A Review

Ethereal Universe, Arena-Style

By R. J. Donovan

Everybody's mindful of the bottom line these days, including Cirque du Soleil. Normally the razzle dazzle ethereal circus experience comes to town with its own Big Top in tow. But most recently, the folks in charge have re-staged the show to tour arenas around the country. (FYI - the show under the tent takes 9 days to set up and 2.5 days to take down. The arena set-up takes 9 hours.)

And thus I found myself at B.U.'s Agganis Center on Opening Night.

One thing lost in the experience was that sense of child-like anticipation that existed as you approached the sprawling blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) looming large on the horizon with performers sprinkled around the exterior welcoming you to the evening. At Agganis it was more a case of polo-shirted staff members searching ladies purses and confiscating water bottles (albeit, nicely).

Once inside, the sports facility was set up with an elongated diamond-thrust stage at one end of the arena. To accommodate it, several sections of the steeply raked seats were curtained off at its sides and rear. Floor seating was also added. The only disability was that the action seemed rather far away from some of the audience members. Sightlines were fine, but Cirque has always been an intimate affair. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to connect with some of the smaller moments on stage.

"Alegria"-- meaning "happiness, joy and jubilation" in Spanish -- features an international cast of 55 performers from 17 countries. During its 14 year tour, "Alegria" has played to more than 10 million people.

The written description of the production is this: "An operatic introspection of the struggle for power and the invigorating energy of youth, 'Alegria' relates the tale of strength versus weakness, the king versus his jesters, and age against youth."

If you weren't aware of that blurb, could you have pinpointed it by watching the show. Maybe, maybe not. If you were aware of that blurb, would it have enhanced what you were watching. Again, maybe, maybe not. In the end, the production doesn't offer a story as much as an alternate universe of dreamlike artistry, all of it existing in a world with its own language. As always, the nuts and bolts of the evening were in keeping with the stellar Cirque tradition -- flamboyant costumes, international circus artists, feats of daring and clever staging. That said, "Alegria" is a bit darker than some Cirque installments.

Among the standouts: the danger and expertise of the two Fire Knife Dancers (who at one point were surrounded by flames licking up from the stage floor); the death-drop artistry of The Flying Man, who sailed and soared above the stage on a silk-like ribbon; spectacular tumbling by Power Track on trampolines revealed beneath the stage floor; the immense talents of the Aerial High Bar; the acrobatics of the Russian Bars who bounced on flexible beams balanced on the shoulders of catchers; and the incredible strength and dexterity of Hand Balancing on canes of various heights. And as always, the musicians were sharp and dynamic.

The funnier moments were delivered by Cirque's stable of clowns, highlighted by the work of one very funny, very expressive little guy in a bald wig with a ring of wild red hair. If I knew his name I'd tell you, but none of the clowns -- or any of the artists, for that fact -- were specified, either at the show or on Cirque's website.

Directed by Franco Dragone, "Alegria" maintains the long standing and hard earned reputation of Cirque de Soleil. But somehow, I missed having its magical, mystical world heightened by enveloping it within the billowing canvas of its more traditional home.

"Alegria" is at Agganis Arena through August 30. For information, call 1-800-745-3000.

-- OnStage Boston




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