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Trio Tries to Lasso Crowd With Boleadoras Act : Troupe: Members of Malamba yelp and dance while swinging spheres in rhythmic Cirque du Soleil performance.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mix two French-Canadian beauties with Madonna-esque cones of hair, Star Trek-style culottes and gaucho boots, a jazzy master of percussion, and eerie green fluorescent spheres on tethers sweeping through the darkness of a circus tent, and what do you have? One of the most striking--literally--acts in Cirque du Soleil. They call themselves Malamba, and they’ll be appearing tonight and for the next five weeks with the Cirque in Costa Mesa.

Helene Lemay, 31, Ann Bernard, 23, and drummer Francois Beausoleil, 31, have the distinction of being the act that spurs audience members to ponder, “ What are they doing?” As Beausoleil, in harlequin attire, slams out a variety of beats, Lemay and Bernard do a boot-stomping flamenco in syncopation to the staccato percussion of their golf-ball-sized, floor-whacking boleadoras swirling from each hand.

“It’s a really ‘groundy’ dance, done deeply and loudly with the feet,” Lemay explains.

The effect is part Spanish senoritas from space, part Western women with innovative lassos--or mighty peculiar bondage instruments. The yelps of encouragement that the women and the drummer make to each other as they move through their intricate paces add to the mystery, and the momentum, of a dance that takes mind-boggling hand and feet coordination.

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Just how high this ranks on the skill scale is apparently lost on some audience members. Since Malamba--which takes its name from a dance rhythm, malambo --concludes the first act, intermission sometimes brings out critics in the crowd who wonder why they weren’t treated to yet another high-risk, high-flying aerial stunt.

But Bernard says their dance has risks of its own. “I hit myself once during the show,” she says ruefully, explaining how a ball from the boleadoras smacked her in the temple.

Said Lemay: “I looked over at her and thought, ‘Oh my God!’ while we were dancing. I knew she didn’t know her head was bleeding.”

“It was a dramatic show,” Bernard deadpans.

The act got its start six years ago, when Bernard dated an Argentine man who taught her how to handle the boleadoras.

“They first came from the gauchos in Argentina,” she says. “They hunted animals with them.” Back then, the cords were leather with stones at the end, and typically were thrown at cattle and other creatures to tether their legs. About 30 years ago, Argentines began to incorporate them into different styles of dance.

Lemay met Bernard on the streets of Quebec City, where all three come from. “I wanted to learn that rhythm thing,” Lemay says. “She started to learn, and she was good, so we say, ‘Come on’ ” Bernard adds.

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“At first the dance was really hard for me,” says Lemay, who previously performed with a modern-dance company. “I mean, I can dance and move, but there was something with the coordination. . . . We worked on the feet first, but when we added the boleadoras --that’s not easy. Slowly, I got the rhythm. It became like a singing in my head.”

The two women were blazing a performance trail, since, according to them, it’s usually men who do this type of dancing. “There are ladies who do the folk dances with the big dresses in Argentina, but this is considered more of a macho thing,” Bernard says. Eventually, Bernard’s former boyfriend dropped out of the act.

The group has given another twist to tradition by replacing the standard single acoustic drum usually used for accompaniment with Beausoleil’s work. The former jazz-combo drummer says he’s aiming for a broad range of percussive sounds, including harmonics produced by synthesized drums. “We want to make a mix of this dance from Argentina, and music that has nothing to do with Argentina,” he says. “No one else is doing that.”

Once the act’s present lineup stabilized, the dancers started to make a modest living by doing performances. One night in 1992, as Malamba was strutting its stuff for friends in a small tango studio in Montreal, members of the Cirque du Soleil talent-scouting team saw them and offered them a spot on the “Saltimbanco” bill.

“We were excited but also afraid,” Bernard says. “It’s a long tour, a lot of shows”--Cirque du Soleil artists sign two-year initial contracts, sometimes with a renewal option. “And we were just starting to have our own contacts and perform a lot. When you go on tour, you lose all of that. But, you do get to work every day.”

The boleadoras Bernard and Lemay use are a far cry from the leather-and-stones version of the Argentine plains. Lemay and Bernard assemble strong climbing rope and balls made out of a special type of hard plastic. “At first we were using wood, but it splintered,” Lemay says. “We have to change the plastic often because it changes shape and flattens. And then the spin doesn’t work right.”

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The cords are almost four feet long. Tiny loops at the ends slip over the women’s little fingers. “We have a tendency to try to take the cords longer and longer so that we can stand straighter, but that is hard. We lose the speed,” Lemay explains. She and Bernard tape their wrists to help guard against the tendinitis that could develop from thousands of minute wrist revolutions they must make in every performance to keep the balls moving in their perfect circles.

While Lemay and Bernard may command most of the audience’s attention during performances, Beausoleil is treated as a full partner. Even in the interview, Beausoleil is given respectful room to contribute as many comments as they do. All three believe the success of the act depends on each artist following closely what the other two do throughout performances.

“It’s like music, but very difficult music, because the rhythm has to be so tight together,” Beausoleil says. “There needs to be complicity between the three of us to keep it together. That’s why we shout. We need to be on a very high level of energy to do this show right, because it’s very difficult.”

The three continually work to refine what they do. “Costa Mesa’s show will have some different music,” Beausoleil promises. He often haunts local jazz clubs for inspiration late at night after his Cirque performances.

The dancers do their part by “practicing a lot,” Bernard says. “We watch videos of ourselves to see how we can improve. We’re always changing something--little things. It keeps us alive.”

What’s the thrust of Malamba?

“It’s rhythm,” says the one who can hear it “singing” in her head. “Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.”

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Cirque du Soleil’s “Saltimbanco” opens in the parking lot at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Show times today: 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. $6.50 to $35.50. Through March 7. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).

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