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Flirting With the Fantastic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cirque du Soleil’s blue and yellow striped big-top is back in Orange County and underneath it is a feast for the eyes with its new non-circus circus, “Dralion.”

The show kicks off Thursday at the Irvine Spectrum Center and runs through Jan. 16.

“Dralion” marries East (the dragon) with West (the lion) in a cacophony of images that blend the traditional acrobatics of a Chinese circus with the avant-garde theatricality that has become Cirque’s trademark.

Don’t worry if you don’t get “Dralion’s” theme celebrating air, water, fire and earth, narrated by two masters of ceremonies that sing in Cirque’s own made-up language. “Dralion” is an aesthetic adventure open to individual interpretation.

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“We don’t try to make sense,” says creative director Gilles Ste-Croix. “Like an artist that picks color to make a painting, we . . . are making an impression of something.”

Critiqued as modest in comparison to recent Cirque spectacles--like the aquatic themed “O” now playing at Las Vegas’ Bellagio hotel--"Dralion” is a pure mix of breathtakingly beautiful modern dance with nail-bitting acrobatic circus intensity--and some belly laughs thrown in for good measure.

More than 18 million people worldwide have seen a Cirque du Soleil performance since its founding in Quebec in 1984. “Dralion"--which runs 2 1/2 hours including intermission--marks the troupe’s 13th production.

Show Highlights

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* A 13-year-old performer contorts her body in so many different ways that you almost lose sight of what her body looks like to begin with. And she does this while balancing on one hand on a cane. “I’m always astonished that some artists can do such perfect things,” says Ste-Croix. “It’s like [the human body as] art form.”

* The second act opens with an enormous white lantern illuminated from within--a technical marvel borrowed from the Chinese. “We’ve tried to bridge West and East,” Ste-Croix said, adding, “There’s never been a lantern that size before.” Performers, suspended from the big top ceiling on trapezes, fly by in slow, gliding, swooping motions or swim through the air as if it were liquid--it’s a magically spinning shadow-dance.

* Five ballerinas dance on pointe atop a stage of lightbulbs in a first-of-its-kind performance. “The lightbulbs were very new,” says choreographer Julie Lachance of the act first developed in China. “We pushed it,” she said. “The [Chinese artists] are open to trying new things.”

* A man and a woman erotically wrap their limbs in long sheets of blue cloth suspended from the big top ceiling and then flirt above the crowd in an aerial pas de deux. Astonishingly sensual and heightened by the audience’s awareness that the performers are sans safety net, harness and belts, it’s a roaring crowd favorite.

* The trickiest of acts is the “Double Trapeze”: Two couples perform acrobatic feats in unison. The act seems so effortless that audiences may not fully comprehend its complexity; the mirror images are seamlessly lyrical. “It’s mind-blowing that they can do such a trick,” Ste-Croix says.

* Audience members should not be surprised if they find themselves hapless stooges, drawn into the pre-show antics of a trio of hilarious clowns: a goofy woman with a spout of fuzzy hair and a bothersome short skirt that keeps riding up her candy-cane colored stockings; a nerdy fellow with a megaphone; and a nervous Nellie of a man in a trench coat.

* Everyone’s smiling during a finale that showcases the simple and joyous children’s game of jump rope--Cirque du Soleil style. The children flip and make pyramids and three-person-high columns--while hopping and jumping in and out of skipping ropes.

Custom Designs

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For this production, Cirque’s creative team selected 54 international performers, including seven musicians and Xunan Circus, a troupe of 35 acrobats from Kumming, China.

The set was designed specifically for this show. Performers disappear down trapdoors, and they float out of sight, at times, to the top of the tent. There are three huge concentric rings used for different purposes: to hang lights or projectors; as a catwalk for performers waiting to make entrances; and as a transport to move performers from one part of the stage to another. And there’s a metallic wall at the back of the stage that performers rappel from throughout the performance.

Costumes were months in the making, sewn of horsehair, hardware, emu feathers--even window screens.

The lively music is a mix of African drums, Hindu melodies, rock riffs and instrumental pieces from Andalusia, Africa and Central Europe.

Santa Monica audiences--where the show just finished a two-month run--gave “Dralion” standing ovations and multiple encores.

“That’s what we aim for,” Ste-Croix said. “We’re always working to get that response.”

Premiere Week

Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Regular performance schedule beginning Dec. 7: Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; Saturdays 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Note exceptions: Thursday, Dec. 23, 8 p.m. only. The show is dark Dec. 24 through Jan. 3, resuming with a normal schedule Jan 4.

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Tickets are $34-$55 for adults and $23.75-$38.50 for children. Special weekday rate for students and seniors, $30.50- $49.50. Tickets: (800) 678-5440 or www.cirquedusoleil.com or www.admission.com

The Irvine Spectrum Center is at the confluence of the 405 (San Diego Freeway) and the 5 (Santa Ana Freeway)

Director of Creation: Gilles Ste-Croix. Director: Guy Caron. Costume Designer: Francois Barbeau. Set Designer: Stephane Roy. Lighting Designer: Michel Beaulieu. Composer: Violaine Corradi. Choreographer: Julie Lachance. Sound Designer: Guy Desrochers. Clown Act Designer: Michel Dallaire.

Cirque du Soleil’s newest production, ‘Dralion,’ blends traditional acrobatics of the East with the troupe’s trademark theatricality. The show will run in Irvine from Thursday through Jan. 16.


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