Falling for Cirque du Soleil

April 15, 2003|By Meagan Dilks | Meagan Dilks,SUN STAFF

Thrills and chills at Cirque du Soleil? Sure. But as a cold April greets the performance troupe on its first-ever Baltimore stop, the spine-tingling starts long before the show does.

But it's Thursday, the day before opening night, and there is little time to fret about the weather. The pavement upon which the big top is raised is but 6 weeks old. The usual setup for the circus' Dralion show is 11 days; this time, by necessity, it will be six.

The buzz that hangs over Harbor Point has been audible since the city announced in February that the show would open on the site of the former AlliedSignal chemical plant - partly to market the plot as safe, sound and ready to become a key part of the Inner Harbor. Oh, and also to wow locals with feats of strength, balance, acrobatics ... and construction.

"I saw the tent go up a few days ago and it piqued my interest and made me want to see the show even more," Michael Dorsi, a Johns Hopkins medical student and resident of nearby Fells Point, says of the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau, or big top.

In the large tent, things are warming up. The circular stage is full of performers practicing for the Friday-night premiere. Zhao Yashi and Du Xue of China contort their bodies and do splits while balancing on one hand.

Anticipation and excitement are in the air, as are aerial gymnasts Igor Arefiev and Colette Morrow, who fly past, tethered only by blue fabric "ropes" that hang from rafters to stage.

"I come from a circus family, so I guess you could say it's in the blood," says Arefiev, back on the ground. "My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all worked as high-wire walkers."

Arefiev, a Russian, admits a fear of heights, a drawback when performing the "aerial pas de deux," but he adds, "As long as I'm holding onto something, I'm OK."

Dralion publicist Magdalena Vandenberg stands shivering at the entrance of the big top, coffee in one hand, clipboard in the other, as performers tumble about in sweatsuits and technicians look on in layers of sweatshirts and jackets with the Cirque du Soleil logo.

"The great thing about the big top is that it's climate-controlled," Vandenberg says, promising comfort for ticket-buyers.

In the artistic tent, attached to the back of the big top, performers try on costumes, practice or lounge on couches in the space Vandenberg calls "the artists' world."

A trapeze swing and hoop hang from the ceiling above Zhao Jian and Jian Xiao Jing, who tumble and flip across mats. Lei Wei Kuan balances on a wooden ball 5 feet in diameter. Zhang Xu juggles as Wang Zhaopeng dances and smiles at his fellow performers. All 58 performers know what a big day the premiere is, yet there is no sense of chaos.

People shout and hammers boom in the background even as music floats into the artists' tent from the big top, where the two singers and nine players prepare. All music will be performed live.

"The music is an integral part of the show; it's the glue that holds everything together," says Anthony Cooperwood, a Kansas City, Mo., native who plays keyboard and Chapman Stick (sort of a combination bass/guitar).

And so, Thursday gives way to opening night. Freight trucks vanish, replaced by tents full of Cirque du Soleil T-shirts, mugs and a fanfare of circus food. The stage is swept, the house lights dim and ushers guide patrons with popcorn and glasses of wine to their seats.

It's finally showtime: Clowns enter on cue, working a crowd that's ready to shiver - with amazement.

Cirque du Soleil performances continue daily through May 4 (except Mondays and April 29) under the Grand Chapiteau near the foot of South Caroline Street in Fells Point. Tickets are $31.50 to $65. For more information and tickets, call 800-678-5440 or check online at www.cirquedusoleil.com.

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