Le Cirque du Soleil, the whimsical, freewheeling circus that has been called everything from a glorified street show to performance art that explores the subconscious yearnings of mankind, will be back in Balboa Park starting Tuesday.
This Montreal-based troupe has been causing a sensation since it first came to the United States in 1987. At the time, audiences didn't know what to make of the charming group of clowns, acrobats and other performers. Was it circus? Was it theater? Where were the elephants? The Flying Zucchinis? The tattooed carnies you hoped your daughter never meets?
Cirque du Soleil relied on none of the old circus cliches. Its genesis was the street performers who sought a venue for their talents. Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, they decided to put on a show.
Everywhere the troupe set up its one-ring tent, including San Diego, critics and fans raved. Mainly they were surprised.
Here was a "circus" that had a story line in which regular folks were called up by the King of Fools to take their places in the magic world of the ring. The show was small. It was European in flavor. You had the feeling that the performers had sold almond bars to earn their way here to perform just for you.
Soon it was hip to have seen this new-wave circus. Cirque du Soleil was a discovery. Now that the secret is out, the small troupe has grown into a $16-million enterprise with 150 employees. Some people, especially in California, which chews up new entertainment and spits it out like used bubble gum, are now saying the circus just isn't hip anymore.
These critics point to the new techno-pop music, slick acts and flashy costumes. In those jaded eyes, the Cirque du Soleil is a victim of its own success. It simply became too good, too professional. Where were the rough edges that added that special charm?
You can kiss the rough edges goodby.
"It is almost like a Broadway show," said Cirque founder Guy Laliberte from his Montreal headquarters. "I would say the average weekly cost overall is $250,000 to $300,00."
The circus now travels with 58 vehicles and lugs 500 tons of material from town to town. The tent is climate-controlled. The 1,750 seats are padded. It has been nominated for an Emmy for an HBO special.
Even Laliberte agrees that the show coming to San Diego has a different character than in its previous incarnation.
"People have to understand that the new artists we are using are coming from" the National Circus School, Laliberte said in his heavy Quebecois accent. "No more coming from the streets. Of course our technique is higher. Half the people say they prefer this year, the other half miss the first reaction to it."
Peter Boulanger, a 28-year-old gymnast and dancer from Vancouver who plays the King of Fools, thinks the show runs the risk of being too glossy.
"It always has to have commercialism," Boulanger said from Santa Monica, where the troupe was finishing up a seven-week run. "At the same time, it has to have its own unique charm so it is not a standard touring company."
According to Boulanger, the circus has been working to restore some spontaneity to its acts while better melding professionalism with the spirited outlook it tries to capture.
"This is an ensemble circus gone big time," said trapeze artist Rebecca Perez, who was born and raised in San Francisco. She knows the difference. She got her start with the Bay Area's intimate Pickle Family Circus and Make-A-Circus, which did not even offer a tent. All performances were outdoors.
Laliberte and the artistic directors are trying to combat the impression that the Cirque du Soleil has become just another show.
They have added new performers since the last tour. A group of Chinese teen-agers performs a rola-bola balancing act that defies gravity and common sense. Rhythmic gymnastics, which some sports fans say belong more in a circus than the Olympics, make an appearance with two Bulgarian Olympic medalists. A new tightrope act and several clowns round out the additions.
Returning acts include "Penguins with Briefcases," a balancing act on a teeter board; a semi-erotic hand balancing act, and the famous human pyramid on a bicycle.
The focus of all the acts is the agical world of possibility. This is a circus with a message.
"Our dreams can come true," explained performer Annette Devick. "We have got so much societal structure saying, 'You can't do that.' We say, 'If you want to break free to become part of the magic, you can.' "
Laliberte calls the circus a work in progress. Boulanger agrees that changes keep it alive.
"I really believe that, when the show stops changing, it is dead," he said. "The wonderful thing about the show is they have been supportive of me. I like to do things differently. Sometimes they tell me it won't work, but try it. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it is horrible."