Holy Soleil!

Cirque du Soleil's Dralion ain't your average clowns-in-tiny-cars circus fare

Aug 20, 2003 at 4:00 am
Hey kids, the circus is coming to town! Grab your sodas and peanuts and come down to the big top! All of your favorite attractions will be there: clowns, acrobats and everyone's favorite...the giant dragon?

On first glance, Cirque du Soleil might seem to resemble any other circus. You've got the bright blue-and-yellow chapiteau (big top), performers, music and your usual sensory diversions. On second glance, though, you notice that it's a completely different animal. For example, there aren't any: All of the spectacle is completely human in origin, coming from acrobats, dancers and other performers from around the world. Even the clowns seem more human, acting out skits or miming slapstick instead of being shot from cannons or stuffed into subcompact cars.

So is it a circus or is it theater? Sylvie Galarneau, the artistic director of the Dralion show, acknowledges the show's debt to both dramatic and dance performances but maintains the show's circus roots are still strong, despite naysayers who might dismiss it as "artsy." "It's different from the traditional circuses, but that's just in how it's presented," she says. "We've added different layers, which were not necessarily in the traditional circus but were based on the same thing -- really terrific acrobatic acts."

"I think what we did is that we broadened the definition of the word 'circus', and that's only in North America, because if you go to Europe they're used to seeing various types of circuses." Galarneau cites 'punk circuses' where trucks are destroyed and the light, pretty Cirque Plume (a nouveau cirque troupe from Besançon, France, that combines music, dance, magic, gymnastics and comedy) as examples of this variety. By comparison, Dralion (and Cirque du Soleil's seven other shows currently roving the world) seems a bit more conventional but no less amazing.

Galarneau, who's worked on half a dozen Cirque shows, calls Dralion "bolder and more colorful" than some of the other performances. The show centers on a troupe of thirty-seven Chinese acrobats and the aforementioned long dragon, which gives the show a distinct Chinese flavor. Other performers fit loosely into the show's "four elements" (earth, air, fire, water) theme, such as acrobats who dive through spinning hoops like dolphins and trapeze artists who perform elaborate routines while suspended in the air. One of the most striking elements, though, is the clowns themselves, a group of off-kilter mimes who reappear to parody the previous performances or wander through the VIP tent in character, interacting with each other or with hapless spectators.

While this is Cirque's first time in St. Louis, the company has been around for close to twenty years and has toured all over the world, as well as staging "fixed" shows in Las Vegas and Disney World. They've had their own movie (the IMAX feature Journey of Man) and a behind-the-scenes documentary series on Bravo. The Cirque has grown from its roots as street theater, but Galarneau says that success hasn't changed the show. "We're doing shows with more support now, but in the same way we did the first ones, and we're still doing shows that we would like to see."