We’re Off and Running, Part 10:
Quidam, Part 1 (1996-1997)

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 1996 and 1997’s reviews of Quidam.

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By: Laurie Winer | LA Times
September 28, 1996

The Montreal-based theatrical, emotional, animal-free international circus has returned with a new show, “Quidam,” having its American premiere under the big top at the Santa Monica Pier. While the audience is still finding its seats, the emcee (a Kramer-esque John Gilkey) selects a victim from the crowd, who is immediately whisked away by a group of white-coveralled assistants to a backstage destination. When next we see our missing audience member, moments later, he is also white-suited, and following cues as to how to act from his captors, who are busy picking a new victim out of the crowd.

It’s a brilliant case of using the audience as found art, with additional built-in “1984”-ish points about assimilation and social control. This is Cirque humor at its best, spontaneous, surprising and serious all at once.

“Quidam” is Latin for an unknown or anonymous person, but the show’s characters are actually less obscure than the impenetrable bird-people seen in “Alegria,” the troupe’s last outing here, two years ago. Bouncing back from the pretension-overload of that show, “Quidam” offers a clear view of the Cirque’s unique chemistry, made from atmospheric lighting, fantastic novelty acts from around the world, impassioned and often haunting pop music with flecks of North African, Italian and French influences, and amazing acrobatics. In the hands of director Franco Dragone, every action is perfumed in an aura of intense mystery.

A clown act breaks up the show between the more serious “artistes.” The Cirque has searched the world and never found a clown to match the American David Shiner, whose audience-participation segments in 1990 were small masterpieces of performance art. The three clowns here (called Les Macloma) come from a more prescribed European tradition. Though they fiddled a lot with balloons, they lacked an essential lightness. The main clown, looking like Salvadore Dali in a blue tutu, persuaded an audience member to carry a precious violin to another clown, and then broke it and blamed the audience member for breaking it. He got nary a smile from his quarry.

Some of the novelty acts are so novel you may not even know what the performers are doing. You do know, however, they are doing it well. Four Chinese girls wearing upside-down silver funnel hats (a la the Tin Man) perform the most astonishing wooden spool act you will ever see. One girl tosses one way up into the air, does two backward flips and the splits and then catches her own spool plus someone else’s on a string.

Performer Chris Lashua rides inside an 8-foot wheel by using his stretched-out body as a spoke, performing acrobatics simultaneously. When he balances the wheel on its rim in what seems like slow motion, he seems to defy several laws of nature. A man and a woman (Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage) perform “Main a Main,” a hand-balancing act in which they use their almost naked bodies as sculpture, hanging from each other and meticulously building shapes that seem to be achieved only through super-hero strength. Apocalyptic music invites us to view them as Adam and Eve, or Man and Woman. No one will ever accuse the Cirque of taking its artists lightly.

“Quidam” hangs its virtuosity on a framing device, a little story told without dialogue. A young girl, whose parents are lost in their own worlds, becomes bewitched by the arrival of a man with a bowler hat and an umbrella, but no head. When she takes his hat, a Magritte-ish talisman for adventure, her parents are whisked away and she enters the world of enchantment–the acts of the Cirque du Soleil. The sight of this family searching for each other throughout the evening injects a note of melancholy. The girl (Audrey Brisson-Jutras), daughter of the show’s composer, Benoi^t Jutras, sings periodically in the unclouded soprano of a young boy destined for the castratti.

Finally, the house troupe of 14 performs “banquine”–a complex acrobatic routine that beautifully combines Olympic-quality gymnastics with a choreographic sensibility (Debra Brown). Dressed as iconographic war refugees (the understated fanciful costumes are by Dominique Lemieux), the troupe easily builds four-people-tall towers even as they form piles of human missile launchers, sending somersaulting human missiles landing onto other human piles.

The Cirque provides a densely theatrical atmosphere that asks the audience to view unusual mastery as metaphor, to seek and to find the mystery and the meaning in all of this derring-do. As in most nonlinear art, the specific emotion is left up to you.

* * * * *

By: Jonathan Taylor | Variety
September 30, 1996

When Cirque du Soleil first emerged in 1984, seemingly from some dream world, the French Canadian troupe offered spectacular proof that magic really does exist. This street-bred theater/circus company offered feats, passion and grace that seemed beyond us mere mortals. With Cirque’s newest production, “Quidam,” we have proof that magic has its limits.

While this show still puts other circuses and performance art companies to shame, compared to the standards of previous Cirques, this is something of a letdown which won’t keep crowds from filling the bigtop, and cheering enthusiastically on the production’s three-year North American tour. By now, the Cirque du Soleil format is well-established: After some initial audience taunting from the principal clown (this year it’s John Gilkey, a promising comic who is nonetheless still David Shiner-Lite), the show then moves to the main stage, where characters playing ordinary people are drawn magically into the world of the circus.

The program unfolds through a series of acts some by the house troupe, others by performers from around the world linked by the thinnest of plots and held together by a troupe who are equal parts charming and menacing. With “Quidam,” the menacing aspects are more pronounced. The show opens with the house troupe in white body suits that look like quarantine outfits, and during several other acts, there is an unmistakably apocalyptic feel. Even the plot structure is unsettling.

A young girl (11 -year-old Audrey Brisson-Jutras, daughter of music director Benoit Jutras) is lured from her boring family by Gilkey and other clowns, including a headless, umbrella-holding body that is the show’s logo, into the magical circus world. The plot, however, isn’t what crowds around the world come to see: It’s the incredible performers who defy gravity, death and various other laws of physics.

“Quidam’s” problem apparent only to those who’ve experienced the previous shows is that too many acts this year seem earth-bound. From the house troupe’s not especially challenging jump-rope routine, to aerialist Petra Sprecher (who seems more adept at swinging than flying), to a thoroughly uninspiring trio of clowns Les Macloma too many acts in “Quidam” seem better suited to busking on the nearby Third Street Promenade.

Cirque du Soleil acts should soar, and too many this year don’t. That’s ironic, since flight seems to be one of this year’s themes. Set designer Michel Crete has created a spectacular stage, with five overhead rails that appear to be merely decorative but turn out to be the conveyance that flies the acts onto the stage. It’s a brilliant bit of stagecraft, bringing the acts in airborne, providing at least an initial sense of wonder. And in quite a few of the 13 acts that performed Thursday (the elevated hand balancing a gymnast featured in the program was a no-show), the magic is apparent.

Aerial contortionist Isabelle Vaudelle twists, wraps and suspends herself from a ceiling-to-floor-length piece of red fabric. In keeping with the end-of-the-world theme, she at times seems to be encased in a burial shroud. Maybe it’s because she frequently looks distressed, or maybe it’s because at other times she so effortlessly seems to float above the stage, you are enraptured by her.

Just as captivating is the act called simply Manipulation , in which two performers toss, balance, roll and, well, manipulate, shiny red balls. At first it seems like a fairly mundane act, but the more things they do with the balls (sometimes they seem light as air, sometimes leaden, sometimes bouncy, sometimes fragile), the more compelling the act is.

Best of all, though, is one that is again seemingly simple. Called Main a Main, Vis Versa, the act features a man and a woman (Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage) who perform a slow, sensuous, impossibly strenuous act of strength and balance. Their bodies powdered a cadaverous white, they fulfill our desire for superhuman feats, her body stretching out parallel to the ground while only her shoulders rest on his body. Then, in contradiction to the usual strong-man/lithe-woman formula of most circuses, she lifts him as he floats over the ground.

Adding to the somber yet thrilling mood are the members of the Cirque company who watch all of this while suspended from the roof of the tent, wearing long, flowing white gowns. They seem like angels, or saints, or perhaps martyrs, watching those mortals below struggling against the laws of nature. It is chilling and uplifting all at once, and ranks with the best of previous Cirque acts. One other act is especially notable: the house troupe’s Banquine, in which 14 performers execute precise gymnastic and strength routines, sometimes flying through the air, sometimes building human towers four-people high.

The fact that it is a classic circus act in fact its roots go back to the Italian Middle Ages detracts not at all from the skill and expertise these artists manifest. Underscoring all of this is Jutras’ evocative music, Luc Lafortune’s mood-establishing lighting and, in particular, Franco Dragone’s skilled direction: He brings the acts on and off the circular stage and keeps various clowns and actors onstage throughout, sometimes merely observing the action, sometimes providing a counterpoint to it. All of this proficiency will leave the inevitable large crowds going home satisfied. Even after a dozen years, there’s nothing else like Cirque du Soleil, and even in this sub-peak effort, there are substantial rewards. But there’s no getting around the fact this show is short of magic, and magic is what we expect from this company.

* * * * *

By: Janet Weeks | Deseret News
October 2, 1996

Add a French accent (OK, French-Canadian) to a guy explaining the difference between allegory and surrealism and the meaning of certain Latin phrases and – voila! – you’ve got the recipe for Instant Pretension.

Right-Not really. In fact, despite his penchant for dead languages and deep discussions, Gilles Ste-Croix, artistic director of the phenomenally popular Cirque du Soleil, is not smug in the least. After all, he’s a former stilt-walking fire-eater from the streets of Montreal who never bothered to have the gap between his front teeth corrected. He just sounds a little hoity-toity because he has a lot to boast about.

Since its founding in Quebec 12 years ago, Cirque has become one of the most successful performing arts franchises on the planet. The U.S. opening of Cirque’s ninth and latest show, “Quidam,” took place last month at the Santa Monica Pier. followed by a celebrity-studded premiere.

A brief explanation for the uninitiated who may think Cirque du Soleil has something to do with suntan lotion: Translated as “Sunshine Circus,” Cirque du Soleil is an artfully staged, orchestrated and performed showcase of international acrobats, contortionists, clowns and high-flying aerialists.

And these days, it’s more.

Cirque is also a global empire, with four shows running simultaneously on three continents and plans in the works for three permanent theaters, including an aquatic arena in Las Vegas. To keep up with its rapid growth, Cirque is also building a $30 million headquarters complex in Montreal to house its 350 permanent employees.

As its very first performer, Ste-Croix has been instrumental in Cirque’s blossoming from a cultish art-crowd thing to a mainstream hit with a line of merchandising that would do Disney proud.

The key to the company’s success, he says, is constant evolution. No two shows are alike, although each is based on acrobatics.

For instance, “Quidam” (a Latin word meaning “stranger”) departs from its predecessors in that it’s the first Cirque show set in reality, says Ste-Croix. Other shows, which have been produced every two years since 1984, have been set in the world of allegory and fantasy.

” ‘Quidam’ is totally different from what we’ve presented up to now,” he says. “The show rests on acrobatics still, and our glitter is there. But the theatrical play and emotional setup is different. It’s more based on the street.”

The idea came from a discussion of the coming end of the century, he says.

“We try to feel where the world is at and where we are at in the world,” he says of Cirque’s creative decisions. “We are at the endof the millennium and have the possibility to communicate with anyone, but we are more individually isolated.

“We don’t know our neighbors, but we can speak with people in Russia with our computers. That’s the paradox we’re living.”

More than 50 performers, ranging in age from 11 to 45, make up the cast of “Quidam.” Hailing from such far-flung places as the former Soviet Union, China, Europe and Indiana, the performers include experts in aerial hoops, skipping ropes, “Spanish webs” (overhead ropes), trapeze, hand balancing, juggling and spinning.

Original music has been composed by Benoit Jutras and will include singing by 12-year-old Audrey Brisson-Jutras, the composer’s daughter.

And while Ste-Croix stresses the importance of each show’s theme, the reality for Cirque is that it probably could pick any old motif and still sell seats. Tickets for the Santa Monica run – which is deliberately open-ended – are selling at a clip of about 2,000 a day.

Many of those ticket buyers are repeat customers, part of Cirque’s enormously loyal following.

When asked what percentage of the Canadian-based circus’ audience of 10 million worldwide are returnees to the big top, Ste-Croix says: “There are probably 100 who don’t come back.”

He’s exaggerating, sure, but not by much. Cirque du Soleil could be called “Club du Soleil,” and its audience might just as well be members.

One such admirer is “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, a Canada native who has seen several Cirque productions.

“The great thing about the Cirque is that they come up with a new concept every time, so you’re not going back to see the same show.”

Clearly pleased with the success of his home-country fellows, Trebek says Cirque could not have originated in the United States because bottom-line financial concerns would have killed it.

“One of the advantages that Canada has is the duality of the culture – English and French with a great deal of European influence thrown in. As a result, they are capable of experimenting without worrying about attracting the monster audiences that Americans concern them-selves with. In French Canada, they say ‘Hey, let’s put together a good show and, hey, we might even make a buck.’ ”

Ste-Croix agrees. He says he studied architecture in college but decided he was “missing the point of my life” and turned down the high-money career to pursue the life of a street performer. He ended up a fire-breather, stilt-walker and slack-rope climber.

“You smell like an old engine for a couple of days,” he says of fire-eating. “Sure, it was not big money, but it was a very satisfying experience.”

In fact, the success of Cirque worries Ste-Croix. Can the company keep its artistic integrity while juggling four shows and building theaters in Berlin and Las Vegas?

“It’s difficult,” he says. “I was a half-hour late because I was on the phone with Montreal dealing with problems. (Growth) might weaken our strength. When there was only one show, and we had two years to create a new one, it was easy. I don’t have so much time now.”

But he says fears that the show has suffered are unfounded. For the most part, success has only attracted more interesting acts and pushed the quality level higher. Cirque auditions routinely attract 400 performers or more, from which the company chooses perhaps 10, he says.

It’s that devotion to the truly talented that keeps legal secretary Rob Briner of Santa Monica coming back to Cirque. He’s missed only two productions in the last 12 years.

“People return because they know it’s going to be a great show,” Briner says. “Cirque succeeds in creating an intimate, unique environment. They incorporate everything into a theatrical theme. They use color and sounds and lights and movement. It’s a combination of circus and theater.”

Briner says he also looks forward to Cirque’s humor, an element of the show sometimes eclipsed by the flashier acrobatics.

* * * * *

By: Jan Herman | LA Times
January 29, 1997

He patrols the stage of Cirque du Soleil with a forbidding eye and a spectral smile. He is an austere, lantern-jawed figure whose thatch of hair, sprouting like a coxcomb from his shaved head, lends him an eerie foppishness. This personnage extraordinaire has an insinuating presence throughout the latest Cirque production, “Quidam,” opening tonight at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

But while he embodies the millennial tone of the show–alternately frightening and whimsical–as much as anyone in it, the man behind the clown makeup sees his style in terms of the ordinary. “I’m a scary kind of guy, but my whole performance is European, which means it’s based in reality,” said John Gilkey, a native Californian. “I don’t have a big red nose. I don’t have a fright wig. You look at me, and I’m believable.”

Despite Cirque’s well-earned reputation for the fantastic, Gilkey contends that his character “could walk around on the street, and you might think I’m kind of strange. But I’d belong there somehow.”

In “Quidam,” Gilkey’s role partially focuses on his relationship with central figure Audrey, a little girl who is taken on a tour of the world and shown what it will be like when she grows up. “My take is that the world is not going to be easy,” he said in a backstage interview in Santa Monica, where Cirque last stopped on its North American tour. “There are some really difficult things about the world–and I’m one of them.”

Even so, neither his unnamed character nor “Quidam” itself–Latin for “something known but unnamed”–is as simple as that. One of the distinctive aspects of this show is that, like most Cirque productions, it is not written down and therefore is easily kept ambiguous.

“The script does not exist on paper,” Gilkey confirmed. “It exists in the minds of the creators. The rehearsal process is about the creators as much as the story. The director, Franco Dragone, is a provocateur. He impresses upon us his impressions of what the show could be. It’s up to us after that. We interpret and develop our characters in combination with him and the costume designers, the acting coaches, the choreographers.”

Still, Gilkey, 30, had played a similar character–“same look, same costume, more naive”–before joining Cirque du Soleil in January 1996, when “Quidam” went into rehearsal. (It had its world premiere in Montreal in April ’96.) “Yes, this baby pays the bills,” he said, fingering his stiff, single tuft of hair. “Best career move I ever made. I think of it as ‘modern geek.’ I did variety shows and comedy clubs with this look.”

Gilkey, who wears glasses when not performing, got his start by learning to juggle as a junior high school student in Los Altos, his Bay Area hometown. Through high school, he recalls, he was competing in festivals and making money on the side, entertaining at company parties and picnics.

* * *

Lacking athletic talent, he says, he took up juggling because he “wanted to be the best in school at something.” Later, when he realized he was a good but not great juggler, he shifted focus. “I decided to become a geek,” he said, recounting that he dropped out of UC Santa Cruz for full-time performing, with the proviso that if he wasn’t making a living after two years he would go back to college. “I began to work on personality, on stage character, on putting the importance on creativity and clowning instead of on technical skills.”

His professional career started with the Circus Minimus, a small Bay Area troupe, followed by the Pickle Family Circus, which is based in San Francisco and tours the country. The Pickle, having evolved partly out of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, was the first American circus to exploit the intimate, one-ring atmosphere that has long been familiar to European audiences. It was the same theatrical impulse toward small troupes of offbeat, streetwise performers that gave birth to such touring companies as the Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil.

Gilkey sent an audition tape in 1990 to Cirque, which had emerged as the most spectacularly successful of these circuses. His tape went “on file,” he says. Then he went to Switzerland and worked for the Theatre Dmitri, a group of seven performers run by a celebrated Swiss clown. It was there that he honed his skills in physical comedy. Theatre Dmitri, operating from the town of Verscio, played chiefly in Switzerland, Germany and Italy.

Back in the States two years later, Gilkey performed around the country in comedy clubs and auditioned for Cirque “on a whim,” live, in November 1994. “I was working in L.A., and the circus was in Santa Monica,” he remembered. “I did my audition right here. Almost a year later they call me up: ‘Can you come to Montreal for a callback with the director?’ So I went up there. They were considering people for the personnage roles. And here I am.”

Gilkey grinned. Nobody in his family has ever given a hint of theatrical inclinations, he said, let alone circus skills–unless it’s Mark Twain, who, he’s been told, is a distant relative. His father is an electrical engineer; his mother recently retired as circulation and marketing director of Sunset magazine. One older brother is a computer programmer, the other a sportswriter. “Just about everybody has come to see the show,” Gilkey said. “And they talk about everything–‘This was great; that was great’–but not about me. So I don’t know what they think of my performance.”

* * *

Perhaps they don’t mention it because Gilkey makes things look so easy. When, for example, he dances with a coat tree, it is one of the show’s most enchanting and understated highlights; he evokes the seamless grace of no less a paragon than Fred Astaire. “I’m not there to display tricks,” Gilkey said. “I guess I could make the dance look as difficult as a trapeze act. In fact, it’s harder than it looks. But that’s not the purpose for me. Everything I do is about character, about something emotional that comes out of a situation. The European clown works from his internal life. He works from the inside out, and that’s where I’m coming from.”

* * * * *

By: Jan Herman | LA Times
February 5, 1997

“Quidam,” the latest touring production of Cirque du Soleil, represents the beginning of a new cycle of shows differing in scope and expectations from the last. Compared with the efforts of the previous cycle–which consisted of “Nouvelle Experience,” “Saltimbanco” and “Alegria”–this one seems scaled more to human size, its theme and variations less otherworldly.

To be sure, there is a millennial tone–alternately mysterious and whimsical, always moody–embodied by surreal images reminiscent of Magritte’s. Most notable are the headless figure wearing a raincoat and holding an umbrella, the man floating through space with his head framed in a newspaper and the recurring use of homburgs as ordinary emblems of the strange or supernatural.

But “Quidam”–the title is Latin for something or someone known but unnamed–has only a mild tension. Lightning and thunder notwithstanding, the apocalypse of the weird seems designed to entertain without drawing too much attention to awe-inspiring theatrics.

While there is a story line about a young girl, Audrey, who takes leave of her parents’ living room and goes on a journey in the company of clowns, the weave of the story is so loose as to be nonexistent. Plot is more or less forgotten until the end of the show when, as a reminder, she is reunited with her parents.

Never forgotten, however, is the sense that “Quidam” is circus as theater. That has been true of all Cirque productions. The differences from the past are just a matter of degree. First-time Cirque-goers are likely to be awe-struck, regardless.

All of us may be glad that the show is basically the same one that played at the Santa Monica Pier, the company’s last stop before going on hiatus for the winter holidays. But it’s fresher, tighter and more invigorating. The Chinese juggling act is gone and hasn’t been replaced, entailing a palpable loss of exotic delicacy. But there are plenty of spectacular aerialists and acrobats to minimize the departure.

Also, the vacation may have put some added spring into the house company’s step. The acrobats executed with brilliant precision Sunday night, and they injected all the gymnastic choreography with evident joy.

Some specifics: In the first act, the rugged grace of Chris Lashua’s “German Wheel,” the contortionistic hand-balancing of Olga Pikhienko, the aerial maneuvers of Isabelle Vaudelle in a red sash and the speedy midair hoop traffic of Genevieve Bessette, Martyne Dube and Emilie Grenon-Emiroglou had the rapt audience bursting into spontaneous applause.

In the second act, the intense concentration of a body-balancing act, “Vis Versa,” planted at ground level by Marie-Laure Mesnage and Yves Decoste, offered proof that gravity may be exploited as well as defied. Their slow-motion feats made for ample drama.

Not that the second act lacked dizzying heights or high velocity. It had the house troupe’s rope-climbing aerialists in “Spanish Webs,” the “Cloud Swing” of Petra Sprecher (who was oddly underappreciated for the risks she took) and stunning leaps and balances performed by the floor gymnasts of the house troupe’s “Banquine.”

Juggling has come so far these days that unless it’s done with armed nukes or an incredible number of objects, it’s a commonplace of street performance. “Quidam” works a variation on juggling with “Manipulation” by Patrick McGuire and Steven Ragatz, who have put together a delicate ballet of red balls, blue homburgs and silver trays.

Because Cirque du Soleil prides itself on taking the art of street performance to a higher level, it’s worth mentioning that jumping rope helps stitch “Quidam” together not just as the house troupe’s number, “Skipping,” but as a throwback to the schoolyard athletics of young girls such as Audrey.

Also keeping the seams in line are the clowns: “Les Macloma,” a corny trio whose European-style antics with balloons, a would-be musician and a violin provoked the requisite combination of nostalgia and laughter; and the “Quidam” major domo, John Gilkey, who has a light touch working the crowd and an eerie foppishness in character.

The fabric that makes this show a magic carpet, however, is the artful amalgam of music, design and lighting, without which this production would be a mere collection of circus acts. The score and orchestration this time out are especially alluring: Haunting lyric vocals with medieval-like chorus, plaintiff cello with raucous soprano sax, folksy accordion with propulsive drums.

“Quidam” may not be the biggest or best of Cirque du Soleil’s productions, despite what is to this listener the most attractive music so far, but it still keeps the promise of past outings and continues a tradition not to be missed.

* * * * *

By: Jesse Hamlin | San Francisco Chronicle
April 5, 1997

Benoit Jutras had never even seen a circus when he landed a gig in 1987 as the bandleader for a fledgling Montreal troupe called Cirque du Soleil.

Jutras had just gotten a master’s degree in composition from the Montreal Conservatory of Music, where he was deep into the music of Luciano Berio and other contemporary classical composers. Suddenly he was playing keyboards for acrobats, contortionists and clowns.

“I didn’t know anything about the circus,” says Jutras, who began writing music for the spectacularly successful Cirque du Soleil in 1990. Now one of the most in-demand circus composers in the world, he scored Cirque’s latest theatrical production, “Quidam,” which opens at Oakland’s Jack London Square May 29 and moves to San Jose in late July.

His eclectic score, parts of which are featured on an RCA Victor CD that came out in December, casts a wide net.


It mixes the swelling strings and choruses of classical music with thumping rock beats and synthesized metallic sounds, African rhythm loops with Arabic melodies. There are Gypsy-tinged folk songs, old-time circus sounds and spacey waltzes, a Zydeco tune, syrupy pop songs and a slashing tango inspired by the late Argentine bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla.

“I’m working with acrobats from all over the world, so I really wanted a wide range of music to represent different cultures,” said the affable French Canadian, lunching on fettuccine and mussels at a Jack London Square eatery the other day. His brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and a silver loop dangled from his left ear.

“Quidam” — the French word for an anonymous person — “is about the reality of where we are in 1997, in big cities, isolated in the crowd,” said Jutras, 33. “It deals with the fragility of the human being, and the coldness of the city. I explore that musically.

“That’s why we decided to use a child’s voice (sung by Jutras’ 11-year-old daughter, Audrey). It expresses that fragility. And I use a lot of metal sounds. I sampled sounds in a metal shop, hitting all kinds of metals with a hammer.”

Working from musical “mood” sketches he had done months before, Jutras wrote much of the “Quidam” music in the three weeks before the show opened last year. “Often I have to rewrite the piece totally to fit the natural rhythm of the act,” he said. “You either try to accentuate that rhythm or play against it, which can be really nice. The music has to enhance the rhythm and emotion of each act, as well as the theatrical mood of the piece as a whole.”

The clowns, for example, are cast as traditional circus characters, set amid the contemporary Cirque du Soleil. When they appear, Jutras evokes “the circus sounds of the past” with the waltzing “Carrousel,” scored for soprano sax, accordion and the synthesized sound of a “cheesy organ” that suggests a calliope.

Jutras mastered this sort of traditional circus music composing for Circus Knie, one of Europe’s biggest circuses. He’s also written for the Canadian Fantasy Circus in Japan and New York’s Big Apple Circus.

There’s twice as much music in the show as on the CD, and it’s got a lot more edge, Jutras says.

“The music in the show is more harsh, there’s more metallic sounds, more electric guitar. The thought was that without the images, the music would maybe be a little too harsh.”


The CD also adds lyrics to songs that in the show are sung without words, like chants. “That was the choice of the producer of the CD,” Jutras said, “to make them sound more like pop songs; in the show, it’s less commercial.”

The CD features a live string section and chorus. In live performances, where the music is played by a six-piece band, the chorus is taped and the strings are synthesized. The synthesized sound “is not as good, for sure,” Jutras said. “But in the Big Top, which is not a theater, it’s OK, it works.”

Director Ridley Scott and his brother Tony liked the “Quidam” score so much they hired Jutras to write the music for their forthcoming TV series, “The Hunger.”

Whatever else he does, Jutras plans to stay with Cirque. “There aren’t a lot of jobs where you get paid this kind of money to compose music and not have to compromise too much,” he said. “It’s a really good gig.”

* * * * *

By: Robert Hurwitt | San Francisco Chronicle
May 30, 1997

Playfully childlike and frankly sensual, mysterious, thrilling, funny and enchanting – often all at the same time – Cirque du Soleil’s “Quidam” opened Thursday in the company’s blue-and-yellow big top in Jack London Square. The good news isn’t just that the Cirque has returned to the Bay Area after a three-year absence. Even better, the magic is back.

A child’s dream of a circus – the show’s theme as well as its accomplishment – “Quidam” is a confection of captivating design, quirky comedy, intriguing music and breathtaking feats. It’s fast, smooth and ingenious, an almost seamless fantasia of whimsically costumed characters drifting or cavorting about the stage between and during the major acts. Wherever theeye wanders, there’s something to catch the imagination.

Not that most eyes are going to want to wander from most of these performers. From its first local visit in 1988 – all through the years when it still pitched its tent on the west side of the Bay – the Montreal-based Cirque has always featured an impressive international array of circus acts. Those assembled for its first Oakland stand – midway through the three-year “Quidam” North American tour – are simply sensational.

Chris Lashua (of Massachusetts), to take just the first example, is astonishing in an act called the “German Wheel.” He rolls into the ring in what looks like two giant metal hula hoops, connected by 6-foot-long bars – and he rolls around, vertically, diagonally, close to horizontally, almost wobbling to a stop like a falling top, but righting his wheel in faster and faster spins controlled only by a twist of the hips or inclination of his body.

Scarcely have you recovered from his performance when four charming Chinese girls – Wu Di (11), Yuan Siqi (11), Zhao Xin (11) and Zhao Xue (10) – dressed as fantastical little, funnel-hatted tin men, turn the children’s game of “Diabolos” into an act of extraordinary skill. That’s the game where you toss and catch a spinning spool on a string held between two sticks. But you’ve never seen anybody handle those toys with anything like the expertise of this quartet.

It’s not enough that they execute a bouncy dance to a quick tempo as they toss the spools high in the air and catch them. Nor that they start tossing the spools back and forth without missing a beat. The next thing you know, they’re somersaulting, doing backflips or leaping onto one another’s shoulders as they toss and catch. And they make it all look as if they are just having a wonderful time.

Then there’s aerial contortionist Isabelle Vaudelle of France, wrapping an amazingly lithe body in and all around a billowing column of red silk. Contorting her limbs and form in impossible combinations high above the ring, stretching the fabric to the contours of her torso or executing breathtaking trapeze routines, her act is both a thriller and a sensual celebration of the human body.

So, too, late in the second act, is the “Cloud Swing” of Petra Sprecher of Switzerland. Using a long rope as a V-shaped swing, her corn-row braids flying, Sprecher is an ebony Wonder Woman, heart-stoppingly tumbling and catching herself with her knees or ankles high in the air. In another stunning aerial act, Canada’s Emilie Grenon-Emiroglou performs a captivating, spinning ballet with a suspended hoop.

No less awesome, in its way, is “Vis Versa,” a slowly evolving balancing act performed by the almost naked Marie-Laure Mesnage of France and Yves Decoste of Canada. Their well-muscled bodies achieve seemingly impossible combinations of strength and balance in cantilevered living sculptures. Impressive in a quieter vein is the deft, delicate red ball and curved metal sheet manipulation of Patrick McGuire and Steven Ragatz (an act developed by the extraordinary juggler Michael Moschen).

Throw in some thrilling ensemble acrobatic work – quick variations on skipping rope; a tumbling finale with performers flipping onto each other’s shoulders in three- and four-high human pyramids – and you’ve got almost enough for an ordinary circus. But not for Cirque du Soleil.

Longtime Cirque director-author Franco Dragone (assisted by Gilles Ste-Croix, artistic director Andrew Watson and choreographer Debra Brown) frames the acts in a loose tale of a child (12-year-old Audrey Brisson-Jutras, an impressive vocalist) rebelling against the tedium of her parents’ humdrum existence. The acts may all be figments of her imagination, but they put her mother (Nicolle Hope Liquorish) and father (the comically acrobatic Daniel Touchette) through some odd, presumably life-altering, routines.

Veteran Cirque costumer Dominique Lemieux creates a fanciful wonderland of casually sensual, comical and fantastical designs. Set designer Michel Cre^te has devised a brilliant five-track ceiling scaffolding to move the acts in and out gracefully. The pulsating, wittily varied, remarkably eclectic score – performed live – is by Benoi^t Jutras.

All that’s missing is clowning as hilarious as Denis Lacombe or David Shiner contributed to earlier Cirque shows. The French clown trio Les Macloma is serviceable at best – annoying as often as funny. Fortunately, the show has the services of Pickle Family Circus alumnus John Gilkey as a quirkily original, genuinely comical, juggling ringmaster.

Fortunately, too, “Quidam” has an air of childlike wonder and bemusement that ties it all together and makes us see its odd world through fresh eyes.

* * * * *

By: Steven Winn | San Francisco Chronicle
May 31, 1997

Cirque du Soleil has always ravished the eyes and ears of the beholder. Now it’s flirting openly with the subconscious.

“Quidam,” the French Canadian troupe’s entrancing new circus entertainment that opened Thursday at Oakland’s Jack London Square, haunts, startles and flickers like a fevered dream. An evening that begins a little groggily finally soars.

A headless man drops a bowler hat to the floor. That sets off a fierce lightning storm and sends projected clouds scudding onto the swooping inner surfaces of the company’s jolly blue-and-yellow tent, across from the Amtrak station. A wistful children’s tune accompanies a skip-rope scene done in pools of dying light. Luc Lafortune’s resourceful lighting furnishes the stage to more effect than Michele Crete’s minimal set designs.

One aerialist, Isabelle Vaudelle, gets borne away like Jesus in a pieta after her routine inside a cocoon-like red sheath overhead. Another, Karl Baumann, prances about cheerfully despite sharp martyr spines that pierce his torso and legs — he’s a modern commedia Saint Sebastian.

Members of the 50-odd-member troupe parade onto the stage dressed like masked and hooded workers in some plague-riddled industrial realm. Shrouded women flit through the light and vanish. Surrealists will feel right at home in director Franco Dragone’s imagination, fired by Magritte and Balthus and even Goya in the show’s extraordinary climax.

“Quidam” — it’s pronounced “key- dahm” and means “nameless passer-by” — opens brightly lit patches in its shadowy dreamscape. The three clowns of Les Macloma, popping up from trapdoors, get plenty, perhaps too much, stage time. One sports a blue tutu over yellow tights. Another wears a perpetually startled expression and equally astonished side tufts of horizontal hair.

John Gilkey, the lantern-jawed San Francisco clown who ran off to join the Cirque, does a gentle pas de deux with a silver coatrack. Only a coatrack might consent to dance with a man whose hairdo looks like a giant mustache that’s migrated to the top of his head.

Gilkey is a recurring presence in “Quidam,” which tells, however wispily, a story. A father, mother and daughter are levitated out of their mundane life into a quest that finally brings them home.

But this is a break from the more lyrical and celebratory tone of previous touring Cirque editions — “Alegria,” “Saltimbanco,” “Nouvelle Experience.” The sound of helicopter blades and gunfire, heard here in fleeting bursts, had no place in those shows.

“Quidam’s” defining scene comes in “Vis Versa,” a male-female strength duet. As Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage somberly lever their bodies into steely cantilevered combinations, several motionless figures trailing great long shrouds track forward overhead on the mighty arched truss that spans the tent. Another silent soul, head bowed, slowly circles the stage on a turntable.

“Vis Versa” expands organically, its mysterious dirge-like logic reinforced by the thunderous percussion blasts in Benoit Jutras’ score. The show’s live music invokes klezmer, jazz, Scottish bagpipes, Irish reels and more under its glossy pop sheen.

In the ensemble acrobatics of “Banquine,” the show reaches a thrilling conclusion. Dressed like tattered ragamuffins (by designer Dominique Lemieux), the troupe launches three pure-white figures from out of their huddled gray mass. Then they become transcendent themselves, leaping and flipping onto higher and higher towers of their comrades.

“Quidam” doesn’t have the exuberant springiness of past shows. There are no trampolines or elastic Russian bars. Instead the circle dominates — the “German Wheel” that Chris Lashua sets spinning and wobbling across the stage like a giant coin; the sinuous Emilie Grenon-Emiroglou in her aerial hoop; the Chinese yo-yos dancing in midair from rope to rope of four agile young girls dressed all in silver.

Those four Diabolos, with their impossibly fast moves and perpetually jogging legs, set the first act in motion. The show does stall from time to time. But in the second act, the momentum feels inexorable.

The Oakland site, acquired when Crissy Field and other San Francisco locations proved unworkable, is a happy one for the Cirque. The nearby trains are a minor distraction, but those rumbling tremors might even be fitted into this show’s dark-glass vision of electric storms and industrial menace.

* * * * *

By: M.S. Mason | Christian Science Monitor
October 22, 1997

Once again, Cirque du Soleil reminds us that there’s more to the circus than lion tamers and the flying trapeze – there’s the circus as art. The company from Montreal is touring the United States with a new show: “Quidam” (Latin, meaning in this context, an anonymous face in the crowd).

With 53 performers – acrobats, clowns, and no animal acts – “Quidam” manages to tell a kind of story without nailing down a narrative too firmly. A little girl sits and broods with her bored parents, whose benign neglect has made the child certain she has already seen everything. A stranger appears at the door – a ghostly, headless character in a top coat, umbrella, and blue bowler. The stranger gives the child the hat, and when she puts it on, her parents fly off (their chairs are wired and actually fly up) leaving the girl to begin a quest in search of wonder.

Along the way she sings a lovely hunting song. She sees astonishing sights such as an aerial contortionist whose grace defies gravity and reason, angels flying through the air, and rope jumpers’ tricks that sparkle with the life of childhood memories. Young women on aerial hoops make trapeze artistry look banal by comparison, while little Chinese girls astonish and delight us with their dexterity on the “diabolos” (an elaborate string and yo-yo game).

In this circus theater, all kinds of acrobatic acts, including a fabulous Russian team dressed in apocalyptic rags, draw admiration and exhilaration from the audience. Each artist demonstrates courage and skill, grace and humor – and all in the service of one unified vision of wonder and beauty meant to honor the human spirit. Visually stunning, it is like Chagall meets Fellini. And all is yoked together by the comic antics of a brilliant clown – one of the girl’s guides through mystery.

Since Cirque du Soleil sprang into being 13 years ago, 15 million people around the world have thrilled to its special magic. It has won dozens of awards in Canada, the US, and Europe and has found critical and popular success everywhere it has been, including Asia. The big top holds an astounding 2,500 people, and still manages to maintain a surprising intimacy.

Artistic director Andrew Watson says creator Franco Dragone starts out with a feeling, a phrase, a single word. With “Quidam,” he began with the idea of each person’s individuality despite the appearance of anonymity in a crowd.

“When we sat down in the beginning [of the ‘Quidam’ project],” explains Mr. Watson, “we had become aware of enormous numbers of displaced people – and these groups of people have names to describe them: ‘the homeless’ or ‘the refugees.’ But these groups are all made up of individual people who have their own histories, who have their own lives – yet in our eyes they are all lumped together. So at the top of the show, the family is dispersed, and everyone is in white. Bit by bit we discover each other as individuals.”

The development process is a collaboration with the artists built upon the feeling Mr. Dragone is trying to elicit.

Asked why he thinks the show raises viewers’ spirits, composer Benoit Jutras says, “It’s close to pure art.” He explains that the open, collaborative spirit among artists serves a unified vision as they draw inspiration from one another.

Watson echoes Mr. Jutras’s emphasis on openness. “The artists try so hard to create an open-ended experience that even the words used in the songs are often just invented language,” he says. “When you put words [to the show], you are narrowing the experience quite a bit.”

A successful marriage of pop art and high art elements, “Quidam” is more than a good time. “It is deeper than that,” says Watson. “The pop art element is the circus acrobatics, which transcends all cultures and ages – every one of us can understand circus acrobatics. To feel frightened, exhilarated, amazed by dexterity – is for ever and ever – and nearly every country has a circus. But Franco has something to say about life.”

# # #

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

• 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)