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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,"

he says.

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

that aspect."

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

Cirque du Soleil’s `Varekai,’ under a tent at Broad and

Washington streets, Philadelphia, 800-450-1480. $45 to $65; $31.50

to $58.50 for children, students, and seniors. Through October 20.

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