Cirque astonishes with fresh ideas about the big top

`Dralion' settles in for 24 days of lighter-than-air acrobatics

April 12, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The people responsible for Dralion, the Cirque du Soleil's astonishingly inventive and ceaselessly spirited show that had its local premiere in Fells Point last night, chose two mythic beasts - the dragon and the lion - to give their performance a name that would provide audiences a hint of what they're in for.

But a more appropriate animal to use as a symbol, the one whose image might have better reflected what Baltimore audiences can expect during the show's 24-day run, might have been the dragonfly. Like that gossamer-winged insect, the performers in Dralion seem to regard gravity as more an option than a law, cutting through the air without apparent effort or tether, turning body language into poetry and movement into something that simply defies rational explanation.

The evening begins with a series of announcements that could only happen in a place like Cirque, as a trio of hair-impaired clowns select an audience member - seemingly at random - to read off a list of do's and don't's for the performance. Inspired slapstick mixed with full-tilt looniness - works every time.

But then Cirque gets down to its business, which is wowing and amazing. A series of brightly costumed spirits appear, setting the stage for a series of constant amazements - a young Chinese girl who, balancing on one hand atop a pole, contorts her body in ways that would make a pretzel jealous.

Dralion, seen by more than 3 million people since its Montreal premiere in 1999, is designed as a celebration of life; various pieces of the performance are meant to evoke the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. But thanks largely to a troupe of seemingly lighter-than-air Chinese acrobats, the element Cirque most revels in is the one it most resolutely ignores: air. Men and women fly through it effortlessly, skip rope in ways only dreamt of in youngsters' most fanciful dreams, wield 14-foot bamboo poles with a dexterity that defies belief and dart about covered in fabrics that seem to move with the ease of light itself.

All this is being done through May 4 in an atmosphere festive enough that even last night's rain and pervasive dampness could not keep spirits down. Before visitors to the blue and yellow big top (called the Grand Chapiteau for Cirque's purposes) could be ushered to their seats, they were ushered through a gift shop where smiling attendents took pains to greet everyone. The standard T-shirts and videotapes were available, but so were plush Dralions ($19, down from $29 - not bad for such a fierce combination of beasts) and festive ceramic masks ($19 with feathers, $15 without.)

The stage, roughly 40 feet in diameter, was deceptively plain; certainly, it provided little hint of what was to follow.

Unlike more traditional circuses, which take pride in their longevity - Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has been around for 133 years - Cirque du Soleil is of more recent vintage, and revels in its modernity.

Founded in 1984 in Quebec, by a group of ambitious, audience-invasive street performers (originally known as the Club des Talons Hauts, or High Heels Club), Cirque's guiding principal has been to mix classic circus arts (juggling, high-wire, stilt-walking, clowning) with street performance, with a goal toward not only bringing the action as close to the audience as possible, but making them a part of the act as well.

From a small tour that took its performers to 11 Canadian cities that first year, Cirque has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, performing before an audience estimated at 7 million in 2002 (not counting the millions who saw them perform as part of last year's Oscar ceremony). The group boasts five touring shows - besides Dralion, Allegria and Varekai are touring North America, while Quidam is thrilling audiences in Japan and Saltimbanco is making the rounds in Europe. In addition, Cirque offers regularly scheduled shows at the Bellagio and Treasure Island resorts in Las Vegas and Walt Disney World in Florida.

Dralion will be performed daily (except Mondays and April 29) under the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau near the foot of S. Caroline St. in Fells Point. Tickets are $31.50 to $65, with VIP packages available at extra cost. For information and tickets, phone 800-678-5440 or check online at www.cirquedusoleil.com.

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