It was a decade ago when Cirque du Soleil first crossed the Canadian border to introduce the U.S. to a whole new idea of what a circus could be. Gone were the familiar three rings, the sadly submissive "wild" animals, the "death-defying" human cannonballs. In their place was a combination of acrobatics, theater, street performances, music and the mysterious.
Cirque du Soleil was, in the best way, surprising; it caused audiences to feel a true sense of wonder. But surprise often depends on unfamiliarity, and the question now might be whether, after ten years of crisscrossing the continent -- growing from a small troupe to an institution that not only has offices in Europe and North America but also a permanent home in Las Vegas and, soon, another permanent home in Disney World -- Cirque du Soleil has lost its ability to astonish.
As anyone who sees Cirque's current production of Quidam soon discovers, the answer is a resounding "no." When you pull back the flaps to Cirque du Soleil's big top -- these folks perform in a real tent -- and wander under the canvas lintel, you find yourself smack-dab in the center of a looking-glass world of unearthly lights, haunting music and acrobatic acts that leave you slack-jawed in amazement. And because this circus has a story and a theme, the acrobats do more than just astound you with their physical prowess; they also move you with their symbolic and often melancholic grace.
Quidam (the story's title is a French word meaning "nameless passerby") is the tale of a young girl struggling to find meaning in a lackluster world of newspaper-reading, radio-loving parents. When she dons a magic hat that takes her places she's never been before, she discovers the paradoxical nature of living: that it's a dream and a nightmare in which we are at once inextricably bound together and existentially lost.
In some ways, Quidam is a familiar coming-of-age tale. But Quidam's director, Franco Dragone, has spun this story in a wondrously new direction, deepening it with sounds and images you won't soon hear or see again. And in doing so, he's created one of the most haunting theatrical experiences you could hope to have for a very long time.
Amazingly enough, Quidam's complicated tale is conveyed without words. The ringmaster, John Gilkey, whose absurd hairdo is an example of minimalism at its absolute best, introduces both the audience and the young girl to this world with a kind of pantomime that mixes strength, dance, acrobatics and juggling. Charming and mysterious, he's an altogether different sort of ringmaster, one who can do a lovely dance with a coat rack but is so utterly naughty that you can't help but follow him into a surreal universe that lifts images of bowler hats, umbrellas and floating burghers right out of a Magritte painting.
And once you're there, you'll be mesmerized your entire stay.
Quidam takes place in a sort of post-modern circus ring that looks as much like a thrust stage as anything you'd associate with a circus. The performers don't limit themselves to this stage, though; they also bound into the audience and dangle from the top of the tent. Among the more incredible of the acts are the Diabolos, four young Chinese entertainers (Wu Di, Yuan Siqi, Zhao Xin and Zhao Xue) who play a hyperbolic version of Chinese yo-yo in which they pitch spinning, fist-sized wooden spools high, high into the sky, then retrieve them on strings. Music accompanies the spools as they go faster and higher, and as they flip and twirl from player to player. As the music gets tighter and louder, the enormous drums punctuate each increasingly fantastic catch. The jugglers are both independent and interdependent; they need each other and yet attempt to outdo each other. Dressed like silver-skirted tin-men, they are exquisite to look at and stunningly precise. Though the audience can't help but hold its collective breath as the spools rise and fall, not one spool so much as brushes the ground.
In between the individual acts comes a "chorus" of dancing men and women. Dressed like stylized paupers from the Middle Ages, they wear flouncy skirts and pantaloons, blouses and bras, girdles and garters and stockings. Each character -- dressed in faded hues of silvery gray and mossy green or creamy pink, and sporting painted faces, black lips, bald heads and cottony wigs -- is made to look undeniably unique. But as fantastic as the performers' costumes are, it's their dancing and choreography that wow. They move with muscular precision and thrilling speed. Defying gravity, they whirl through the air like birds, landing on each others' shoulders and tumbling to the edge of the stage.
Meanwhile, at the edge of this spectacle, the little girl watches, both enraptured and fearful. And far above, on tracks that run the length of the tent's ceiling, her father and mother are suspended, lost and searching for each other and their child. They pass but can't connect. These images of the suspended, bewildered parents are weirdly moving and profoundly symbolic of a state of being we all occupy at one time or another.
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Also symbolic are the columns of red cloth that aerial contortionist Isabelle Vaudelle climbs during her act. The struggle of this woman, as she pulls her way up a set of red, flowing drapes in a quest to reach the top of the tent, is terrifying. As she rises, she binds her ankles and wrists, her waist and neck in the ropes of red fabric; then she unbinds them, often seeming to catch herself just before falling to the ground below. When she reaches the top, she wraps herself deep within the fabric's folds, as if returning to a womb. Moments later she emerges, as if she's remade herself, and begins again to perform. The symbolism here -- the drapes as ties that bind, to keep Vaudelle safe, but also as restraints, from which she must struggle to be free -- sustains the central story line.
Perhaps the most arresting images and display of lyrical yet muscular strength come from Yves Decoste and Marie-Laure Mesnage. Their "Statue -- Vis Versa" is a balancing act in which the two performers stay in constant contact as they move, holding each other up through a series of positions that seem to defy all capabilities of human strength. Their nude leotards reveal the power and natural beauty of their bodies, while also underscoring the erotic component of trust and shared power implied in deeply felt love.
It's love and trust that the young girl at the center of Quidam seems to be seeking. And like Alice, Dorothy and other fictional girls before her, she must stumble through a world of nameless strangers before she can learn the value of the familial bonds that create trust, and even love. In Quidam, these strangers come in the shape of clowns and acrobats, dancers and jugglers, singers and actors. Each and every one is strangely beautiful, stylistically original, sensuous and tempting. And they're permeated with an enchanting turn of melancholy. They're permeated with surprise.
Quidam plays through December 21 in the north end of the Astrodome parking lot, 8400 Kirby. For tickets, call 1-800-678-5440.