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The Sydney Morning Herald

Mysteries for the modern age

Author: Anthony Dennis
Date: 17/04/2004
Words: 1899
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Supplement
Page: 2
Cirque du Soleil will ask deeper questions of its audience when it returns to Australia, writes Anthony Dennis.

A white-gloved, headless figure, dressed in a blue and yellow speckled greatcoat, emerges from the darkness clutching an opened umbrella in one hand and a bowler hat in the other, eventually stopping in the centre of a vast revolving circus ring. It's an early weeknight in Tokyo. Inside the biggest of big tops, yet another audience is preparing to enter the dream-like, imagery-soaked realm of Cirque du Soleil.

The headless man is Quidam, the symbol of an eponymous show that will be the latest Cirque du Soleil production to tour Australia. Virtually every day of the year, tens of thousands of people across the globe witness a Cirque du Soleil performance, each production the theatrical equivalent to a deep-tissue massage of the senses, or an Olympic opening ceremony in miniature.

Each of nine troupes performing around the world represents a separate, well-oiled cog in what has become a unique entertainment machine.

In a relatively short time it's become one of the world's most successful cultural enterprises. Next year, there will be six touring Cirque du Soleil shows, from Dralion in England, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium to Quidam in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Add to these the five "resident shows", ranging from Mystere to Zumanity, in Las Vegas casinos as well as in Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, Florida. This year, yet another resident production at Las Vegas's famed MGM Grand Hotel will be launched.

The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil is returning to Sydney for the start of its first Australasian tour since Alegria was performed here in 2001. The 2004-05 tour starts with an extended season of Quidam (pronounced key-dam) at Fox Studios at Moore Park.

Quidam opens on August 12 and will run until at least late October, with a scheduled 80 shows inside a new 2500-seat blue and yellow "Grand Chapiteau", that is to be shipped here.

Once the Australasian tour concludes in Perth a year after its arrival in Sydney, as many as a million people are likely to have seen Quidam, a production that's taken nearly a decade to reach these shores after its conception in 1996.

The stark, headless, umbrella-holding Quidam - Latin for "a certain person" - represents an anonymous, alienated everyman. Quidam is Cirque du Soliel's metaphor for the insular, colder society of the 21st century (or at least as it was perceived when it was created in the years before the millennium).

Aside from the elusive Quidam, the main character in the show is a young, Nikki Webster-style lead called Zoe, played by New Zealand singer Letitia Forbes. At one stage her character's remote parents float away on two metal chairs suspended from the roof of the big top, the father, unmoved, still reading the daily paper.

Cirque du Soleil productions Alegria and Saltimbanco explore "the imaginary realm of fanciful, larger-than-life"; Quidam is set in the here-and-now, a world inhabited by "real people and real-life concerns".

"We wanted this production to be more human," says Franco Dragone, the show's director. "Like preceding productions, Quidam conveys emotion, but it is more raw and intense, more dramatic and personal [than other Cirque du Soleil shows]. Quidam highlights our frailties and our anguish in the face of the new millennium."

The production is classic Cirque du Soleil: a highly theatrical synthesis of hypnotic live music, stunning costuming and make-up, lighting, technology and, above all, circus skills and thrills.

Such has been its rapid growth in size and marketing and business acumen, a Canadian rival once famously dismissed the relentless Cirque du Soleil production line as the McDonald's of circuses.

True, there is a commitment to systems and brand control. For instance, all of the elaborate costumes from the shows are handmade in the company's head office. If a new costume is needed it must be sent from Canada, not made or sourced locally. Even the dyes for the costumes are made in-house.

Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil's founder, has been talking for some time of expanding the name into its own branded hotels, nightclubs and spas. If it's all overkill, it's not showing. The world's appetite for Cirque du Soleil is unsated, with the company paying careful attention to the intervals between its return to previous markets with new shows.

Marie-Helene Gagnon, Quidam's artistic coordinator, says it's not so long since the circus was here. "You don't want to saturate audiences [with Cirque du Soleil tours] but you don't want to leave it too long either," she says.

The company has been confident enough to push beyond the family show formula. Zumanity, which plays in Las Vegas, features a drag queen MC and female performers who caress each other in a huge transparent fish tank as near-nude trapeze artists groan in mock ecstasy.

One of the most arresting aspects for audiences arriving inside the big top for Quidam is a dramatic computer-controlled conveyor tracking system suspended from the roof in an enormous arc of five rails.

This extraordinary, almost sculptural installation, allows the talented young aerialists to glide, not just high above, and directly across, the ring itself, but also to be suspended safely above the audience.

Quidam will feature two Australian performers, Melburnian Donna Maree Stevens, who performs the challenging Cloud Swing aerial act and an erstwhile Sydney ballerina, Philipa Hayball, in the high-octane role of Target (see interview, back page).

In characteristic Cirque du Soleil style Quidam is constructed less by plot and more with theatrical embroidery, anchored by a cavalcade of carefully orchestrated, exhaustively rehearsed conventional circus acts. They culminate in a sequence called Banquine. It's a precision acrobatic act, involving a dozen male and female performers, that climaxes with one member of the troupe being "flung" almost to the roof of the big top.

Of course, the nearest an audience gets to a live animal in this, or any Cirque du Soleil production, is a performer in overalls impersonating a seal. And don't expect the headless Quidam to beat you about the head with that umbrella in pushing any political or social agendas. The themes of the company's shows are carefully choreographed to straddle language and cultural barriers.

"The story is a few pieces of a puzzle," Gagnon says. "But there are no answers. We're forbidden to produce the answers. The spectrum is left open enough for the audience to relate to the show in their own way."

There's little doubt that Cirque du Soleil's succession of shows over two decades have drawn non-theatre or circus-goers into a sophisticated form of entertainment to which they perhaps wouldn't have otherwise been drawn.

As one Australian theatre critic wrote of Alegria during its tour down under a few years ago, "it's not cutting-edge politically or intellectually, but it's grand, popular entertainment, meticulously performed".

Back in Tokyo, the Quidam troupe is nearing the conclusion of an exhausting season of more than 500 shows. After such a marathon run, the 150 multinational cast and crew of Quidam say that they're feeling not so much lost in translation as marooned.

The knowledge of Sydney to come in August, one cast member confides backstage, remains the "one thing" that's keeping the troupe going after so long in one city.

And there's at least one cast member who's especially looking forward to returning. Rares Iulian Orzata performs in two Quidam sequences, a spectacular aerial rope act involving nine artists called the Spanish Webs, as well as a frenzied skipping ropes act.

Orzata represented Romania in gymnastics in the 2000 Olympics and says he's keen to revisit the home in the Olympic Village, which today is suburban Newington, where he and his fellow team members lived during the Games. "I want to go back to the house where we stayed," Orzata says. "I still have a videotape of it. We had a wonderful time there."

Cirque du Soleil recruits former elite gymnasts to become part of its acts, grooming them into polished performers. For Orzata, the Quidam stint has been a rewarding, and unexpected, sequel to his gymnastics career. "It's a fabulous life," he says. "You have more free time and not the same level of stress that you do as an athlete.

And for gymnasts it's a good second option. I probably would have become a coach had Cirque du Soleil not come along. Quidam's a kind of dark show but it's my favourite of all of them."

Gagnon says the athletes who join Cirque du Soleil as performers must earn the right to be called an artist. It's not enough to simply perform a stunt or trick in a show like Quidam. Each act must be imbued with a theatrical sensibility, something of which former Canadian national team gymnast, Shayne Courtright, is acutely aware.

Courtright, 27, performs within the exposed framework of a giant metal apparatus, the German Wheel, which dates to the 1930s. It's spectacularly propelled across the ring by his own body, suspended inside.

"When you leave behind a sport like gymnastics you leave behind the competitive spirit," he says. "It's like being part of a big family except you don't get to choose the people you work with. You're just all put together for a long period.

"It's a learning experience just to be in the one country for such a lengthy time. Because you're involved with the show on most days you feel a constant responsibility to maintain its integrity.

"People who come to see Cirque want a release. They want to be thrilled."

The Sydney Morning Herald is an official media partner for Cirque du Soleil's tour of Quidam. Tickets, $39-$109,

go on sale on Monday for the Sydney season of Quidam through Ticketek, 1300 130 300, or www.ticketek.com.au

Cirque statistics

Founded 1984

Founder Guy Laliberte

Headquarters Montreal

Spectators 40 million

Spectators this year

7 million

Employees 2700

Artists 600

Nationalities 40

Cities visited 90

The world of Cirque du Soleil

Productions staged around the globe this year

Saltimbanco

Touring Spain, France, Italy and Germany

Quidam

Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Dralion

England, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Spain

Varekai

United States

Mystere

Resident show at Treasure Island casino, Las Vegas

O

Resident show at Bellagio, Las Vegas

La Nouba

Resident show at Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Zumanity

Resident show at New York, New York casino, Las Vegas

 
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