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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

was born.

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

right one’."

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

purple dye.

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

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