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This article by Sally Freidman was prepared for the July 14, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Cirque Dazzles in Philadelphia
The ideas sometimes come to him in dreams. "I cannot predict, I cannot
explain," says Pierre Parisien, who bears the responsibility for the
creative end of the spectacular entertainment known as Cirque du
Soleil. Cirque’s famous striped tent, the Grand Chapiteau, will be
parked on Philadelphia’s Broad Street through August 8.
"I may be walking along the street when something will come into my
head and suddenly, I can almost see it," says Parisien, a native of
Montreal, Quebec, who became interested in legitimate theater in
college. A graduate of the University of Ottawa, Parisien spent
several years as a director and actor until a friend invited him to
scope out Cirque.
"Montreal is a big city – and a small town. We all know each other in
the entertainment business," he says, "and I’m very grateful that my
friend knew of Cirque. It fascinated me at once."
When he was invited to become general stage manager of a Tokyo tour,
this lover of theater jumped at the chance – and his legitimate
theater days were over. "I have loved Cirque from the start," he
declares. "It has a certain magic for me."
So what is Cirque du Soleil? How did it start? And what is its magic?
Back in 1982, a troupe of street performers that called itself the
"Club de Talons Hauts" – the High Heels Club – had created Fete
Foraine, the first scheduled festival to feature street performers
from around the world. By 1984 the show’s fame had reached the
government of Quebec, and the performers were invited to create a
special show for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery
of Canada. And out of that serendipitous invitation, Cirque du Soleil
That year, 1984, the entire company consisted of 73 people. Today,
Cirque du Soleil claims 2,700 employees around the world, 600 of whom
are its performing artists. And "artists" is not a term used loosely.
‘We search out the very, very best acrobats, gymnasts, actors,
singers, dancers, musicians and clowns," explains Parisien. "We have
scouts literally around the world who visit major competitions and
gather lists of potential performers."
Would you believe that there’s a database of 20,000 possible Cirque
recruits? Typically Parisien steps in to audition the top contenders
among them as the need arises. "We may need an exceptional tumbler or
an outstanding dancer, and somehow, you get to know who’s meant for
the spot," he says. "Something inside of you tells you ‘This is the
As Parisien gently reminds, Cirque is not just any circus. In fact,
it’s best for those who have never seen a production to put away any
notions about ringmasters, traditional clowns, and performing lions
and tigers. That’s not what Cirque is about.
What Cirque is about may be harder to define. The essential quality it
delivers is a surreal experience focused on dazzling stagecraft, human
bodies performing seemingly superhuman physical feats, and an umbrella
theme that is often more suggested than delineated. Then there are the
spectacular costumes, the pulsating music, and the general sensory
overload one experiences during a show that sets Cirque apart from
most other theatrical experiences.
Cirque du Soleil currently has nine shows running, including two that
are anchored in Las Vegas as part of its entertainment scene.
Generally, only one new show a year is created, often at a production
cost that can reach almost $100 million. It’s amazing to note that
Cirque du Soleil has never had a flop, compared to the 9 out of 10
high-budget Broadway shows directed at the same sophisticated,
well-heeled audiences, that don’t earn back their investments.
There’s an entire Cirque empire now, with television specials, videos
and DVDs, films and CDs of Cirque music. A TV series called "Cirque du
Soleil: The Fire Within" won an Emmy last year. A 2001 Cirque TV
special carried off three Emmies.
"Alegria," the production based in Philadelphia this summer, premiered
in 1994 and has been seen by over 7 million people, including the
likes of Madonna, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand,
Whoopi Goldberg, and Sting. It is, according to Parisien, all about
power of various sorts, from political to financial. "It may not be
obvious, but once you think about it, power is really the thread that
weaves through the production," he says.
Technically, Alegria translates from the Spanish into "elation,"
"joy," "jubilation." That title allows for displays of artistry and
flamboyance and a baroque style that sets it apart from other Cirque
productions, some of which are a bit more austere.
"We like to think that each of our shows has a distinct personality, a
uniqueness that sets it apart," says Parisien. "Alegria is – oh well –
passionate. Yes, passionate. It touches people. You feel it with your
eyes and ears, yes, but also with your soul."
Don’t look for a linear plot in Alegria. But it may help to know that
birds are a recurring motif and symbol, with lots of whistles and
chirps playing over the sound system, and bird costumes in abundant
evidence. Trivia buffs take note: to create those costumes required
500 balls of knitting yarn, over 1,000 yards of braid, 22 pounds of
glitter, 5,000 buttons just for the bird costumes, and 161 gallons of
About half a dozen of the performers who began with Alegria 10 years
ago remain in the show, including 30-year-old Aleksandr "Sasha"
Dobrynin, known as the "Flying Man." Dobrynin, who began his gymnastic
training at seven, has developed a heart-stopping solo act with
bungees and straps, which is showcased in Alegria.
But special effects, costumes, and feats of daring aside, Parisien has
his own measure of a show’s success. Whenever he can, Parisien wanders
into an audience and just observes. "I love to watch faces," he says.
"And when I see that sense of wonder and awe not just on the face of a
child, but on his grandfather’s, too, then I know we’re doing just
what we set out to do. Cirque should make that awe belong to
– Sally Friedman
Cirque du Soleil’s "Alegria" set up its blue and yellow Grand
Chapiteau at Broad and Washington Streets in Philadelphia on Thursday,
July 8, and is in town through Sunday, August 8. Regular performances
are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m.; Thursdays to Saturdays at 4
p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. There will be no
performance on Tuesday, August 3. Tickets are $50-$70 for adults,
$35-$49 for children. For students 13-18 and seniors 65 and older,
tickets are $45-$63 on weekdays. For tickets and informaiton, phone
1-800-678-5440, or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.
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