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O.C. CIRCUS REVIEW : Cirque City: State of the Art

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rain soaked the big top, but nothing short of a tsunami could have dampened the enthusiasm of audience and performers alike as Cirque du Soleil opened its latest extravaganza, “Alegria,” at the South Coast Plaza mall Tuesday.

Alegria means “joy” in Spanish, and in its best moments, when bodies are free falling in curlicues or snaking themselves into outlandish profiles, this new Cirque production conjures whoops and laughter. At its not-quite best, it still works an alchemy of incredible athleticism and pure showmanship that rivals anything, anywhere.

The story of “Alegria,” however, doesn’t come together as compellingly as we have come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. Instead of focusing on the persona of a central master of ceremonies, “Alegria” features a trio of wistful clowns and a chorus of old birds mincing about in plumped suits and feathered hats.

The slightly sardonic edge that characterized the humor of previous Cirques is gone, too. The clowning is often touching rather than hilarious, and the pervasive bird imagery is engaging but thematically elusive. The overall impression is of a kind of contemplative ecstasy, of the human spirit in flight, yet anchored to life by the melancholy that is inextricably part of the human condition.

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The magic of human grace and strength in Mikhail Matorin’s spectacular cube act is combined with the kind of visual poetry that is Cirque du Soleil at its most triumphant. Spirit and space in conflict and balance, Matorin and his cube brought images of Leonardo da Vinci to mind, particularly that famous drawing of the man with his arms outstretched standing in the midst of geometric patterns. So fluid is the Russian artist’s suspended performance on the rings that the cube, which he manipulates around himself with his feet, seems to be moving him.

The undeniable queens of the evening, 10-year-old contortionists Ulziibayar Chimed and Nomin Tseveendorj from Mongolia, mesmerize with the unearthly flexibility of their bodies. These girls bend in ways that make you wonder whether the parts will stack up again when they straighten. They leave you questioning whether they are actually put together like other people.

For those of us who cannot keep even a Hula-Hoop off the ground, the extraordinary performance of Elena Lev is humbling. This Russian artist is too young to have hips, but she doesn’t need them. She can swing a hoop in any position with any part of her body, and she doesn’t stop at one hoop, either. Her finale is a dynamite impression of a human slinky.

Acrobatic displays abound in “Alegria,” starting with Fast Track, a crisscrossing trampoline routine that is as graceful as a polished ballet and looks like the kind of fun kids have when they fly out over a river on a long rope.

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Multiple flips and gainers are tossed off by the golden-clad Fast Trackers and later by the silvery Russian bar artists. The Russian bar is half tightrope, half balance beam suspended on human shoulders.

The act that crowns the evening, the Flying Lev, is trapeze artistry taken to untraditional heights by eight aerialists who fell from the top of the tent almost as steadily as the rain beat down outside.

Promotional material claims that “Alegria” aims, in part, to hark back to the street-theater, carnival roots of circus. Rick ZumWalt’s strongman act certainly evokes images of 19th-Century sideshows, but director Franco Dragone has yet to find a jazzy way to showcase a Sampson. ZumWalt undoubtedly is very strong, but his routine isn’t.

There’s nothing weak about the production design, however, which features Dominique Lemieux’s fabulously expressive costumes and a Luc Lafortune’s three-dimensional lighting design that makes the spinning cube look liquid and sews the air with spangles.

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Rene Dupere has created another powerful score, performed to perfection by the six-member orchestra and augmented by chanteuse Francesca Gagnon.

* “Alegria,” South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m., Fridays at 6 and 9:30 p.m. (except this Friday, which has one show at 8 p.m.), Saturdays at 4:30 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. Ends March 12. Adults: $13.50-39.50, children 12 and under: $7-$26.50. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster). Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

A Cirque du Soleil production. Artistic director: Gilles Ste-Croix. Author and Director: Franco Dragone. Costumes: Dominique Lemieux. Set: Michel Crete. Lights: Luc Lafortune. Composer: Rene Dupere. Choreographer: Debra Brown. Sound design: Guy Desrochers.


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