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Glenda Frank

Zoe’s Dream: Cirque du Soleil

“Quidam,” a Cirque du Soleil production at Le Grand Chapiteau, Broad St. and Ave. of the Americas, Philadelphia, PA.
Directed by Franco Dragone.
Tickets: (800) 678-5440, http://www.cirquedusoleil.com
Performances Tues. –Sat. 8 PM, Fri. and Sat. at 4 PM, Sun. at 1 and 5 PM.
July 6 -- Aug. 13, 2006
Tickets $28 - $75. Tapis Rouge VIP Experience $133-190.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank

Like other Cirque du Soleil productions, “Quidam” [pronounced Key Dam] -- which is playing through Aug. 13 in downtown Philadelphia, an easy daytrip from New York -- is a gravity-defying treat. It overflows with acrobatic wonders and surrealistic images that feel more like a journey through a dream than a visit to the circus. A thin, often obscure story line connects one amazement to another, punctuated by bits of comedy. “Quidam” brings us the athletic grace of aerial choreography; the fantasies of science fiction, mythology, and surrealism; the beauty of synchronized motion; optical illusions; inventive costumes; and a host of circus arts that waken the imagination.

The images in “Quidam” are seen through the eyes of Zoe, a lonely pre-adolescent. This unique perspective combines a childhood joy in athletic bravura with playful romantic skits and sexual, sometimes disturbingly dark, half-realized encounters. The first act opens in a living room with wobbly legged tables. Mom, in a giant rocking chair and short red dress, crochets a huge red garment. Dad, in the other rocking chair, is absorbed by his newspaper while Zoe hangs around the periphery, ignored. The set includes a giant turntable on the 75’ stage and an overhead bridge of lights, conveyor belts and machinery, enabling the real and the bizarre to intersect without obstructing aerial cables. Later the machinery itself casts the neglectful father into a purgatory. He crosses the stage, his face stuffed through the newspaper and his feet dangling far from the ground.

At the living room door, Zoe greets a headless visitor in a raincoat, who enters still holding his open umbrella. He is accompanied by thunder and lightning. (Bad weather and the recurring red balloon or ball are motifs.) When he exits, he offers his hat in hand – a blue bowler -- to Zoe. The hat signals her (and our) encounters with the unconscious. Perhaps he is the “quidam” of the title, Latin for a mysterious passerby, someone lost in the crowd, hungry for contact.

Children’s toys -- hoops and jump ropes -- become the stuff of acrobatic innovation. Cory Paul Sylvester like a cartoon character, pokes his head or torso out as he twirls in the giant German Wheel and pops it back into the safety just in time – only to flip from one rolling side to another, always playing with the danger of getting crushed. He spins so quickly the wheel sometimes looks like a blurred rainbow. Diabolos, four diminutive young twirlers from China, dressed like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz,” tumble and switch places in a human three-card monte while juggling disks. Cerceaux (Hoops), a trio of aerial acrobats hailing from the U.S., Canada, and Australia, can take your breath away with their outer worldly beauty and daring. Cirque is justifiably proud of its international flavor: 40 nationalities speaking 25 languages.

They are all delightful, but the Rope Skippers (and their aerial brothers, the Spanish Webs) are in another category. The genius of Cirque is its transformation of the mundane into art forms. The solo rope skippers (some like break-dancers) have a grace and timing that is mesmerizing. But when the groups form into extended jump-rope webs, turning double-dutch and single-spinners into rope-art shapes on the stage floor; when the jumpers turn from rope to rope all turned at different tempos – the scene becomes a playground fantasia, evoking childhood memories. The rope dancers are Zoe’s daydream -- corporeal and improbable at once.

The tone shifts with the two ballet-like dream sequences, which are at once troubling and erotic. Suspended far above the stage by two long silk drapes of scarlet, Anna Venizelos (in a naked body suit) soars into the imagination, for a moment seeming to become a religious icon, then a sensual male, a woman frozen with longing, an insect vanishing into a cocoon, a phantom. Beautiful! The score by Benoit Jutras takes it to another dimensions.

The couple in the second-act sequence might be Adam and Eve covered with mud, Zoe’s guilty memory of surprising her parents, or a long dead couple risen to relive their love. The contortions are marvels yet seem so private: the simple intimacies of two backs touching and bending at impossible angles, of each lifting the other before reuniting, or just arms entwined for a moment between postures. There is a supple magic to these bodies in slow, delicate motion that is caught in the brooding lighting of a young girl’s mind.

Cirque acrobatics are always tops, but the comedy is often uneven. “Quidam” is the exception. In two improvised skits, clowns welcome audience members on stage to play out a routine. Guillermo Toto Castineiras invites a young audience member on a date in his stage car (2 chairs). They break down, get caught in traffic, and fight when he gets out of line. He demands that the virtuous maiden leave his car, but she is no wilting flower – and glass shatters. The second-act improvisation is about movie-making. The comedy pivots on the fumbling of the volunteers. Ambrose Martos, the clown-director, scours the audience for a young woman, her jealous lover (with a hidden pistol), a shy new boyfriend, and a scene announcer. The volunteers sort of get it after the first set of instructions, but it’s even funnier in their third rehearsal when they bring their own kinkiness into play.

There is nothing like Cirque. Kids, sophisticated adults, even hard-to-please teens exit happy or mill around the costly but exquisite masks and CDs and other gift shop items, unwilling to let go of the experience. And to think it all began in 1984 when Guy Laliberté, a Quebec street performer who liked to stiltwalk, had an idea.

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