Every year for the past ten years at Washington and Broad there is a blue and yellow tent that goes up. Into this brightly gaudy Grand Chapiteau on the Avenue of the Arts pour hundreds of people greeted to the sounds of exotic birdcalls, low lights and the essence of vanilla aromatically wafting through the air. Our senses are surrounded, captured and manipulated into the desired mood for "Alegria", Cirque du Soleil's new theatrical extravaganza.
And the mood is "serene anticipation." Bit by bit various clowns appear in the audience, on the highest catwalk and onstage as our eyes adjust to the dark and we take in the indigo and Peacock colors of the rounded, raked stage. The sole clown onstage is then joined by two others. They are obviously a family of creatures whose origin is unknown. With the heads of chickens, the torsos of humans and thick, striped, stockinged legs, they resemble a cross between an ostrich and a Dodo bird. These three creatures now have a non-verbal dialogue with the small, hunchbacked Ringmaster who has appeared. Though diminutive, it is obvious that the Ringmaster is in charge and the creatures acquiesce in submission. This minor drama ensues as people are being seated. A small band is then spotlighted as they parade through the audience and onto the bandstand. Dressed in white costumes with white masks they play the squeeze box, drums and the smallest saxophone imaginable -- a Sopranino. (It is an amplified, curved soprano sax.) The smallest member of the cast, a child dressed in white, comes out to join the Ringmaster and the birdlike creatures telling us there may be no videotaping, flash photography or cell phone use. It is the most entertaining curtain speech that I've ever witnessed. The true show begins with a woman in a white dress (resembling a latticed understructure of a belle epoch gown), singing the title song, "Alegria" in Spanish. Her voice is as lovely as the lilting melody of the song. The word alegria means "jubilation", and this is one of Cirque du Soleil's most joyous offerings.
The first act is a group of Tumblers who bounce on mattresses that have been placed on both sides of the stage and who somersault more times than is humanly possible. The next is a Trapeze Duo, (Aerial Act) a man and a woman swathed in identical white sparkling leotards on identical trapezes doing identical stunts. Next on the bill is an old fashioned, Strong Man who lifts large brass weights, swinging them into the air with the greatest of ease and even catching one on his back. In case you don't think that the weights are really heavy, a volunteer from the audience is brought to the stage to try and pick up a bar with two of these weights on either end. He lifts it to his shoulders, but not without a goodly amount of effort. That bar is then hung with four times as much weight and our Strong Man lifts it to our enthusiastic applause.
The fourth act is a Polynesian Fire Twirler. Starting out with one fiery baton, this crowd- pleasing entertainer then builds to two, which he then balances on his bare feet. The two batons are then multiplied to four and as the pounding of island drums gets louder and louder, he tosses them higher and higher into the air. Interspersed between the specialty acts are, of course, the clowns, all very "Felliniesque" in nature. There are two funny clowns - a skinny one in a purple coat and a shorter one in big, baggy orange overalls -- and one sad clown in grayish white. The Purple Clown and the Orange Clown tended to be my favorites because of their expert comedic timing. One of their sketches reminded me of an Acting 101 exercise where an actor takes an object and uses it in a different way than its original function. Well, when the Purple Clown enters with a big red ball and a big yellow ball and the Orange Clown covets them -- of course the ensuing machinations are hysterical. Act I of Alegria ends with the Gray Clown (after losing his love) being lost in a blinding snowstorm - which we the audience become part of as bits of soft, white paper are wildly blown into our faces and bright white spotlights are turned on us.
Act II brings us more and more spectacular acts: A Young Gymnast who does amazing Hand Balancing feats on a stand and a Troupe of Acrobats who jump on thin padded planks of wood (Russian Bars) held by two men on either end. They flip, somersault and even jump from plank to plank. The timing involved in these tricks is breathtaking. It is as if all these men breathe as one. Then there is the Young Female Contortionist with a body so lithe and supple she can form an effortless circle with her torso. She enters with a cape of white feathers resembling a young bird and at the end of her piece, the strong man flies her off into the wings. And finally, there is the Trapeze Team (Synchronized Trapeze). Eight men with magnificently contoured chests dressed in white and gold costumes that expose all their beautiful pectoral prowess. There are two trapezes, one very high bar suspended from the top of the tent and one net. Thank god there is a net! At the matinee two artists fell! Though horrifying, I have to admit that it was even more dramatic than watching them fly.
For years Cirque du Soleil has shown filmed versions of their live shows on television and I have never enjoyed it. But live is another story. I have to say that it ranks as one of the most intriguing and exciting shows I've ever been to. It's just not the same on TV. You have to be there.
For tickets call: 1-800-678-5440 or log onto Cirque du Soleil's Website at: www.cirquedusoleil.com.
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