March 31, 2002
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Cirque du Soleil (French for "Circus of the Sun"), the international, Canada-based troupe who perform Quidam (pronounced "key-DAM"), is not like any other circus you’ve ever seen. They’ve made a sort of grown-up, enlightened, surreal, magical, and much more athletic version of the circus you remember from childhood. There are animals, yes, but they’re all human animals, and from the smiles on their faces at the third curtain call, they’re onstage of their own free will and loving every moment of it. While Quidam is not suited to young children (more for its length and complexity than for some slightly salacious content), it’s definitely for the kid in you. If you’re like me, you may not have been to the circus since your age was expressed with a single digit. With the arrival of Cirque du Soleil in Charlotte, it’s time to come back.|
Quidam, like any circus, features numerous separate acts, but nonetheless it has a concept, albeit one as flimsy as some of its performers’ outfits: a lonely girl, feeling neglected by her parents, receives a mysterious visitor who whisks the family off to a surreal netherworld populated by strange characters, including the headless, Magrittean, umbrella-carrying title character (quidam is Latin for "somebody" or "someone", an unknown person; in this context meant to signify "a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past").
The show has much the same plot as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat In the Hat - bored young person meets mayhem-bringers on a rainy day. There’s even a feline-looking character called Target, costumed in black and white with a red-and-white design on his chest. Target’s costume invokes both Seuss’ famed cat and Mr. Mistoffelees, the magical feline from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Cats. But the concept isn’t much of a story - there’s no sense of having journeyed emotionally, just of having taken a strange and wonderful trip. The family’s encounters are a thematic gimmick played to create a greater emotional investment, and to differentiate Cirque from old-guard circuses. In those respects it works just fine. Really, carping at Cirque du Soleil for not delivering on concept is a job for the adult in you. Tell him or her to go stand in the corner while the kid in you drinks in all the gaudy, racy, noisy wonder.
It takes only a few minutes at the outset to get the plot out of the way, and then we get straight to the action - an eye-popping, senses-overloading extravaganza of barely-there costumes, bold makeup, astounding acrobats, capering dancers, and circus spectacle that has made Cirque du Soleil one of the hottest traveling shows on earth, and close to sold out for its Charlotte run. Ever heard nearly 3,000 people gasp as one with wonder? You’ll hear it, and help do it, at Quidam.
The first act is one of the troupe’s few Americans, Chris Lashua, on the "German wheel" - a sort of giant free-rolling hamster wheel six and a half feet high. If you watched the Oscars this year (which featured excerpts from Quidam), you know that Lashua clings to the wheel as it rolls across the stage, performing gymnastic stunts as he goes. Your TV didn’t do justice to the troupe, and onstage and in person Lashua starts the show with the joyful flair and world-class athleticism that nearly every other Quidam act possesses.
Not all is as showy as Lashua and his wheel. One act consists of performers simply skipping rope in shockingly complex and difficult configurations with multiple ropes in a kind of Busby Berkeley-meets-Double Dutch that showcases Cirque at its best - creative, fun, astoundingly athletic, and totally charming. "Vis Versa", a two-member act, is neither showy nor even fast, but absolutely unforgettable. The two performers move in a slow-motion tantric dance, without props, standing on a bare floor, performing lift moves so exotic, extreme, and gorgeous I might not have believed them possible before seeing them. Their act is so overwhelmingly unusual that it’s difficult to describe - imagine two-person power yoga performed with a contortionist’s sinuosity and a weightlifter’s power.
The great athlete makes the near-impossible his day job. He makes it seem simple. If the two members of Vis Versa had levitated into the air and hovered there a few seconds before drifting gracefully back to earth, I wouldn’t have batted an eye, I would have clapped more loudly. Watching performers like this, we realize these are Olympic-level athletes who have devoted their lives to entertainment rather than sport.
The concept only periodically interjects itself into the action, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. The parents, as lost as their child in the surreal world of Quidam, went through passages I couldn’t figure out. The mother is one of three characters who catch an acrobat as she descends to earth. The mother wears a dark red dress, the acrobat’s props (hanging sheets of silk) are the same shade, and the scene, with its rich, bloody reds and stylized action, becomes almost eerie, fraught with a meaning and vaguely sexual symbolism at odds with the juggling act about to appear. One wishes for less emotional flavoring and more meaning. Here and elsewhere the show has a perversely surreal, look-Mom-I’m-avant-garde feeling - one almost expected naked actors wrapped in cellophane to enter under a strobe light. Some touches, though, as when the father character does a slow-motion moonwalk high in the air, have an uncanny glamour far better suits the themes of surreal adventure and magic.
The troupe seems to both bend and belittle the laws of physics - a red-hot ropeskipper jumps her rope so quickly that it becomes as blurred as a hummingbird’s wings, seeming to form a shell around her; the star of the Aerial Contortion in Silk winds herself in swathes of red silk hanging from the ceiling, posing and contorting tens of feet above the audience with nary a safety wire; a juggler balances a red soccer ball on his forehead with such surety we feel sure the object must have the heft of a medicine ball. But when the juggler throws the ball one-handed, we know it’s probably just a soccer ball - so great is the skill of Cirque that it is at times elevated to magic.
The haunting pop score (no ordinary circus, this) is played and sung live. Not only does Cirque have a troupe of athletes, but also a maestro, a band, and an onstage singer, who perform effectively if unsubtly. The bright, mysterious, distinctly European music was written expressly for Quidam by Benoit Jutras.
All this action and noise takes place under a roomy, comfortable, climate-controlled grand chapiteau (big top), a giant blue-and-yellow striped tent complete with a 34-foot revolving stage in the center. Above the stage, three giant tracks (imagine three sets of railroad tracks arching about fifty feet above the stage and audience) with moving trolleys fly people and objects dozens of feet in the air. Dress comfortably - the chapiteau has lots of steps, and on your way back to your car you’ll have to tramp through a grassy parking zone. And arrive on time! - the troupe is infamous for interacting (read: interfering) with the audience, and late arrivals seem to be a favorite target for mockery. The whole space is so classy and comfortable that even the outside porta-toilets are clean and utilitarian.
Quidam is a testament to the transformative power of the imagination and the astonishing physical capabilities of the human animal. To see some cruelty-free circus magic that will lift you heart and drop your jaw, go see Quidam.
Jennifer Saylor, March 31, 2002