On stage at the Lyric, a circus show Theater: A story of very few words, 'Cirque Ingenieux' is about a little girl named Sarah who is propelled into a dream world filled with bizarre performers.

March 01, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The artistic director never dreamed of running off and joining the circus. Neither did the playwright he hired to put his vision of a circus on stage.

For "Cirque Ingenieux," the show that opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House, that's probably a good thing, because this "cirque" is intended to have more in common with the theater than with the circus.

"It's a little bit of the 'Wizard of Oz,' a little of 'Alice in Wonderland,' a little bit of a lot of fairy tales," says Neil Goldberg, co-producer of "Cirque Ingenieux" and founder and artistic director of its Florida-based parent company, Cirque Inc.

And, unlike the story of its creators, "It's the story of a little girl who decides she wants to join the circus, and by the end of the play she does, and her dreams are realized," explains Washington-based playwright Norman Allen, who wrote the libretto for "Cirque Ingenieux."

The result "is more about theater and imagination and spectacle than about circus," says Goldberg.

The producer, 42, has spent most of his career staging special events for clients ranging from the Super Bowl to Coca-Cola. "Cirque Ingenieux" gave him a chance to combine that career with his roots in the theater -- his college major and the field he originally planned to enter as a set designer.

He also had a pool of performing talent to draw from, since he often hires international circus performers for his corporate events. Three weeks ago, for example, he staged a one-night private cirque -- the word he prefers -- in Paris for European Nissan dealers. "It's one thing to open a car door and show what color it is. It's another to open a door and have five contortionists roll out," he says.

Staging a cirque for the public, instead of for a private audience, not only seemed the next logical step for Goldberg, there was also a role model.

As its name suggests, "Cirque Ingenieux" has something in common with the company that put the word "cirque" into common parlance, the Montreal-based company called Cirque du Soleil.

There are other similarities as well. Neither cirque includes animals, both blend acrobatic circus arts and theater, both use international casts and original New Age music; there's even been some crossover among personnel.

But the new kid on the block, "Cirque Ingenieux," offers some twists of its own. Instead of being performed in a tent, as its Canadian forebear usually is, "Cirque Ingenieux" is performed exclusively in theaters. And, where Cirque du Soleil's productions have broad themes (for example, "Quidam," which will be performed in McLean, Va., starting in Sept. 17, is about the facelessness of society), "Cirque Ingenieux" has a concrete plot.

Whatever the artistic distinctions, however, there's no denying that Cirque du Soleil is a phenomenon that has grown even beyond the expectations of its founders, one of whom is a former fire eater. Three of the nine productions the company has mounted over its 14-year history are still running -- "Quidam" is in Dallas, "Alegria" in Madrid, and "Mystere" in Las Vegas, with two more shows in the works for permanent theaters being built in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. A dinner-theater co-production with the German company Pomp Duck and Circumstance has been running in Hamburg since last June, and a film based on "Alegria" is scheduled for international release this spring.

"Definitely, what Cirque du Soleil has done is a great job of making Americans aware of the fact that there is this style of artistry that has existed throughout Europe since the early 1900s, and it's definitely something that has helped in terms of public awareness," Goldberg says.

His reference to a European cirque tradition, however, is where Cirque du Soleil begs to differ. "Cirque du Soleil is often called a European-style circus. In fact, we are a unique style of circus," says Lyn Heward, who holds the unusual title of "Creation Vice President" with Cirque du Soleil. "Cirque, the genre as we call it now, is something that is really new."

Cirque du Soleil, which has been written up in Forbes, had revenues of more than $106 million last year, a figure expected to double in the next 14 months, according to Jean David, vice president for marketing. David spoke from the Montreal headquarters, a $22 million complex that is one of the company's five international offices (the others are in Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Singapore and Tokyo, with a sixth due to open in Orlando this month).

Clearly, the Canadian cirque has become a worldwide industry, but even the up-and-comer, "Cirque Ingenieux," often has three shows running simultaneously. Besides the current tour, which has been extended from 30 weeks to more than 80, Goldberg still stages corporate cirque events and also has a cirque in South America that will play a three-month engagement in Atlantic City this summer.

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