Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco
at Fan Pier
through October 3
There are moments during Cirque du Soleil's "Saltimbanco" when the high-tech glitz of the production threatens to swallow the charm of this genuinely talented troop. "Saltimbanco" comes equipped with a live New Age band, a light show and a smoke machine that won't quit. This accumulated wattage makes some of the stagier numbers feel more like the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza than the quirky, stylish acts for which Cirque du Soleil has won praise.
Despite a sometimes overpowering production, the artistry of the performers occupies the solid core of this witty, original spectacle. Although there are signs that the French Canadian group has tailored its style to fit American tastes, the show displays a sophistication that distinguishes it from acts like Ringling Brothers. Cirque du Soleil offers a startling departure for audiences accustomed to malnourished elephants and grinning clowns with water-spurting boutonnieres. This act is not afraid to exploit the sinister, fantastic and sometimes kinky possibilities of circus performance for their full entertainment value.
The mephistophelean Rene Bazinet stands at the center of the spectacle. This wiry, pale emcee appears as five different characters throughout the evening, including a demonic schoolboy and a hunchbacked grim reaper and a mischievous harlequin. In a particularly bawdy acrobatic scene involving a gigantic feather bed and a swing set, he appears in striped tights, a harness top and a winged hat that makes him look more like an underworld gogo dancer than a traditional ringmaster. A master of vocal effects, Bazinet plays an imaginary game of catch with the spectators and effortlessly incorporates an audience member into a hilarious Wild West shoot-out.
The real centerpiece of the show, though, is its acrobatic troop. The first and best of these acts, the Tchelnokov family, performs a breathtaking set of contortions. Anton Tchelnokov, age eight, seems to have inherited all of the bizarre flexibility and uncanny strength of his parents; his skinny little frame is apparently composed of some fiber that allows him to slither snakelike and twist himself into pretzelian shapes. At one point, his father holds this spindly little tyke--by the feet--parallel to the ground, ribs sticking out and grin plastered to his face, for several frightening seconds. Although their act verges on the grotesque, this family delivers the most graceful and seamlessly choreographed number in the circus.
For real muscle fans, the Cirque offers the Lorador brothers, yet another family devoted to getting into awkward positions. These two Portuguese gargantuans appear onstage in green leather tank tops and lift each other onto and off a wooden table. Although it's a little painful to watch them sweat and grunt through the act, the number does present an impressive showcase of original places to put the various parts of the human body.
In the hypnotic Chinese pole act, for which the circus is justly renowned, 16 acrobats in swirled leotards scramble up, down and around a set of four poles like a collection of futuristic monkeys. Ann Bernard and Helene Lemay deliver another excellent set with their dance, reminiscent of groundstomping Spanish flamenco. Dressed in flaming scarlet leotards and mean-looking red high-heeled boots, and yielding gaucho's hunting weapons called boleadoras (a rope with a wooden ball fastened on the end), these women tap and swing themselves into a frenzy that resembles a highspeed cuisinart. Their grip on their whirling weaponry is reassuringly firm; the dancers seem well-trained not to let their boleadoras wing out into the crowd.
A few of the acts suffer from the lavish production. The most unnecessary element of the show is singer Francine Poitras, who's been outfitted in a sort of bathrobe, dangly earrings and a headdress that looks like a shiny pineapple. Although a decent singer, her presence serves mostly to distract; warbling onstage as the excellent tightrope artist Sun Hongli braves death above her, Poitras effectively dilutes the drama of the number. Something similar happens during the "elastic ballet," an act resembling the trapeze, in which acrobats dangle from elastic strips and bounce about prettily. Although the spectacle is visually interesting, it's hard to decide whether to focus on the aerial dance or the oddly dressed chanteuse below.
In November, Cirque du Soleil starts its permanent residence at Las Vegas' Treasure Island resort, a move which will most likely necessitate more sequins and sound effects. It's probably a good idea to catch this act now, while it retains its unique, seductive appeal.