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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Circus Feats of Imagination
People flying through the air with the greatest of
ease. An acrobat dancing on crutches. A juggler tossing all manner
of objects into the air — and into his mouth. Faux "skaters"
gliding across the floor. It must be Cirque du Soleil!
And if you’ve ever thought about running away to join the circus,
this is the one you should consider. "Cirque," as it is commonly
known, is the unique circus that was born in Quebec in 1982 when a
group of young street performers who had fun mixing with crowds at
a local festival hatched the idea of launching an entertainers’ festival.
The government of Quebec, attracted to the concept of a dramatic mix
of circus arts, street entertainment, outrageous costumes, and extraordinary
lighting, lent a helping hand. From then on, there was no stopping
By 1990, Cirque was playing to audiences around the globe. But somehow
our region had missed out on the fun until last year, when a huge
striped tent went on up Philadelphia’s Broad Street (also known as
the city’s Avenue of the Arts) and the crowds poured in to see a circus
spectacle called "Dralion."
It was such a love-fest that Cirque is bestowing upon "the City
That Loves You Back" the honor of making it the site of the United
States premiere of Cirque’s newest offering, an extravaganza called
So what’s the lure of this circus that has no ringmaster, no elephants,
not a single fierce tiger, and is also missing those fabled three
The short answer: artistry.
In just over a decade, this upstart phenomenon called Cirque du Soleil
has become an international visual and sensory extravaganza that features
everything from fables, themes, original musical scores, and spectacular
costumes to talent gathered from around the world. Cirque is so different
from the traditional circus that the uninformed sometimes feel cheated.
This circus is a showcase for jugglers, stilt-walkers, aerial artists,
and performers whose bodies seem to defy gravity. But there’s no hype,
no frenzied announcer preparing us for "death-defying feats."
Those feats just tumble towards us in an almost dizzying array. Blink
and you may miss something.
And while we’ve come to expect spangles and sequins on circus performers,
Cirque’s costumes are of a different order. Colors and textures become
their own high art form on performers who often become just fiery
blurs of color by the time they’re finished with us. Feathers, light
bulbs on headgear, elaborate hoop skirts, and, you should be forewarned,
exotic masks that could frighten a young child, are the norm in this
Who’s behind all of this wizardry? Among the 2,400 employees
of Cirque, 500 of whom are performers, is a soft-spoken man who once
performed up on a trapeze but came down to earth in recent years.
Andrew Watson, a native of South Wales who serves as director of creation
for "Varekai," is at least partially responsible for this
year’s production. And he insists that part of the fun is simply in
the sensory odyssey. "We transport people to places they’ve never
been before — and never missed until they got there," says
And that’s the way Cirque staffers see their mission. Scoff if you
must, but the team members who produce each Cirque extravaganza —
there are now eight touring shows and shows installed in Las Vegas
and Disney World — must also buy into a culture that takes the
circus so seriously that you’d think the end product was a museum-quality
exhibition. And in a way, it is.
People like Andrew Watson believe that a circus can expand our sensory
awareness and leave us gasping. "I love the shock factor, the
kind that makes an audience wonder what it is they just saw —
and also makes them care about the people making the miracle,"
Watson himself discovered his penchant for trapeze artistry as a teen.
With an aerial partner, he joined the Festival du Cirque de Demain,
was spotted by a Cirque artistic director, and joined the then-infant
organization in 1987.
"I loved the work, but I also recognized that I was more interested
in the creative aspect of making shows," Watson explained during
a recent visit to Philadelphia in preparation for the opening of "Varekai."
When his original contract ended in 1990, he stayed on with Cirque
as a casting director.
Within a few years, Watson again grew restless, and turned his talent
to the post of Director of Creation. The position, he believes, takes
judgment and intuition, but most of all, requires skill in handling
people of diverse backgrounds.
"When I first encountered Cirque, I found myself with all kinds
of people — South Africans, Europeans, Bulgarians — and I
found it absolutely amazing and wonderful. The cultural mix is what
makes this circus what it is — an international spectacle. I love
Audiences may not be aware of the cultural mix, but they surely applaud
the feats of daring and the spectacular special effects that characterize
a Cirque production.
"Varekai" is named for a Romany word, the language of European
gypsies. It translates to "Wherever." In this case, "wherever"
is a forested land inhabited by humans done up as strange creatures.
And into this forest falls the character Icarus, who becomes our guide
through this enchanted land.
A bit of "Twelfth Night?" Perhaps. But also a loose structure
around which the entertainment is wrapped. All Cirque productions
have plot lines, but in the end, they don’t matter much.
What audiences respond to are Cirque’s incredible performers. From
jugglers, dancers, and acrobats to aerial artists, they are paraded
out in a dozen different vignettes, all studded with music, special
effects, and dramatic lighting. Small wonder it has taken about 18
months to put the finishing touches on "Varekai."
But in the end, there’s one simple goal. Director of Creation Watson
sums it up: "We always want to amaze. We want to know that we
are stretching imaginations and taking our audiences on a journey
they won’t forget. If we can do that, then we’re living up to our
— Sally Friedman
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