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Festval: A Celebration Of The Arts : Sunny Side Up

August 16, 1987|KENNETH FREED | Kenneth Freed is The Times' bureau chief in Canada.

'Too many circuses are too traditional. I want to return to the feeling of the 1920s when the circus in in Europe was the inspiration for other arts'

Le Cirque du Soleil is no ordinary circus--not if that means sawdust and spangles, clowns in baggy pants performing pratfalls and throwing pies, animals doing tricks to the crack of a whip or sideshows that trade on freaks and mutants. There are neither elephants nor elephant men in The Circus of the Sun.

Instead, there are two hours of seamless unity--a joining of music, humor, ballet, athletics and spirit by a troupe of unique young performers that goes beyond the usual collection of unrelated acts at most circuses and vaudeville-like variety shows.

The Cirque du Soleil's high-wire performers, clowns, jugglers, acrobats and original music launch the Los Angeles Festival on Sept. 3 from a blue-and-yellow-striped tent on the corner of First and Alameda Streets. Before its final performance on Sept. 20, the Quebec-based Circus of the Sun will give 27 performances of a very unusual sort of circus.

There are other Canadian circuses, even bigger ones than Le Cirque du Soleil, but none as successful, and all in the traditional mode of multiple rings, animal acts and commonplace performances.

"I come from the theater," explains artistic director Guy Caron. "Too many circuses are too traditional. I try to make it a total show, like an opera, with music, light and acting. I try to take the circus from the bottom and put it at the same level as the other arts, to return to the feeling of the '20s when the circus in Europe was an inspiration for other arts."

So, at one point in last year's show, a man playing the role of a waiter cleaning up a night club slowly begins to balance the chairs he is moving, first one on his chin and then another and another until he has built an elaborate structure that resembles a huge fan, all sitting on the point of his chin.

There are three young Chinese cyclists who can do things with two-wheelers that can hardly be believed. And another group that can cram more people on a bike than can be shoved into a small car.

And there are the Andrews, Jacqueline Williams and Andrew Watson, young British trapeze specialists who work on rings near the top of the tent. For 8 1/2 minutes they perform, not with the usual audience-frightening tricks, but with near balletic maneuvers that even during a rehearsal drew applause and shouts of approval from other performers and technicians.

The Andrews in many ways represent the spirit of Le Cirque du Soleil. Watson is 27, Williams, 23. Both came to the world of the circus three years ago from totally unrelated backgrounds. And their attitude toward circuses is as unorthodox as their background.

"We try to act," Williams says, "not just be sexy or macho . We don't try to scare the audience out of their wits. What we do up there is a ballet set to the best music in the business."

And, Williams adds, "We have dignity here. I don't have to wear a bikini or act silly. We are artists, and Le Cirque du Soleil recognizes that. There are no pressures here to lower standards."

Yet, for all its quality and professionalism, Le Cirque du Soleil is young, both in its actual age and in its artistic and management make-up. The average age of the performers, management and work crew is in the low 20s. The circus was founded three years ago by a group of Quebec street performers .

"I organized Canada's first festival of street performers because there was no recognition of us as artists, of our spirit or that we represented an art form," says Guy LaLiberte, founder and general director of Le Cirque du Soleil and a one-time fire-eater.

After this collection of jugglers, stilt-walkers and fire-eaters proved a hit in Quebec City, "we decided we could take the streets into a tent and present something entirely different. That's how the circus was born."

Under the 27-year-old LaLiberte's direction, Le Cirque du Soleil has grown from spending about $970,000 a year to put on 50 shows to a $6-million operation that will perform 272 times in Canada and California. Next year, according to LaLiberte, the circus will budget about $7.5 million for 300 performances in Canada and the United States.

But it is not money that makes Le Cirque du Soleil the special organization that it is. What does starts with the big top, the $300,000 French-made tent in which the show goes on.

Just as its performances are unlike those of other circuses, so is the big top different. Inside the 250-foot-diameter and 150-foot-high tent is a single ring, really a round stage that is nearly surrounded by more than 1,700 seats in a horseshoe arrangement.

The show and its 80 full-time workers and performers will arrive in town in 30 vans and trucks carrying 320 tons of equipment, a self-contained world with facilities for sleeping, a laundry and even a restaurant .

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