Spirit and spectacle Cirque du Soleil offers grand entertainment that takes us beyond the infinite

June 13, 1999

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

LAS VEGAS – Who would have thought it possible? A city universally known for unnatural tans, cheap buffets and cheesy entertainment is probably the last place on earth you would go to find a work of art.

But, hey, Vegas isn’t what it used to be. The buffets aren’t so cheap anymore, and amid the special-effects extravaganzas, stand-up comics, magicians, impersonators and topless revues you can find an example of serious theater that is – and this can be said without exaggeration – incomparable.

Synchronized swimmers transport you to the limits of time and space (Cirque du Soleil)

It all happens at the Bellagio, one of the newer resorts on the Strip, where the works of Picasso, Renoir and Van Gogh, among others, are displayed in a gallery setting (and hyped on a huge electronic marquee).

Elsewhere in the hotel-casino is the Bellagio Theatre, a traditional proscenium house, or so it seems at first glance. It’s actually anything but traditional.

Here you can find a form of entertainment that defies categorization – a show so imaginative, so moving in a curious way, that it simply astonishes viewers. Many of them will wonder at the experience and find themselves unable to say just what they saw at the Bellagio.

All that, and it’s a show that threatens to give mime a good name.

Cirque du Soleil began as a group of street performers in Montreal and has grown into a global purveyor of surprisingly accessible entertainment. The company’s influence has been considerable (witness “Cirque Ingenieux,” which closes Monday at Starlight Theatre).

The Soleil company was invited to build a theater specifically for a new production after the success of its “Mystere” at the Treasure Island resort, just down the street from the Bellagio.

The result is “O,” a play on the French word for water, which employs a cast of 75 and is performed on a stage that easily qualifies as a technical wonder of modern show business.

The stage can shift from solid flooring to a liquid surface in an instant, for the stage is, in fact, a tank holding 1.5 million gallons of water. Performers dive into the water, emerge from it, float on it, swim through it and perform high above the surface. The performance area is equipped with hydraulic lifts, underwater breathing stations and complex mechanisms on which actors descend from the ceiling. Needless to say, this is a show that will never tour.

Aquatic drama is nothing new – elaborate productions in 18th-century Paris and London re-created famous sea battles, shipwrecks and storms at sea; even the Romans flooded the Coliseum for nautical battles. But the creators of “O” seem uninterested in anything as mundane as sinking ships. Airborne ships, maybe. Sinking pianos, perhaps.

Early in the show a huge, billowing red curtain is suddenly zapped out of sight, like a handkerchief disappearing up a magician’s sleeve; an instant later several pairs of crimson feet emerge from black water, tblooming on another planet.

Where are the swimmers’ heads? How are they breathing? How do they hear their cues?

We have little time to dwell on these questions, for the performance quickly becomes a succession of mesmerizing stage pictures and stunning athletic exhibitions by an international troupe of actors, acrobats, dancers, divers and synchronized swimmers.

Had Salvador Dali teamed up with Busby Berkeley to make an Esther Williams movie, the results might have been something like this.

“O” is a pageant, but it’s much more than that. It’s an intimate spectacle, with extraordinary stunts balanced by quiet moments of poignancy. It’s virtually wordless and spins no obvious narrative, but it holds the viewers’ interest with an intense drive that gives it the urgency of a tightly written story.

Clowns draw members of the audience into the action, but every creative decision serves the ultimate goal – to paint a captivating portrait of the eternal cycle of life and death. By the end of the 90-minute performance, you may have glimpsed the infinite.

This is achieved, in part, by writer-director Franco Dragone’s decision to populate the piece with images that often seem bizarre, yet somehow familiar: Clowns, “clerics” in red robes, a young dancer, a transvestite, a hunchback in whiteface, an ancient guardian of the theater who is transfigured before the show’s conclusion.

Clowns, of course.

Dragone has drawn archetypes from throughout the history of theater, or so it seems.

“Since the beginning of time, there have been hallowed places where people gather to explain the universe,” Dragone writes. “For me, the theater is just such a place: sacred, magnificent and essential.

” ‘O’ is an homage to the theater, to every story born on its stage. Stories of great and little importance, stories of life, love and death.”

Dragone’s imagery and Benoit Jutras’ eclectic and haunting score, a seductive stew of African, Celtic, jazz and other musical strands performed live by 10 musicians from five continents, wield considerable power over viewers. The effect is to conjure something like genetic memories.

Indeed, many sequences evoke a state encountered only in sleep, in which a dreamer finds himself in an alien landscape, fraught with unknown and unseen perils. Yet the dreamer somehow knows that he has been here before.

This analysis may sound frightfully serious, but the show is, above all, grand entertainment. Viewers are free to make of it what they will.

For some it may be a moving, spiritual experience. For others it may be an extraordinary visceral journey into a realm of fire and water, filled with indelible sights and sounds. For still others, it may be a little of both, or perhaps nothing more than a vivid diversion.

The beautiful reality of “O,” which began performances last October, is that by virtue of being in Las Vegas, it draws thousands of viewers every week who leave the Bellagio with a head full of mental pictures they can never shake.

Simply put, Cirque du Soleil is attracting a mass audience to surrealistic art.

Tourists, high rollers, sophisticates, middle-class families, youngsters, oldsters – everyone comes to Las Vegas.

And those who choose to slap down $100 to see “O” may never think of Vegas, theater or life the same way again.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 1999 Kansas City Star and wire service sources.

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