Universal Circus

What goes on underneath the bright blue-and-yellow big top of Cirque du Soleil is a scale model of what's going on in the world as a whole.

Just as every major city becomes a melting pot of ethnic neighborhoods, this strange modern circus is an eclectic mix of styles and performers from around the world (in this case, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Holland, the Ukraine, the United States, the Ivory Coast and the production's country of focus, China).

Even its music has a world beat combining Hindu melod ies with the sounds of Africa, Andalusia and the West. The lyrics are sung in a global gibberish that mixes Italian and Latin, among other things.

But most of all it's the American-style showmanship, with its big-budget production values and slick special effects, that pushes Cirque's conventional circus acts closer to the realm of dance and theater.

The multinational entertainment company's show, Dralion (a combination of "dragon" and "lion," two traditional Chinese dances), was conceived as its own self-contained, fantastical universe. The circus acts are broken up into Aristotle's four basic elements, which are conveyed by different kinds of movement: water is interpreted as Indian dance; air is a more classical style, like ballet; earth conjures up images of Africa; and fire is a form of martial arts. Director Guy Caron added in a fifth element from Chinese mythology, the soul. It falls on the Chinese acrobats to somehow express this intangibility.

Though technically adept, the disciplined and introverted Chinese had problems adapting to Cirque du Soleil's trademark acrobatics, which require not only technical proficiency but an ability to act and dance. The Chinese could mimic any move they saw, but tell them to slink like a cat or act like a flame, and they were lost.

In the end, the choreographers had to work around the difficulty. "They add their own vocabulary," says Caron. Bringing together elements of vastly different cultures can have its conflicts.

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Dylan Otto Krider