicago is only one stop on a long trail of engagements that various forms of Cirque are now playing across the globe. Since its breakthrough United States engagement in Los Angeles in 1987, Cirque has extended its audiences far beyond Canada.

“Alegria,” which goes to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta after it leaves here, is nearing the end of a two-year North American tour that began in 1994 in Montreal. In 1996, it will tour Japan; after that, in 1997, it will move on to Europe.

Meanwhile, “Saltimbanco,” which was created in 1992, wrapped up its American visits in 1993, went to Japan in 1994 and is now in Europe for another two-year tour.

Earlier this year, “Mystere,” a new, different Cirque show, opened at the Treasure Island Resort in Las Vegas, in a permanent theater designed especially to accommodate a lavish circus production.

Back home at its headquarters in Montreal, the Cirque creative team is busy developing the early stages of their next offering, due to open in 1996, which will repeat the now-established five-year cycle of American-Japanese-European touring.

On other fronts, Ste. Croix says, Cirque management is preparing a television series and a feature film, either for theatrical release or cable or network showing. By spring of 1998, an even larger theater for Cirque attractions should be ready to open in Las Vegas.

Shrewd merchandisers that they are, the Cirque people also have developed a line of Cirque souvenirs–T-shirts, jackets, caps, masks, mugs, posters, key rings, watches, tins, pins, shopping bags, compact discs, videos, scarves, ties and dolls. And if you don’t get the chance to buy them in the Cirque shop attached to the big top, there’s a mail order catalogue from which you can order.

The amazing thing about this phenomenal expansion is that it has been accomplished by the same crew of ragamuffin players who began so modestly in 1982.

Composer-arranger Rene Dupere, who provides the Cirque’s special sound, was a music teacher and tuba-playing street musician before he linked up with Cirque. Today he’s an integral part of the Cirque’s creative group, blending synthesizers, drums, percussion, violin, accordion and saxophone into the fusion that distinguishes each new edition.

In addition to recording his Cirque scores for best-selling albums, he also is working on separate film projects in Canada.

The creative team for costumes, scenery, lighting and music has remained basically the same over the last decade, and the concept behind each Cirque edition has not radically changed.

Cirque derives some of its presentational style from earlier circus pioneers as far removed as China and Switzerland; and its performers–clowns, aerialists, acrobats, tightrope walkers, contortionists and magicians (but no animals)–are traditional circus artists.

But the individually talented Cirque members, gathered from around the world and then schooled in the ensemble style at the home base in Montreal, are forged into a tightly integrated group of players and are placed in a unique, unmistakably Cirque aura through their bizarre make-up, glittering costumes and complex theatrical lighting.

Though all Cirque shows since 1984 have had similar design and musical identities, each one has maintained a fresh, individual stamp.

“We came from nothing,” Ste. Croix says. “We have grown from street players to company managers, but we have tried to make that a comfortable growth. . . .

“At this stage, we are the originals, still running the show and still carrying the original spirit, but now we must learn to spread that company spirit with new people whom we invite to sit around our table.

“The flame continues to burn inside of us, but we must be able to pass that flame on to the right people in the future.”

* * * * *

By: Richard Christiansen | Chicago Tribune
July 27, 1995

There is no form of theater on this Earth that better transports its viewers to a state of enchantment than Cirque du Soleil.

The factors used to create the Cirque’s illusory world make up an astounding blend of the oldest traditions of circus performance, the basic laws of physical science and the latest innovations in technological resources. Sound, light, costumes and scenery are woven into a single, mesmerizing spectacle, and the skillful use of music, song, dance and physical beauty creates a unique and spellbinding environment, into which the audience is totally immersed.

In its fourth biennial visit here on the banks of the Chicago River at Cityfront Center, Cirque appears even more sophisticated and spellbinding than in the past.

“Alegria,” as this edition is called, has, as usual, a superb lineup of circus performers: 40 in all, ranging in age from 18 to 45, and including contortionists, tumblers, trapeze artists, a fire-knife dancer, tightrope walkers, highfliers and a trio of endearing clowns.

Good to begin with, they are made magnificent by the bravura theatricality with which they are presented.

When Elena Lev, a slip of a girl whose body is made up of elastic bones, sets a battery of bright metal rings swirling around her in a supreme example of brilliant Hula-Hoop maneuvering, that’s sensational enough. But “Alegria” raises that difficult stunt to the realm of magic by focusing a series of colored spotlights on the hoops so that they seem to sparkle in glints of red and blue and green.

A troupe of incredible young acrobats leaps through amazing feats of balance on the Russian bars, which is impressive enough, but the daring of these athletes is made even more sensational by their own spidery white costumes and chalk-faced, red-nosed makeup, and by the background of awe and wonder created by the precisely choreographed movements of a crowd of fellow circus creatures who are watching them.

It’s one thing to send on a parade of tumblers who perform unbelievably high, swift flips on the trampoline; it’s quite another thing to train those tumblers to become dancers, so that their act becomes a ballet, as well.

This is, in every step, a circus ballet, from the clown who seems to split himself in half to the gossamer, fairylike creature (Isabelle Corradi) who wafts through the show, helping to weave it together with her siren song of “Alegria.”

The tricks that the Cirque plays can be very simple, as when an old coat and hat suddenly become animated through a few deft movements by the great clown Slava Polunin, or they can be technically complex, as when a grid of lights criss-crosses the muscled form of Mikhail Matorin as he hangs high above the audience, within the gleaming metal framework of a cube.

The jokes, too, are as basic as a clown whooshing past on a skateboard or as complicated as a wind machine-driven storm of paper bits sailing into the front rows of the crowd.

Under director Franco Dragone, the Cirque’s ingenious production team of Dominique Lemieux (costumes), Michel Crete (sets), Luc Lafortune (lighting and special effects) and Guy Desrochers (sound), Debra Brown (choreography) and Rene Dupere (music) fuse their talents into a seamless whole, each element contributing to the total envelopment of an almost extraterrestrial style.

By themselves, the percussion and the wail of Dupere’s score for six musicians and the fanciful shimmer of Lemieux’s costumes are marvelous pieces of invention. Bring them together in the aura of magic that Cirque engenders and they are even more dazzling in their impact.

It’s a fifth dimension, a new universe, a world of wonder. Adult or child, you’re going to become a part of it and surrender to it gladly.

* * * * *

By: Bob Condor | Chicago Tribune
August 24, 1995

Not much appears ordinary when Mikhail Matorin is lifting, balancing, spinning and hanging off a gigantic see-through cube during his solo act in the Cirque du Soleil, currently under the big tent at North Pier.

For one thing his upper body is perfect biceps upon perfect pectorals upon perfect abdominals-and without any hint of the bodybuilder freak look. The definition in his muscles translates to all languages, including the the small talk among female fans who inevitably wait for another glimpse of “the Cube Man” after each Cirque performance and husbands who openly agree this guy’s torso is, well, perfect.

Or consider Matorin’s dexterity with the cube, which is a three-dimensional framework of aluminum tubing that weighs 30 pounds and measures what would seem an unwieldy 6 feet on all sides. It’s as if he is manhandling some sort of Jungle Gym or juggling the scaffolding you might see at a construction site. He spends eight precious Cirque minutes going through the paces of a high-intensity gymnastics workout that would shame most any Olympian.

The 30-year-old Russian just doesn’t seem human. But that changes when he addresses the question of just how he and fellow performers in the avant-garde circus stay in the shape needed to pull off their many amazing athletic feats since arriving in town July 26 with a show called “Alegria”–everything from cube spinning to flying trapezes to trampoline ballet to tightrope walking to acrobatic flips on a moving beam called the Russian bar.

“My body is never 100 percent,” said Matorin over a cup of lemonade at a backstage trailer cafe. “I am always nursing minor injuries and simply block out the pain during the act. When I practice some of the more difficult moves , I say to myself, `Oh, my God, that hurts! ‘ ”

Unlike others in the traveling company, Matorin has used the actual performances as the primary way to stay in shape over a grueling nine-city, 19-month American tour that started in May 1994.

“We do 10 shows each week,” he explains, “so I only practice twice a week for about an hour each time. Other than that, I walk a lot and go to the gym to use the weight machines only when I’m hyper.”

Of course, Matorin shrugs off his ritual hour of warm-ups before each show, in which he goes through an extensive set of stretching and strengthening exercises that includes enough pull-ups (30) to spread

over a week for the rest of us. He said the pull-ups especially help him to “wake up the body.”

Power and grace Emilie Therrien, a tumbler in the “Fast Track” trampoline number and costumed bird and angel in other parts of the show, draws strength from a different approach. She attends dance class at the nearby Bryant Ballet school every morning for two hours to supplement the three official tumbling practices each week. She also travels with a bike, which she has been riding frequently on the city’s lakefront trail.

“The ballet strengthens my ankles,” said Therrien, an 18-year-old French Canadian from Montreal who has notched more than 450 performances and thousands of flips, cartwheels and handstands in her two years with Cirque. “But I really do it because I love dance, and the classes give me energy I can take back to my job.”

It isn’t surprising that Therrien and other “Fast Track” tumblers have ballet roots. Many of the trampoline movements among women and men contain a clear element of dancelike grace, particularly as the

tumblers hold the final flips like a competitive diver elongating before slipping into the water.

Therrien missed a week of performances earlier this year in Santa Monica, Calif., when she sprained an ankle while doing a rapid series of six flips.

“I sort of hopped off the stage,” said Therrien. “The directors had to make some fast adjustments to fill my spots. Sometimes we have to take something out of the show if a certain person is hurt.”

Working through the doldrums

Even when they are healthy, the performers occasionally find it hard to complete their appointed moves. Like a baseball hitter or weekend golfer, the Cirque players can fall into a slump.

“You might have trouble getting up enough speed or jumping high enough on a flip,” said Therrien. “Maybe your arms are bending too much and you have lost the good feeling. The only way out is practice.”

The Cirque troupe has no physical trainer and only a few informal coaches. Yet it was clear during a recent visit to the backstage areas that the performers are serious athletes. They seemed to eat all the right foods before a performance–high-carbohydrate items such as fruits and bagels and split-pea soup–while drinking plenty of water.

What’s more, there was an impressive amount of proper stretching being done as showtime drew closer. Nobody seemed to be just going through the motions–in contrast to any given number of professional athletes on any given day.

There were even some psych jobs in progress.

“I concentrate on what I will be doing with the cube,” said Matorin. “I don’t want to talk to anybody in the half hour before we get started.”

After the show is another story. The personable, self-described “citizen of the world” enjoys mingling with the crowd–even if fans don’t always recognize his surprisingly compact 5-foot-8-inch, 140-pound frame when it’s covered with a shirt. He looks bigger and more imposing onstage.

“It happens all the time,” said Matorin, laughing. “I walk out with a friend, and he hears some people talking about how they are waiting for the Cube Man. My friend points to me, and the people say, `This is the Cube Man?’ We have to convince them I’m the same guy.”

# # #

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

• 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)