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Jerome Thomas’ delicate balance

Special to The Times

If you think of a juggler as someone who’s just going to throw a few pins into the air and smile, then Jerome Thomas is not the juggler for you.

But if you see the moon as a giant ball and think that you might like to play with it, then welcome to the world of Jerome Thomas. The French juggler is making his North American debut at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in his show, Cirque Lili.

It takes a while to get acclimated to his world. This is juggling as performance art and, yes, it’s a bit slow at the start. Attention can meander.

But once we get settled in, and once Thomas lets loose a little and starts having fun, his world mesmerizes. His intimate circular circus tent becomes a fantasyland.

Thomas can juggle, sure, but he’s more concerned with getting the audience to think differently about what juggling is, or can be. Objects, human beings, motion, and, most of all, imagination are the raw elements. How they can be put together opens up a world of possibilities.

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It feels as though Thomas would really prefer to work with a single object at a time so that he could give it his full attention. He might balance it on his toe, on his nose, behind his neck. He starts the show with a feather and ends it with a moon-like, glowing orb; in between, he teaches us to appreciate the objects themselves and how differently they move.

To Thomas, the expression of character is equal -- strike that -- more important than the things in the air. Thomas plays multiple characters in Cirque Lili: a clown, a matador, a magician. The most memorable is a young girl, in a purple dress she likes to twirl in, who tames three giant white balloons she imagines are lions. It’s a wonderfully detailed portrayal, as the girl snaps her whip, commanding the lions (OK, the balloons) around the stage, and then, with a nod and smile, complimenting them for their obedience.

Sometimes, it’s Thomas that moves while the objects rest. In one beautiful sequence, he holds two balls on the backs of his wrists. He starts spinning, while the balls stay perfectly still. He raises his arms to a steep angle, moving just fast enough and steadily enough that the balls, miraculously, go nowhere, as if they were sleeping as the world moved around them.

Thomas is aided in creating his imaginary world by his compagnie. Two accordionists, Jean-Francois Baez and Guy Klucevsek, set the tone of each sequence with a different jazzy melody, all highly emotional -- peaceful, antic, yearning. Christophe Pilven, a lanky clown, dry and unsmiling and dressed like a hotel bellman, fills the interstices with his own antics and has an opportunity to show off formidable talents in an amusing bit of sure-footed clumsiness.

At the climax, Thomas does fulfill some basic expectations, juggling six balls multiple times in a row so that all can see. Then, much more impressively, he juggles five, very fast. He’s also spinning around on a stool while he does it. Oh, and the turntable stage underneath him -- that’s moving too.

So yes, Thomas juggles. Superbly. It’s just the least of what he does in this quite beautiful, eye-opening piece.

*

Cirque Lili

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 p.m. Dark Sunday and July 16 and 22.

Ends: July 27

Price: $35

Contact: (949) 854-4646,

(213) 365-3500, (714) 740-7878

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes


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