We’re Off and Running, Part 6:
Saltimbanco, Part 1 (1992)

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 1992’s reviews of Saltimbanco.

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By: Don Shirely | LA Times
October 10, 1992

The creators of “Saltimbanco,” the latest extravaganza from Le Cirque du Soleil, contend that their theme this year is “urbanity,” as in “city life.”

“We tried to take a good look at society as it is now,” wrote “director of creation” Gilles Ste-Croix in the program notes. Oh, oh . . . a “post-riot” Cirque, perhaps?

Forget all that. “Saltimbanco” is the most fanciful production that Le Cirque has brought to Los Angeles. If this is a picture of “society as it is now,” let’s all move to the Cirque’s home in Montreal.

Maybe that “society as it is now” claim stems from the fact that the level of audience involvement has increased. More than in the past, audience members are coaxed/coerced into the action before the show proper even begins. On opening night, one woman was carried to the other side of the tent by a set of goofy-looking clowns. One man was stripped to the waist.

Clown Rene Bazinet’s solos depend heavily on audience response. Clad in a baseball cap, bow tie and baggy shorts, with a buck-toothed grin, the supple Bazinet pitches imaginary baseballs at spotlighted audience members, who respond by “throwing” them back.

Later, he recruits a spectator for an extended set of let’s-pretend mime on center stage, accompanied by peerless sound effects. Up close, this was a fascinating evocation of theater’s roots in simple play. But friends who were seated farther back said there were problems seeing this act, and one wonders what would happen if Bazinet chose the wrong man.

Leaving aside the audience participation, however, the Cirque performers themselves look and act like creatures from another planet. Unlike previous Cirque shows, none of them is dressed as a mere mortal at the beginning, only to become transformed upon entering a magical world. Other than an obligatory thank-you to the corporate sponsors, this is a fantasy from the get-go.

True, we see a sleeping man (Guennadi Tchijov) enter a dream world. But he’s no Joe Six-Pack, dozing off in front of the TV set. This guy has a blue tail even before his “dream” begins.

Director Franco Dragone, composer Rene Dupere, choreographer Debra Brown and the designers (costumes Dominique Lemieux, sets Michael Crete, lights Luc Lafortune, sound Jonathan Deans) cradle us completely in their imaginary world. Even the most marginal member of the troupe maintains the illusion at every moment.

Among the featured “dreams,” first up is a Russian Dad (Nikolai Tchelnokov), Mom (Galina Karableva) and little boy (7-year-old Anton Tchelnokov). Dressed as if for “Star Trek,” these three twist themselves around each other in a breathtaking display of strength and flexibility that ends in an embrace that’s touching in more ways than one. The family that contorts together, stays together.

Next, a team of 15 acrobats in brilliantly striped body suits cavort around and among four tall poles. They climb up in a “look, Ma, no legs” style and then descend head first, stopping just in time to avoid brain damage.

The rest of the first act isn’t quite as eye-boggling. The cable around tightrope walker Jingmin Wang’s waist may make everyone breathe easier, but should that be the goal at a circus? Juggler Miguel Herrera, though much more than adept, dropped the ball a few too many times.

Ann Bernard and Helene Lemay whip up an impressive frenzy with their “boleadoras” act, involving twirling ropes, flamenco steps and furious drumming by Francois Beausoleil, but the act doesn’t look as superhuman as most.

After intermission, 15 acrobats take turns leaping off a giant swing into a net. But that’s just the warm-up for the trapeze act of identical twins Karyne and Sarah Steben. It’s not just their gymnastic prowess that astonishes; it’s also their uncanny resemblance, which extends beyond looks to what appears to be a remarkable blend of two souls in one, as if they used to be Siamese twins.

This theme continues with the hand-to-hand balancing act of two brothers, Paulo and Marco Lorador. This looks more excruciatingly difficult than anything else in the show, but these guys’ muscles could apparently move mountains.

Finally, a bungee-derived act launches four angels into graceful flights around the Big Top, accompanied by astral-sounding soprano Francine Poitras. Incidentally, don’t bother trying to decipher the lyrics in this first Cirque show with singing; most of them are made-up words, befitting a made-up world.

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Review: ‘Cirque Du Soleil: Saltimbanco’
Christopher Meeks | VARIETY
OCTOBER 12, 1992

Spooky masked, long-snouted clowns who look as if they might have arrived from outtakes of “Brazil” weave through the audience creating hilarity as a blue Alice-in-Wonderland cat-like mime prances on a shrouded white stage. The shroud is sucked through a hole in the sky as a rock band, beneath a stained-glass-like green canopy, launches into a pulsating song, and a caped, snake-haired master of ceremonies enters.

So begins Cirque du Soleil’s fifth anniversary show, “Saltimbanco,” which means “skilled street performers and travelling acrobats.” The evening proves that success has not spoiled the artful, enchanting and lyrical troupe.

Once again the Canadian-based company demonstrates they operate with different rules of gravity and musculature while melding circus with dance, music and theater.

If one has never been to Cirque du Soleil, be prepared to redefine the meaning of “circus.” Without animal acts or three rings, and based solely on human exuberance and physicality, the performers enthrall with one act after another, seamlessly joined by stage hands whose costumes, choreography and clown antics are events in themselves.

Each act is a madeleine to be cherished and remembered as a beautiful sight that passes all too soon.

The show has a different flavor than last year’s “Nouvelle Experience,” whose fog, lighting and acoustic music had more of a timeless feel. “Saltimbanco” gives a harder edge with its electronic music and performers who appear anonymous and unisexed behind masks, white-face and leotards that swallow them from head to foot. The show is different, but the lyricism and sense of wonder remain.

In this year of questions of what is family, three acts in particular answer in a kind of visual poetry. In the opening act, Nikolai Tchelnokov, his wife Galina Karableva and their six-year-old son, Anton, perform contortion acrobatic marvels that join them like rose petals to a stem. One senses their constant physical connection speaks of love and interdependence.

Later on, the heavily muscled brothers Marco and Paulo Lorador execute a series of hand-to-hand balancing and gymnastic movements that combine grace with strenuous tests of endurance. The trust one has for the other permeates the performance.

Before them, 17-year-old twin sisters Karyne and Sarah Steben perform 50 feet up on a single trapeze like synchronized swimmers of the air.

As in past shows, most of the routines offer such a simple setting that less is more. Fifteen gymnasts take to four 20-foot poles–“Chinese poles” based on the traditional Chinese circus–and appear as if they’re made up of steel wire and feathers. A juggler, Miguel Herrera, performs on an acrylic set of stairs.

Jingmin Wang walks up a guy wire to a set of uneven tightropes where she dances, jumps, even flips from a unicycle onto her feet.

Two lithe young women, Ann Bernard and Helene Lemay, in flame-colored suits, perform a Spanish flamenco using Argentine “boleadoras”–hard balls on a string that hit the floor–to dance to the accompaniment of percussionist Francois Beausoleil.

The funniest act on opening night was when clown Rene Bazinet, performing mime with self-produced sound effects, ensnared a denim-dressed man from the audience to join him. The man warmed to the clown’s wordless mime lessons, and they enacted eating bananas, slipping on the peels, and, in inspired shenanigans , a shootout at high noon.

The evening ends in a bungee ballet, with four aerial acrobats who, connected to bungee cords and working off of trapezes 50 feet up, fly over and under each other and eventually connect like parachutists in a display. With them flies the voice of singer Francine Poitras, in operatic splendor. Poitras lends her vocal talents at several points throughout the show.

The highly creative set by Michel Crete unifies all the other elements and allows the performers and stage hands to slip into a backlit horizon. The light design and special effects by Luc Lafortune and the sound design by Jonathan Deans maintain the high standard of previous Cirque du Soleil shows–to the point it can spoil other circuses.

Costume designer Dominique Lemieux seems to have an unstoppable and vibrant imagination that combines commedia dell’arte clowns with sprites of various sorts to create swirling spirits of color. Rene Dupere’s score carries the show and one’s emotions to the heights.

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By: Lori E. Pike | LA Times
January 28, 1993

There is a moment early in “Saltimbanco,” Cirque du Soleil’s latest show, which trumpets the fact that this shimmering, 2 3/4-hour extravaganza under a Big Top is neither pure circus, nor vaudeville, nor theater, but a different entertainment animal altogether.

That moment comes when an acrobat walks on stage carrying what looks like a domed, stained-glass cake plate, illuminated from the inside, its panels glowing the same blue and yellow as the stripes of the circus tent. As the music swells and the lid is dramatically raised, what does the audience see? A cake? A diamond necklace?

No. A chair.

There, revealed for the curious crowd, sits a tiny, shiny chair, pink and yellow and turquoise, looking like a whimsical, overstuffed confection concocted by Willy Wonka.

Twice now I have seen the show, and both times I was haunted by that wee chair with its psychedelic splotches. What is its meaning?

Perhaps Andrew Watson, Cirque du Soleil artistic director on this tour, could solve the mystery.

We spoke in mid-December in an office alcove in the circus rehearsal complex in Santa Monica, accompanied by the sounds of tumblers and dancers leaping, flipping, flopping, strutting and stretching on mats nearby in their pre-show warm-up. The mood of the troupe seemed upbeat. In one week, all the performers and technicians would be on holiday hiatus, 94 successful L.A. performances for 2,500 people a night under their belts.

After a nice, long vacation, the Montreal-based troupe of performers from 10 nations would gather again to continue the show’s California run in Costa Mesa, where they set box office records during their last appearance in 1991. That show was called “Nouvelle Experience.” The ’92-’93 model, “Saltimbanco,” takes its name from an Italian word that loosely means “a jump on the bench,” or the art of street-performing.

“I think the ’87 show (Cirque du Soleil’s U.S debut, ‘Cirque Reinvente’) was less technical and more naive. Perhaps more in touch with everyday moments,” Watson says. A later version of “Cirque Reinvente” was “a bit darker–a different show altogether,” according to Watson. Next came “Nouvelle Experience,” the Cirque’s extremely successful ’90-’91 offering. And now Saltimbanco. “This show is lighter, and really fancy and quite high-tech, and we sing in it and have a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he says. “Everybody has a preference, and that’s fine. I don’t think any one show is better than another.”

In his jeans, horn-rimmed glasses and baseball cap, Watson looks more like a young screenwriter than artistic director and all-around trouble-shooter for a circus–albeit a distinctive circus. The cast of 40 that Watson is responsible for ranges from goofy clowns in purple dreadlocks to a petite, high-wire artiste from China who does daring feats with her feet while dressed in a bubblegum-pink unitard, snail-shaped sequin bustier and futuristic tutu.

Asked what it’s like to steer an entertainment vehicle that has everything from a full-blown rock band to the Elastiques, nimble people who resemble a spandex-clad sextet of spiders as they dive smoothly through the air while tethered to bungee-cord-like white filaments hooked to their hip harnesses, Watson replies:

“My work is to maintain the excellence of the show and the excellence of performance. At the same time, my job is to evolve the show: the characters, the technical aspects, the acrobatic technique. It’s like baby-sitting the show and at the same time, helping it to grow up.”

Part of that evolution means that the Orange County version will feature a new vocalist, Chantal Girard, for some performances. She and Francine Poitras, the main singer, croon no English words–only hauntingly beautiful phonemic sequences in Swedish, German and other languages. The effect is an otherworldly cross between singing in tongues and the music of the Cocteau Twins, British alternative pop artists known for vocalizing in their own made-up syllables. The Costa Mesa show will also see the debut of a new act called the “vertical ropes,” which features a Soviet family trio performing graceful and dramatic acrobatic moves.

Development and transformation are highly valued by the Cirque’s directors and performers. Rather than imposing a single artistic vision on cast members and demanding they rigidly follow that script throughout months of the show’s run, Watson and director-conceptualizer Franco Dragone heartily welcome collaboration.

“People are encouraged to evolve. It makes it better for everybody. As we’re doing so many shows, that keeps it more interesting for the cast,” Watson says. “But all that has to be kept in context with the content of the show. Also, when someone is sick or injured, then it’s a different sort of change. You have to heal the show. If you take an act out, then you have to marry the two ends of the show that remain.”

Then came the question: What about that enchanting little chair? Watson’s free-flowing answers became more circumspect, and couched in their own aura of mystery. “It’s a symbol, yes, but I really don’t think I want to talk about it,” he says. “Everybody who sees the show has his own vision. Each tableaux, each scene, has such a different feeling. I think people really have space to dream inside the show. And if I start explaining my opinion of what everything is. . . . ” He trails off, no doubt contemplating the horror of constricting potential Cirque-goers’ artistic vision before they’ve even gone to the show.

Suffice to say, Cirque du Soleil is impressionistic. It is a bit of music, a bit of clowning around. A bit of teamwork, a bit of solo panache. A bit of broken-bone-defying daredeviltry and a bit of comic relief. Throughout the show, audience members are given the emotional space to lay their own template of wishes and dreams upon the actions on stage.

Below, several performers give their own impressions about their role in the show’s entertainment equation.

As for that chair . . . well, I have my theories. And if you see the Cirque, you can formulate a few of your own.

It’s somewhat disorienting to see Rene Bazinet so still as he sips tea at a table in the Cirque’s canteen tent. As “Saltimbanco’s” emcee and ringmaster, the German-born performer is in perpetual motion, giving his pantomime and comedic talents free rein as he plays a few minor characters and three very different major roles.

There is the Baron–a strutting figure in candy-striped red-and-black tights, flowing cape and silver-swizzle-streaked bride-of-Frankenstein hair. Then there’s the Old Man, a hooded, hunched grandpa of doom who tries to be ominous but only succeeds in drawing laughs with his theatrical wheezing.

Bazinet’s piece de resistance, though, is Eddy, a bucktoothed little boy with an oversized cap, an exaggerated slouch that turns his spine into a question mark, and a huge pair of striped boxer shorts that he’s fond of yanking up to his armpits. He emphasizes this “boy’s” brattiness with one of the most expressive tongues seen on stage in a long time. He also employs a catalogue of whistling and various aural effects (amplified by a discreet headset microphone) which communicate as much as words ever could.

“Yeah, I’m a bruiteur — that’s French for ‘sound maker,’ ” he says, making a quick, screechy whistle to demonstrate.

With his perfectly arched eyebrows and chiseled cheekbones, slender neck wrapped in a scarf and wavy, prematurely gray hair, Bazinet comes across more as the European aristocrat than the clown. He’s been rather soft-spoken and serious up to this point in a brief pre-show interview, but a question about the buckteeth brings a flash of mischief to his face.

“I have a spare pair right here in my wallet,” he says. “I bought them from a carnival shop.” No buckteeth are located, alas, but he does find some vampire fangs that he happily inserts into his mouth, stretching his lips into a most ridiculous Dracula grin.

Bazinet is hyper-thin, which serves his sassy, little-boy role very well. But that seeming gauntness masks a body that is as strong, flexible and toned as any dancer’s. One moment that highlights this versatile performer’s body control and deftness of movement comes as he pauses at the edge of the stage, debating whether to step up or not.

Bazinet points and flexes his foot in its black jazz shoe until it seems like the sniffing muzzle of a dog, now touching down gingerly here, now recoiling there, now spiraling slowly, looking for a place to safely plant itself. That foot has the arch and precision of a ballet pro.

In another hilarious pantomime portion that involves an imaginary overflowing toilet and a stuck bathroom door, Bazinet’s physical finesse makes the silly situation completely believable. That kind of motion, as effortless as it looks, is anything but.

“I’m standing on one leg for minutes, ‘swimming’ through air, puffing my cheeks out and trying to breathe at the same time–it’s very tiring,” he says. “I’m basically pooped after that.”

In each show, one audience member has the rare opportunity to cross the invisible barrier between the cast and crowd and join Bazinet onstage for some spontaneous pantomiming. It’s usually an amusing segment that allows the audience to root madly for one of its “own.” But does it ever backfire?

“Oh, yes,” Bazinet says, though he has generally found the people he’s pulled out of California audiences “more open and daring” than most.

“One guy in Quebec just didn’t want to do it, and he felt uncomfortable, and had to protect himself, and he wasn’t listening to me. He tried to pull one over on the clown, if you know what I mean,” Bazinet says.

He shrugs. “So sometimes I just let it die. It’s not funny anymore.”

He pauses, this man who has fished for laughs for years in Germany, France, Canada and now the United States, pondering the deeper rhythms of clowning.

“Certain things just speak for themselves,” he says. “There’s a high level of intelligence in the viewer. And you can de-mask yourself by not wanting to take off the mask.

“By not wanting to be an idiot, you turn out to be a very great idiot–by not just trusting in the situation and just going along with it and knowing that you’re all right anyway, and don’t need anybody’s approval.”

So, if you happen to be the lucky one chosen from the audience to share the stage with a bow-tied, bucktoothed, gifted clown, don’t panic. “Just hang loose,” Bazinet offers. “It’s not that easy. But I’ll give you a hand.”

If Bazinet rules the ridiculous in “Saltimbanco,” then brothers Paulo and Marco Lorador preside over the sublime. The Portugal duo known professionally as the Alexis Brothers (in honor of their father, a circus performer himself), has traveled the world for 16 years performing the time-honored act of hand-to-hand balancing.

With their sparkling white, chest-baring unitards and perfectly tuned, symmetrical, bronzed bodies, they look almost superhuman up on the round performance platform. The muscle-rippling poses and impossible balances that they strike are often more challenging than anything even Olympic gymnastics has to offer.

“Sometimes people see me offstage and say, ‘You’re not the guy who was in the show. You looked so big. And those legs,’ Paulo says, grinning. Marco, 25 and the slightly smaller brother, is feeling a bit under the weather. So 27-year-old Paulo, who acts as the foundation for their lifts, gives a solo description of the ” Main-a-main ” experience, as hand-to-hand balancing translates in French.

On this rainy afternoon, he is clad in jeans and a leather jacket which reveal nary a muscle. Without the benefit of the lights and the costume, he does indeed look rather ordinary in stature, though his handsome face and bleached-blond buzz-cut with a dark streak through it make him look like a trendy, Pepe Le Pew-ish punker.

The Elastiques, the trapezists and the Russian Swing divers may rule over the more harrowing moments in the Cirque. But the Lorador brothers, through pure strength, streamlined grace and balance, provide one of the Cirque’s most beautiful and, surprisingly, emotionally stirring acts. The Loradors have burnished their teamwork into fine art, and audience members gasp audibly and repeatedly as the brothers strike what seem like impossible angles time and again, dependent fully on the strength of one another to keep them from tumbling to the ground.

Purrs of pleasure from the audience can also be heard throughout the brothers’ performance. It’s undeniable–there is something simultaneously noble and sensual about their seven-minute display.

When asked if he and Marco ever receive mash notes, Paulo modestly replies: “Well, you know. You have fans who come to see the show, and stop to say ‘hi.’ I like compliments, of course. It makes my day easier.”

Having worked together since they were boys, the brothers find no problem synchronizing their moves. “We don’t have to communicate. We know already. That comes automatically,” Paulo says.

It helps that both brothers are “very professional,” he adds. “When you get on stage, you forget about everything else. We never argue; or at least, very rarely. The good thing is that we have respect for each other. As soon as you lose respect–forget about it. You start calling each other names and things like that–that doesn’t work.”

Which doesn’t mean that they are the Bobbsey Brothers of the Cirque. (There is a pair of identical twins in the show, though–trapezists Karyne and Sarah Steben). With all that togetherness on stage and in practice, they prefer to live separate lives of leisure. “Marco likes to go out, and I like to stay home and watch TV. I’m more of a mellow guy,” Paulo says.

After all these years of performing, the elder Lorador brother is matter-of-fact about the impact he and Marco have on the audience. “When we’re onstage, it’s like we’re in another world, and people watching us somehow want to be us,” he says. “People think–‘Oh, those guys–look at them!’ We seem superior.

“But after the lights go off, we’re regular people–human beings who have feelings, too.”

* * * * *

By: Lori E. Pike | LA Times
January 30, 1993

Mix two French-Canadian beauties with Madonna-esque cones of hair, Star Trek-style culottes and gaucho boots, a jazzy master of percussion, and eerie green fluorescent spheres on tethers sweeping through the darkness of a circus tent, and what do you have? One of the most striking–literally–acts in Cirque du Soleil. They call themselves Malamba, and they’ll be appearing tonight and for the next five weeks with the Cirque in Costa Mesa.

Helene Lemay, 31, Ann Bernard, 23, and drummer Francois Beausoleil, 31, have the distinction of being the act that spurs audience members to ponder, ” What are they doing?” As Beausoleil, in harlequin attire, slams out a variety of beats, Lemay and Bernard do a boot-stomping flamenco in syncopation to the staccato percussion of their golf-ball-sized, floor-whacking boleadoras swirling from each hand.

“It’s a really ‘groundy’ dance, done deeply and loudly with the feet,” Lemay explains.

The effect is part Spanish senoritas from space, part Western women with innovative lassos–or mighty peculiar bondage instruments. The yelps of encouragement that the women and the drummer make to each other as they move through their intricate paces add to the mystery, and the momentum, of a dance that takes mind-boggling hand and feet coordination.

Just how high this ranks on the skill scale is apparently lost on some audience members. Since Malamba–which takes its name from a dance rhythm, malambo –concludes the first act, intermission sometimes brings out critics in the crowd who wonder why they weren’t treated to yet another high-risk, high-flying aerial stunt.

But Bernard says their dance has risks of its own. “I hit myself once during the show,” she says ruefully, explaining how a ball from the boleadoras smacked her in the temple.

Said Lemay: “I looked over at her and thought, ‘Oh my God!’ while we were dancing. I knew she didn’t know her head was bleeding.”

“It was a dramatic show,” Bernard deadpans.

The act got its start six years ago, when Bernard dated an Argentine man who taught her how to handle the boleadoras.

“They first came from the gauchos in Argentina,” she says. “They hunted animals with them.” Back then, the cords were leather with stones at the end, and typically were thrown at cattle and other creatures to tether their legs. About 30 years ago, Argentines began to incorporate them into different styles of dance.

Lemay met Bernard on the streets of Quebec City, where all three come from. “I wanted to learn that rhythm thing,” Lemay says. “She started to learn, and she was good, so we say, ‘Come on’ ” Bernard adds.

“At first the dance was really hard for me,” says Lemay, who previously performed with a modern-dance company. “I mean, I can dance and move, but there was something with the coordination. . . . We worked on the feet first, but when we added the boleadoras –that’s not easy. Slowly, I got the rhythm. It became like a singing in my head.”

The two women were blazing a performance trail, since, according to them, it’s usually men who do this type of dancing. “There are ladies who do the folk dances with the big dresses in Argentina, but this is considered more of a macho thing,” Bernard says. Eventually, Bernard’s former boyfriend dropped out of the act.

The group has given another twist to tradition by replacing the standard single acoustic drum usually used for accompaniment with Beausoleil’s work. The former jazz-combo drummer says he’s aiming for a broad range of percussive sounds, including harmonics produced by synthesized drums. “We want to make a mix of this dance from Argentina, and music that has nothing to do with Argentina,” he says. “No one else is doing that.”

Once the act’s present lineup stabilized, the dancers started to make a modest living by doing performances. One night in 1992, as Malamba was strutting its stuff for friends in a small tango studio in Montreal, members of the Cirque du Soleil talent-scouting team saw them and offered them a spot on the “Saltimbanco” bill.

“We were excited but also afraid,” Bernard says. “It’s a long tour, a lot of shows”–Cirque du Soleil artists sign two-year initial contracts, sometimes with a renewal option. “And we were just starting to have our own contacts and perform a lot. When you go on tour, you lose all of that. But, you do get to work every day.”

The boleadoras Bernard and Lemay use are a far cry from the leather-and-stones version of the Argentine plains. Lemay and Bernard assemble strong climbing rope and balls made out of a special type of hard plastic. “At first we were using wood, but it splintered,” Lemay says. “We have to change the plastic often because it changes shape and flattens. And then the spin doesn’t work right.”

The cords are almost four feet long. Tiny loops at the ends slip over the women’s little fingers. “We have a tendency to try to take the cords longer and longer so that we can stand straighter, but that is hard. We lose the speed,” Lemay explains. She and Bernard tape their wrists to help guard against the tendinitis that could develop from thousands of minute wrist revolutions they must make in every performance to keep the balls moving in their perfect circles.

While Lemay and Bernard may command most of the audience’s attention during performances, Beausoleil is treated as a full partner. Even in the interview, Beausoleil is given respectful room to contribute as many comments as they do. All three believe the success of the act depends on each artist following closely what the other two do throughout performances.

“It’s like music, but very difficult music, because the rhythm has to be so tight together,” Beausoleil says. “There needs to be complicity between the three of us to keep it together. That’s why we shout. We need to be on a very high level of energy to do this show right, because it’s very difficult.”

The three continually work to refine what they do. “Costa Mesa’s show will have some different music,” Beausoleil promises. He often haunts local jazz clubs for inspiration late at night after his Cirque performances.

The dancers do their part by “practicing a lot,” Bernard says. “We watch videos of ourselves to see how we can improve. We’re always changing something–little things. It keeps us alive.”

What’s the thrust of Malamba?

“It’s rhythm,” says the one who can hear it “singing” in her head. “Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.”

* * * * *

By: M. E. Warren | LA Times
February 1, 1993

Lightning and hail crowned the opening of Cirque du Soleil at South Coast Plaza on Saturday night, and though nature put on a fabulous show, this circus is well-nigh impossible to eclipse. To experience it is to know what is meant by “the greatest show on earth.”

The big top is a colorful cocoon where magic incubates in this incandescent, exquisitely playful paean to an urbane future that defies gravity and personifies grace, in which even that old standard, the bathroom joke, is fancifully, hilariously reinterpreted with an edge of elastic optimism.

For those who have never participated in a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, this is a circus of two-legged animals who fly, slither, leap, tumble and tickle the funny bone as few other menageries can. Though children may wonder when the lions will be coming on, the adults will recognize the kings and queens of beasts, disguised as acrobats, gymnasts, trapeze artists, wire-walkers and clowns.

The leonine Marco and Paulo Lorador’s feats of unbelievable strength and balance had the audience roaring.

The Steben twins, Karyne and Sarah, flip around a bar 20 feet in the air and catch each other with their ankles. Nikolai Tchelnokov does backward flips and gainers down a rope, from handhold to handhold. Sun Hongli walks not one, but two tightropes, bouncing from one to the other as if she were on a trampoline. So who needs monkeys? For anyone who has lived within the mortal coil long enough to have an awareness of its limitations, Cirque du Soleil is a revelation. The human body is a temple in which miracles can happen.

Cirque du Soleil deifies not only the physical being but the imaginative, emotional being as well.

As in past productions, the performance is rounded within a mystical story, not a plot, but a sensibility. Urbanity is the inspirational theme for Saltimbanco, as this show is called, in which the creative collaborators present a vision of our citified future exploding with diversity and questing for perfection.

Saltimbanco is a 16th-Century word for “street performer” or “showman.” The corps of the company, the comic acrobats, are like a gang of the future, with their fantastic punk outfits and hip-hop routines.

Master of ceremonies Rene Bazinet clowns with the sophisticated wit and ease of a late-night TV megameister. His unique sound-effects language is at once reminiscent of the good old days of radio, and suggestive of a not-too-distant time when words will be obsolete.

With the delicacy and strength of a spider’s web, Saltimbanco straddles time and place and captures the imagination as only truly great theater can do. It is to kineticism what Shakespeare is to the English language, and the words of the bard are apt to describe the feeling that Saltimbanco kindles: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on . . .”

The production design is as sumptuous as a Medici festival and as witty as modern technology allows. The live band rocks and rolls through the all new score, which includes the soaring vocals of Francine Poitras, whose singing is the incantation for Cirque du Soleil’s transformative, magical spell.

And never fear that you won’t know when to applaud. Applaud all the way through. And don’t forget to roar.

* * * * *

by: Jerry Holderman | LA Times
February 3, 1993

Anton Tchelnokov is living an adventure most kids only dream of.

He attends school two hours a day and spends his afternoons practicing gymnastics and acrobatics. He earns his own money without having to take out the trash or walk the dog, bounces on a trampoline whenever he pleases, and has swapped autographed photos with his hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He knows he will be the center of attention at least once a day, has free rein in a restaurant where cooks prepare his favorite foods to order, and sees his best friend–a 37-year-old-clown–no less than six days a week.

A normal childhood? Hardly.

The only child of renowned rope-climbing Russian contortionists Nikolai Tchelnokov, 32, and Galina Karableva, 34, Anton made his artistic debut with the Moscow Circus at the ripe old age of 3 and the 7-year-old is now touring North America as the youngest performer with Cirque du Soleil, which opened a five-week Orange County engagement at South Coast Plaza last Saturday.

“I know his world is very different, but it’s a beautiful life my son is living,” says Tchelnokov, who performs two numbers in the show with his son and wife. “He is exposed to so much artistically and culturally. He speaks three languages (Russian, French and English), and he is seeing the world. It is an experience few young people ever have.”

Tchelnokov, whose own childhood growing up in the former Soviet Union was much more traditional, feels passionately that normal doesn’t necessarily translate into better.

“I was a regular kid,” says Tchelnokov. “My mother was a construction worker and my father was a soldier who was imprisoned by Stalin during the war. When my father died, she raised six children alone. It was simple and it was, yes, normal, but was it better than what my son is doing now? I don’t think so. Anton has a very good life.”

And a very busy one. In addition to afternoon rehearsals and nine performances a week, Anton attends school from 12:30 to 2:30 every afternoon in a circus trailer situated a stone’s throw from the blue-and-yellow big top. Teacher Robert Ballard, whose job it is to educate Anton and the four older minors who travel with the show, readily admits that his littlest student often proves to be the biggest handful.

“Anton has a lot of energy, and he really needs to be kept stimulated,” says Ballard, who taught at a Montreal elementary school before joining Cirque de Soleil’s North American tour 2 1/2 years ago. “He has the attention span of most boys his age. After 10 minutes he wants to do something else.”

While two hours of school a day may sound academically lightweight, Anton’s father is quick to point out that the education his son is getting extends far beyond the classroom walls.

“When I was in school for eight hours every day, I was always tired,” recalls Tchelnokov. “It was too much information. I think for his age, he is getting what he needs. He has already taken in so much information about this world by being with people and just living life.”

In addition to the time Anton spends in the classroom, he’s also expected to study in Russian for another two hours a day under the supervision of his parents as part of an agreement with the Russian government. Every two weeks, he takes proficiency exams in math, French, English and science.

Copies of Anton’s exam scores are submitted to the Education Ministry of Quebec and administrators at a Montreal elementary school, who oversee his education. Copies are also delivered to circus management when Ballard meets with them to review how Anton and the other child performer, 13-year-old acrobat Sonya St. Martin, are progressing with their studies.

“We sit down once a week and assess whether the kids are getting what they need,” Ballard says. “If they need to practice less and devote more time to their schoolwork, I explain why. I have a strong commitment to giving them a complete education because I know they won’t be performing with the circus for a lifetime. I want to make sure that they will be prepared once this part of their lives is over.”

Because it’s the only place where Anton regularly spends time with children close to his age (two of the students are 11, one is 13 and one is 17), Ballard says he makes a conscious effort to create a healthy, balanced environment “where the kids can be kids.”

“My first year with the show, four of the students were performers and one was not,” Ballard remembers. “It was very difficult for the one girl because she always felt she was in the shadow of the others. I see the classroom as a great equalizer. The artists have no special privileges here. They’re here to get a good education, and my job is to make sure that they do.”

But what about the developmental passages that children experience by interacting with their peers? Tchelnokov admits that while the adults his son considers playmates are “young at heart,” there may be some disadvantages in not having same-age friends your.

“Not too long ago, Anton was playing a game with an 11-year-old whose parents work for the show,” he recalls. “The older boy wanted to go first because he was bigger. Anton couldn’t understand why that should be, because in his world, everybody is bigger. He sees adults differently than most kids because he’s around them so much.”

As much as Tchelnokov and Karableva say they’d like for their son to meet children closer to his own age, it rarely happens.

“Sometimes kids send nice letters to Anton and say, ‘If you want to see our city while you’re here, call us’,” says Tchelnokov. “That makes us very glad. But we have only Mondays off, and he usually sleeps most of the afternoon. Yesterday, we went up the (freeway) to play little (miniature) golf and there were some children there.”

Though Anton is the youngest performer in the show, he’s not the baby of the 110-person Cirque du Soleil community. That distinction belongs to 18-month-old Guillaume Gauthier, whose father, 31-year-old acrobat Alain Gauthier, agrees with Anton’s parents that growing up beneath the big top can be “fantastic for a child”.

“There’s a phenomenal energy here, and the kids absorb that,” says Gauthier. “I bring Guillaume into the artistic tent during the show, and he’s surrounded by all these friendly people wearing colorful costumes and makeup. He goes from arms to arms. He has lots of aunts and uncles, and he loves it. He’s not afraid of anyone or anything. For him, it’s a wonderland.”

But Gauthier agrees with Tchelnokov and Karableva that raising a child in such a world presents certain challenges.

“It’s tricky and you always have to keep your eyes open,” says Gauthier, who lives with his wife, Marie-Eve Dumais, and son in a small trailer on site. “It can be a dangerous place, especially for an infant. There’s lots of electrical wiring, lots of equipment being moved. Backstage, people who are rehearsing can fall on him, and there are plenty of places where he can fall. It keeps you on your toes.”

Even though his son won’t start school for three years, Gauthier says Guillaume’s education is something to which he’s already given plenty of thought. Gauthier values education (he holds a university degree in geology and has done classical course work in Latin and Greek).

“There are pros and cons to every way of living,” Gauthier says. “Circus kids spend less time in the classroom, but they also get much more attention when they’re there. In classes of 30 or 40 students, teachers can spend as much time disciplining as they do teaching. Here, it’s like having a private tutor.”

Private tutor or not, Anton Tchelnokov is still no fan of the classroom. He returned to school last week after a month break, and he’s clearly not thrilled about it.

“I don’t like it because I have to sit too long,” he says with a sigh of resignation.

# # #

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

• 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)