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On a High Wire, Cirque du Soleil Balances Pure Art, Pop Art

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Once again, Cirque du Soleil reminds us that there's more to the circus than lion tamers and the flying trapeze - there's the circus as art. The company from Montreal is touring the United States with a new show: "Quidam" (Latin, meaning in this context, an anonymous face in the crowd).

With 53 performers - acrobats, clowns, and no animal acts - "Quidam" manages to tell a kind of story without nailing down a narrative too firmly. A little girl sits and broods with her bored parents, whose benign neglect has made the child certain she has already seen everything. A stranger appears at the door - a ghostly, headless character in a top coat, umbrella, and blue bowler. The stranger gives the child the hat, and when she puts it on, her parents fly off (their chairs are wired and actually fly up) leaving the girl to begin a quest in search of wonder.

Along the way she sings a lovely hunting song. She sees astonishing sights such as an aerial contortionist whose grace defies gravity and reason, angels flying through the air, and rope jumpers' tricks that sparkle with the life of childhood memories. Young women on aerial hoops make trapeze artistry look banal by comparison, while little Chinese girls astonish and delight us with their dexterity on the "diabolos" (an elaborate string and yo-yo game).

In this circus theater, all kinds of acrobatic acts, including a fabulous Russian team dressed in apocalyptic rags, draw admiration and exhilaration from the audience. Each artist demonstrates courage and skill, grace and humor - and all in the service of one unified vision of wonder and beauty meant to honor the human spirit. Visually stunning, it is like Chagall meets Fellini. And all is yoked together by the comic antics of a brilliant clown - one of the girl's guides through mystery.

Since Cirque du Soleil sprang into being 13 years ago, 15 million people around the world have thrilled to its special magic. It has won dozens of awards in Canada, the US, and Europe and has found critical and popular success everywhere it has been, including Asia. The big top holds an astounding 2,500 people, and still manages to maintain a surprising intimacy.

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