There are two sets of performers who create Le Cirque du Soleil's "Nouvelle Experience": those who do it on stage and those whose work was done months ago but is every bit as important a part of the sparkling new show that has landed on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier.
As before, Le Cirque comes to us from Montreal, but surely via the moon or Mars. Its design suggests nothing terrestrial.
Dominique Lemieux's pixillated costumes look like brilliant illustrations for a children's book of spooky fairy tales, enhanced by the lunatic mask creations of France Baillargeon and Andre Henault under the quirky hats of Catherine Lauda. Rene Dupere's all- nouvelle musique is as playful and exhilarating an accompaniment to events in the single ring as it ever was.
Luc Lafortune's lighting games, his scarlet maws, purple and orange horizons and whirling, prismatic laser beams inform Michel Crete's alien landscape with its pivoting Stonehenge wall under the ampler nouvelle Big Top.
This is all pulled together by the prestidigitation of artistic director Franco Dragone, which smoothly weaves into the different acts the considerable skills of clowns, catchers and flounes --a coinage for a new breed of bashful, gibberish-spouting clowns that combines the words clown and flo , Quebecois slang for child.
Dragone uses this gaudily clad, weird little enclave of five as a distinctive kind of Greek chorus. The group serves as rudder and glue, bridging some acts, insinuating iself into others and unifying the show. Wot a show.
The youthful, savvy, even cocky Cirque, which took Los Angeles by storm when it launched the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, returned to the beach in Santa Monica in 1989 with a perplexingly mediocre edition of its former self.
Apparently, the chiding it received for that slipshod work found its mark. The creators rethought and reorganized. "Nouvelle Experience" is a full-scale comeback, in which all but one or two performers are brand new.
And dazzling. No one more so than American clown David Shiner, a skinny beanpole of embattled comic tics in floppy gray pants and short jacket who looks like nothing so much as a collision between Harold Lloyd and Marcel Marceau's Bip. Immensely gifted, Shiner pulls members of the audience into his act like reluctant taffy that he cajoles, noodles, browbeats and finally spits out in the form of hilarious, brilliantly negotiated routines.
The more traditional circus stuff--contortionists, aerialists, trapeze artists--are almost all of the same first water. Nadine Binette, Isabelle Chasse, Laurence Racine and Jinny Jacinto form a quartet of contortionists 8 to 13 years old whose bending and folding make it hard, at a given point, to discern whose limbs belong to whom.
Anne Lepage's stunning solo trapeze is an absolute stomach churner while Vladimir Kehkaial's graceful flights through the air, uniquely suspended by arm straps, is a beguiling never-before-seen oddity--a sort of Chippendale's meets Michelangelo. The Russian's intense self-awareness, brooding good looks, flowing black hair and Grecian designer jock strap are a curious paradox as they slice angelically and self-importantly through the air. He'd make a fortune in Las Vegas.
Despite a humdrum tightwire act and a skilled but needlessly coy "Korean Plank" routine by the Corporation Team, the first half, as a whole, holds more surprises than the second.
The latter kicks off with your traditional team of trapeze artists (nothing like the breathtaking earlier solo work of Lepage) and includes a second round of Corporation capers. It is distinguished principally by Zhao Liang's uncommon juggling act with Chinese parasols, more antic zaniness from Shiner and the witty flounes , and by yet another Russian, Vassili Demenchoukov, who can find more new ways to build a "Tower of Chairs" than one would have thought possible.
Ultimately, though, the Cirque's real triumph lies in its presentation of self--youthful, driven, ethereal and high-tech. You won't find animal acts; you won't find anything that remotely smacks of Ringling Bros. or Barnum & Bailey except the popcorn.
The flounes , led by roly-poly ringmistress France La Bonte, are its most seductive nouvelle invention. Their versatile gobbledygook, counterpoint physical skills, the way they move--like anxious ostriches or surprised whooping cranes--are a wonderful contrast to the sleek, astral look of a state-of-the-art Cirque that won't let you stop gasping or guffawing for a moment. (A word of caution, however: This show may be too sophisticated for very young children. Children over 5 will probably enjoy it more.)
Thursday's opening-night audience clamored for no less than five curtain calls. For all its novelty, the "Nouvelle Experience" had done it the old-fashioned way: It had earned them.
On the beach at the Santa Monica Pier, Ocean Avenue and Broadway, Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, 6 and 9:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 4:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 4:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 4. $6-$33.50; (213) 480-3232, (213) 395-7545.