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Wehle's World
by Philippa Wehle

[01] Cirque de Soleil's "Dralion"
[02] Robert Lepage's "Jean sans Nom"

Presented by Cirque du Soleil
Presenting Sponsor: Eaton's
April 23 to June 13
Montreal (Quebec), Canada
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle, April 23, 1999
Cirque du Soleil, the extraordinary circus/theater we've all seen and loved ever since New Yorkers discovered "We Reinvent the Circus" in 1988, recently opened its latest show, "Dralion," at the Cirque's new location on the grounds adjacent to their studio in Montreal's St. Michel district.

"Dralion" marks a turning point in Cirque's history. Guy Caron, Cirque du Soleil's first artistic director and creator of the company's acrobatic and theatrical style, has returned as director of "Dralion" after many years as director of circus and cabaret productions abroad, including a stint with New York's Big Apple Circus, and he is joined by a new creative team.

Stephane Roy, the set designer for "Dralion," has created a futuristic world, a sort of huge technological sculpture composed mainly of a central aluminum carousel with interior rings, which rises and descends throughout the show, carrying with it a variety of artists. In addition, a large metallic wall with rich copper and bronze tones forms the backdrop for the show and provides an supplementary space on which the performers can climb, hang and cavort while the orchestra plays on either side of the wall. The show's color scheme is evocative of nature and the elements - blues, greens, reds, earth tones and their variations.

"Dralion," a word made from dragon (the East) and lion (the West), promotes the theme of harmony between cultures and between man and nature. Fittingly, Francois Barbeau's splendid costumes, made of fabrics from around the globe, evoke the four elements; blue for air, green for water, red for fire and ochre for earth while the music, by Violaine Corradi, fuses sounds from East and West (Arab, Indian, African and even Celtic elements).

Even though the show's name symbolizes a meeting of East and West, the acts seem heavily weighted toward the Asian. 35 of the 54 participating artists are Chinese acrobats, members of the Xinan Troupe and many of the numbers and characters are inspired by traditional Chinese acts; others are from Brazil, russia, Bulgaria, France, the Ivory Coast, and of course Canada.

On opening night, the trademark blue and yellow big top seating over 2,500 people was filled to overflowing. A woman in a lime green dress, with blond bouffant wig and white bobby socks, went up and down the aisles interacting with audience members while, on the stage, a fellow in a red, white and blue plaid suit and red shirt joined a crony wearing oversized pointed shoes and a jacket several sizes too small. These were the Cirque clowns, of course, the Common People according to the program, announcing that they were about to choose a victim from the audience to perform with them. The poor fellow, wearing a disheveled rain coat and black pork pie hat, protested a bit too much as he was dragged up on stage. Obviously he was one of them and the show began.

Seven diminuitive Chinese girls dressed in lime colored tights covered with blue diagonal streaks, appeared out of the mist, looking a bit like newly born frogs. One of them, Luan Leilei, a tiny figure with a winning smile, began to perform the single hand balancing act. As her companions sat in a circle around her, waving their bodies back and forth like reeds in a pond, she balanced herself on a cane on one hand for incredibily long periods of time. Suddenly she would switch hands and positions, and effortlessly float in the air. Her prowess and strength were astonishing.

Later, the Ballet on Lights, a typically Chinese act presented for the first time by Cirque du Soleil, demonstrated a similar talent for precision and dexterity on the part of five young women who effortlessly performed a ballet on points, delicately tiptoeing through a number of hot light bulbs with infinite grace and skill.

In contrast, The Bamboo Poles number - six men in flaming red costumes "juggling" 15 foot poles with a keen sense of accuracy, strength and coordination - beautifully demonstrated the physical power as well as the skill it takes to throw heavy poles in the air and manage to tumble and somersault before catching them.

Still other Chinese numbers executed by these superb acrobats included the footjuggling prowess of Zhang Wei, balancing and twirling Chinese umbrellas on the soles of her feet and the astounding hoop diving act of nine male artists throwing themselves through both stationary and rotating wooden hoops.

As previously noted, not all of the acts were Chinese. In fact, one of the showstoppers was solo juggler Viktor Kee from the Ukraine. From the moment he arrived on stage inside a giant golden beetle, you couldn't take your eyes off of him. Wearing what looked like nothing at all - a daring flesh colored second skin with red flames in just the right places - he was a Russian Michael Moshen with flashing orange crew cut and matching orange knee pads, juggling up to seven balls at once, catching them on his back, the back of his knees, and his legs while deftly dancing about with the speed of lighting.

The Pas de Deux aerial dance by Ivo Gueorguiev from Bulgaria and Juliana Neves from Brazil was equally breathtaking. Hanging on flowing rolls of blue cloth suspended from the top of the tent, they seemed to effortlessly fly about the performance area with perfect elegance and grace.

To close Act I, a gigantic paper funnel descended from the flies and enclosed the stage. When the audience returned, the cylinder had turned into a magic lantern with shadows of performers circling in the air, creating an enchanting welcome back to more captivating numbers.

The Jump Rope performance by 13 Chinese artists was perhaps the most exciting of Act II's offerings. Using two very long ropes, the team never missed a beat as they performed pirouettes and pyramids, one of which was an amazing three-person-high column.

Even though the clowns spent too much time fussing and dawdling (their funeral scene was actually so tedious it evoked cat calls from the audience to move on to the rest of the show), they redeemed themselves in the second act with a brilliant parody of their circus colleagues.Wearing exaggerated imitations of the costumes we had admired in Act I, they mimicked and mocked their co-performers to the delight of all.

The four very fetching ""Dralion"s" with happy smiles, were equally delightful. Aas soon as they entered, deftly balancing on a giant ball, they gladdened the hearts of children and adults alike. Dressed in multi-colored Chinese dragon- like costumes, the "Dralion"s, made up of two acrobats, each, one in front, one in back and sometimes one on top of the other, danced on the tops of balls and did somersaults.

Counter tenor Erik Karol from France, presided over all of this as a majestic presence; part man, part woman, part God, part Louis XIV in magnificent gold and plumage, he accompanied the action in a sort of grand falsetto.

Cirque du Soleil is an extraordinary enterprise. Since its beginnings in 1984 as a group of street performers dreaming of a touring circus of their own to the present day, Cirque has blossomed into a major international operation. Its head office alone, located in Montreal, has over 500 employees. "Dralion" is the third new production from Cirque du Soleil this season . The others - O, the aquatic circus in Bellagio, Las Vegas opened in October 1998 and La Nouba in Orlando, part of the Walt Disney World Resort, premiered in December 1998. These shows are permanent fixtures. Another resident show, Alegria, will open soon at the Beau Rivage resort in Biloxi, Mississippi. Meanwhile, Cirque's other shows, Saltimbanco, Alegria and Quidam, for example, are touring abroad until at least the year 2002.

New Yorkers, however, will have to wait to see "Dralion". It will come to the big Apple in the year 2000 as one of the stops on a three year North American tour

While in Montreal I learned that Robert Lepage's latest creation "Jean sans Nom" was in rehearsal at the Theatre National before leaving for Nantes, France where it will premiere on June 3 as part of the Printemps du Quebec (Quebec Spring) events in France.

Contrary to its name, the Theatre National, built in 1900, is a small, run down but charming old theater located in a rather seedy section of Montreal. From the outside, the theater appeared abandoned. Inside, things were buzzing - only a week to go before the set would be packed up and sent to Nantes. Carl Fillion, Lepage's set designer, who created the striking sets for The Seven Streams of the River Ota and Elsinore, graciously stopped preparations to answer questions about Lepage's new project.

"Jean sans Nom" (Nameless Jean) is a 3-D multi-media musical drama, adapted by Robert Charlebois from Jules Verne's novel Familles sans Nom (Nameless Families) about an insurrection of Franco-Canadian patriots against the British in 1837.

Composed of fourteen narrated sections and fourteen original songs, the show uses Thierry Monnier's original engravings (made to illustrate Verne's novel) as the basic visual support. To create each scene, the Lepage/ Fillion team turned the engravings into a storyboard, freely moving characters and scenes around to create their version of the story. Consequently, the show is entirely in black and white with the exception of scenes in which fire plays a crucial role.

The set is composed of a large translucent screen, measuring 4 by 6 meters. In front of the screen, an electric piano attached to sets of drums on either side of the screen, provides the "musical" accompaniment while Robert Charlebois, standing on a small raised platform stage left, narrates the sad tale of the short lived rebellion. Behind the screen, a narrow aluminum bridge serves as the playing area on which the five actor/singers, dressed in Marie Chantal Vaillancourt's elegant costumes inspired by Monnier's engravings, "perform." In fact, we never see them performing in any traditional sense; instead they appear to be an integral part of a virtual world created by an complex combination of over 150 projected images - slides and video images projected onto 150 feet of screen rolled up on a roller - the masking of parts of the screen and the 3-D glasses worn by the audience. In addition, to help create the illusion that the characters are actually walking in and out of houses, appearing from behind a tree or looking out of a window - moving from a Powder Storeroom, to the Montcalm Villa, to the Paternal Home, and finally to Niagara Falls - the bridge on which the actors perform moves up and down so that they can appear in different areas of the screen.

The entire operation is quite intricate and calls for precision timing as well as flawless performances on the part of technicians as well as performers. Imagine what it takes to sing and move about on the extremely narrow bridge that is constantly rising and descending. The set is only ten feet deep. The feat seems not unlike the prowess of Cirque du Soleil acrobats.

"Jean sans Nom" will play in Nantes, Jules Verne's hometown, for only two nights with a possible third if the piece is well received. After that, it seems, the show is up for grabs. It will be exciting to learn the fate of this latest in a long line of remarkable Lepage adventures. [Wehle]

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