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Cirque Du Soleil Not Your Garden-variety Circus

September 02, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

The Los Angeles Festival officially opens Thursday with a very '80s update of an antique entertainment form--the Big Top.

But not your average, everyday three-ring circus. Within the confines of its 1,550-seat tent on a downtown lot at 1st and Alameda streets, the 30-member French-Canadian circus troupe Cirque du Soleil hopes to reshape the roadshow-and-sawdust tradition of the circus with modern technology.

It is circus as drama, with a story from beginning to end, original music and special effects along with the traditional clowns, bicycle acts and wire walkers.

"It is a circus show in a theatrical dimension, played in the universal language of mime, movement and music," said comic "conductor" Denis Lacombe, 30, during a break last weekend from the troupe's preparations for Thursday's debut.

Joining Lacombe were Masha Dimitri, 23 (who performs on the slack wire), Amelie Demay, 19 (who with partner Eric Varelas does a balancing act and a "very sexy" tango), Cirque general manager Normand Latourelle, 31, and publicist Jean Heon, 27.

"In some ways, it's hard to explain who we are, because we are defining ourselves as we go," said Latourelle. "We formed around four years ago, when a group of street performers--jugglers, fire-eaters, rope-walkers--decided to put a show together. There was no tradition for the circus in Canada.

"We became very popular, mostly because there was no precedent for it. The show is self-contained and very modern, but also close to the circus of the 1920s, because discovery is all. We want to spread colorful thought, young thought. We always say, 'We're a circus, but we're not a circus.' "

In all, seven countries are represented in the group, an eclectic match that manifests itself in performance and decision-making. "Rehearsals take months and months," Latourelle said, "trying to create something new with 30 people. When you write a play, someone sits down, writes it and gives it to the actors. But for us, there is no scenario at the beginning of rehearsals. We have to work collectively, try to find our way with all the other artists. This is the hard part. So when we tell people that we reinvent the circus, I feel it's true."

Is the circus dead? Demay shrugged. "Everyone says the circus is dead--but here it's alive."

Added Lacombe, "There are two ways to look at it: first that television killed the circus, because everyone stayed home to watch it on TV. And there's nothing worse than looking at circus on video. The other thing is that circus is a tradition: It's what your father did, so you don't change it--you put on the same costume, the same music, the same act; you don't change. Meanwhile, all around you TV and cinema are changing." And still, he claims, old ideas are hard to break. "People ask me what I do. I say 'I'm a clown.' They say, 'Clowns aren't funny. Everybody knows that.' "

One evening in their big top, they claim, will reform even the worst circusphobe.

"The most thrilling emotion you will have will be the poetical, the magic," said Lacombe. "You will be scared, you will laugh. You will pass through many emotions."

Adults are definitely included. "It happens all the time," Heon said. "Parents come in with a kid on each side; they're doing their duty. The kids are sitting there with their eyes wide open. Suddenly the father and mother are as amazed as the kids. Sometimes more so."

Said Latourelle, "Whenever the public comes, educated or not educated, 2 years old or 99, everyone has a smile on their face when they leave."

And the troupe? Do the highs of circus life--the camaraderie, the thrill of performance, the roar of the crowd--outweigh the lows?

"Some people miss having friends, because we are always one to two weeks in a city, then we leave and never see them again," said Dimitri. "And it is important once in awhile to go away (from the company), have your own life."

For Demay, the worst part is "when you want the show to be good, but your body can't--the muscles are still tight. You want it in your head, but . . . the good part is travel, friends, all the time being in a new town. A friend told me, 'Stay with the circus as long as you can.' "

For Lacombe, it's more of a stop-off point. "I'd like to go on to the next sphere of the entertainment business," he said. "My next goal is cabaret--and then I would like to do cinema, of course."

In the meantime, all have been kept very busy adjusting to the rigors of life in Los Angeles.

"I can give you two impressions," said Latourelle. "We've been working harder here than in all the other cities put together. All the red tape, the bureaucracy. . . . Life-wise, I think there are too many cars." (His own rented Mustang convertible is very popular with the troupe.)

"There are too many cars," said Heon, "And Los Angeles is not easy to get; it's not obvious. There's not a precise downtown, a place where things happen. It's all spread out. But I'm getting around, getting to know the places, having fun."

The word beach pops up often. Demay, who'd just arrived the day before, has already seen the sand. Dimitri (who "almost got to the beach yesterday") marveled that "everything is so far away. Also, you think of downtown as businesses, people walking around. But this"--she said gesturing at the gray, empty vista around her--" this is downtown?"

As for Lacombe, "I'm amazed by all the publicity," he said with a grin. " 'Come to our restaurant and taste our scrumptious meals!' And Hollywood: I drive in wanting to see the stars, and all my California dreams are bursting-- pop pop pop. It's a town like any other one."

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