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     Volume 6 Issue2 | January 19, 2007 |

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Straight Talk

What a Circus

When I was growing up, I recall going to a circus or two but recently, my whole concept of what a circus is has been redefined. For most of us, circuses conjure up images of a group of performers who travel from one place to another, entertaining crowds within the confines of a circular tent. You would immediately think of the 'Ring Master' who would be the person introducing the acts usually adorned in a red tail coat and black hat. Then the actual performers would come out and wow the public by their different acts and talents. This may have included acrobats, clowns, trained animals, trapeze artists and very likely other novelty acts. But last week we decided to take the children to 'Cirque du Soleil' and since then it has changed my rather stereotypical view and definition of a circus.

'Cirque du Soleil' which means “Circus of the Sun” in French was founded in Quebec, Canada in 1984 by two former street performers Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier. It is what is perceived as a modern form of circus where the shows are based around a storyline albeit a rather abstract one, as well as extraordinary performances and make use of dancers, contortionists, magnificent costumes, jugglers, feats of strength, clowns and trapeze artists to amaze and marvel the audiences. Unlike traditional circuses, Cirque du Soleil does not use, nor have any animals in their acts. Instead they emphasize the use of humans as performers. The performances seem to incorporate elements of not just the circus but street performances, opera, a little bit of ballet and even rock music. Their acts include contortionists, jugglers, clowns, and trapeze artists. Since then, they have performed all over the world to packed audiences and have enthralled millions so when we heard that they were in London we just had to go and see for ourselves and to tell you the truth we were not disappointed.

The performance we went to see was called 'Alegria' which means 'Joy' or 'Jubilation' in Spanish. It was held at the Royal Albert Hall which in itself is a remarkable auditorium and can seat as many as five thousand people. Soon after we were seated, a few minutes prior to the show starting, we could see some of the performers wander onto the stage wearing the most colourful and outlandish costumes. I can only describe them as bird people. They were meant to be characters from the story and also assisted the other performers when needed. The kids were already fascinated by these rather odd looking characters and were eagerly awaiting the start of the show. Once the performance began, we were absolutely spellbound for the next couple of hours.

I am not sure how I should describe Cirque du Soleil other than to say that it is an extravaganza of colours, lights, music and the most incredible acts I have seen. Cirque shows traditionally do not use pre-recorded music; with some exceptions all music is played live, and in many performances the spoken parts are done in an imaginary language invented by the company which I believe is dubbed 'Cirquish'! This was obviously the preferred mode of communication by the clowns who kept the audience amused by their antics. The trapeze artists were tremendous. They had the entire hall holding their breath while they flew through the air and you could actually hear the audience heaving a collective sigh of relief every time they completed their leap through the air. Then there was a young man who impressed us with his incredible strength combined with agility and grace. The solo artist skilfully lifted his body in the air, balancing his weight on one hand and then the other while he created striking and elegant forms. I am sure that every single muscle in his body was being used to strike each pose.

Another act that was remarkable were the acrobatic flyers who were thrust into the air from a single, double or triple bar that was perched on the strong shoulders of powerful catchers. The extremely nimble and agile flyers performed a number of synchronized somersaults and mid-air twists at unbelievable speed. The Russian bars obviously required a great deal of concentration and co-ordination as each of the flexible bars measures only two to six inches in width. One mistake and it would have been easy for the performers to have missed landing on the bar. By this stage not only my children, but the rest of us in the audience were gasping audibly. The part that really had the crowd cheering is when one of the acrobats did a mid-air somersault after being catapulted into the air while carrying one of the younger performers only to land safely on a wooden plank no more than 6 inches wide!

In between these acts, we had the clowns coming out and what was charming was they involved the audience by taking one of them onto stage and getting them to participate in their act. It was also nice to see the audience getting into the spirit of things and giving the clowns a run for their money. One act that was really quite bizarre was the contortionists. They were two petite bird-like girls performing imaginative and extraordinary feats of flexibility and balance while perched on a seemingly weightless rotating table. Their movements were so graceful and fluid that they seemed to move together almost as one. There were times where we were thinking how it was even humanly possible to get into those positions! They had the snakelike flexibility and to tell you the truth it was even slightly disturbing to see people who looked like they had no bones in their body. I could not figure out whose head was whose and which pair of legs belonged to which performer! But it was definitely worth watching and must have involved years of practice and training.

There were fire knife dancers as well and they performed to the rhythm of congo drums. Their outfits were tribal in nature as was the whole act. It was fascinating to see the two men weaving the baton like fire knives around their bodies sometimes at an alarming speed. It reminded me of our own fire dancers in Bangladesh with the difference that the fire knife dancers touched the fire with their hands, mouth and feet. At one point part of the burning torch became detached and flew into the unsuspecting audience causing a bit of a commotion but only for a moment as it was efficiently dealt with by the staff.

All in all it was an extravaganza that was not just entertaining for the whole family but was also an insight into what modern day circuses have evolved into. No lion tamers or bearded ladies in sight…


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