CIRQUE DU SOLEIL is all about personal growth -- in the literal sense, celebrating the astounding physical accomplishments of the centuries-old circus arts, and in the hippie sense, with each production placing those feats within a New Age-flavored framework of self-realization. But "Delirium," the new show whose two-week Staples Center run arrived Thursday with a gala preview, is more transformative than most.
The company's first touring arena show, "Delirium" adapts the spirit of Cirque within the context of the pop concert, using 20 reworked songs from the troupe's 16-show history in a revue more focused on music than on acrobatics, though still rife with colorful costumes and props.
Does the show work? Yes, but on Cirque's unique terms.
Let's take the music first, because highlighting Cirque's soundtrack is what this show is all about. Featured songs range in derivation from African sabar percussion to Argentine tango to cheesy Eurodisco, with most evolving into a slightly more aggressive version of the swirling world beat that Cirque regulars know well. It's not cutting-edge, but it's pleasant, and as a soundtrack to spectacle it has certain advantages.
Rhythmic variation creates an expansive space within which Cirque's dancers and acrobats can move and play, and the mix of live and electronic elements (16 musicians appear onstage, including the Brazilian group Gaia, the Diouf brothers of Senegal and Canadian country artist Amanda Stott, here belting out that Eurodisco) creates the patented Cirque overload effect. Shifting the lyrics to mostly English, instead of the usual Tower of Babel patois, has some disadvantages -- after so many choruses, the affirmations begin to overwhelm. When Gaia frontman Elie Haroun sings "we are made of stars" near the show's end, it's the umpteenth celestial metaphor (not to mention one the electronica pop star Moby has used to better effect), and one longs for a little earthiness.
English does offer one plus for this American tour, though. The plot line, rarely a Cirque strong point, adheres rather nicely. It's easy to follow the buoyant path of Bill, the show's clown hero (played with understatement by an American, Karl Baumann), who escapes his techno-dystopian world by attaching to a large balloon and floating off in search of human connection. Bill's path through realms watery and fiery and his encounters with a familiar array of aerial goddesses, stilt-walkers and other acrobats add up to an identifiable quest, aided by songs with titles like "Alone," "One Love" and "Time Flies."
While the music satisfies in terms of basic uplift and the story line is simple enough to relax into, the soul of Cirque -- the human and technological pageantry -- is what again astounds.
Kudos must first go to the set designers, whose first innovation is to bisect the arena with the stage, creating a smaller-feeling room; two giant screens and a dazzling double scrim, which allow the live troupe to "interact" with giant screened images, enhance the feeling of immediacy.
Those projections are classy too, especially several sequences featuring massive ordinary-looking people, which recall the work of video artists Gary Hill and Bill Viola. When a giant woman ages before our eyes or reaches out to grab Bill floating in space, those New Age axioms actually resonate.
More than anything, though, what impresses are the acrobatic performances -- and that's no shame on Cirque, just an affirmation of its great purpose and gift. Most of the favorites appear in "Delirium": hand-to-hand balancing, all sorts of aerialists, tumblers and the fabulous Irina Akimova, who twirls seven iridescent hula hoops simultaneously.
By modernizing circus aesthetics, founder Guy Laliberte and his collaborators have spearheaded a renaissance within an important cultural form that otherwise might have been relegated to kiddie matinees. Theirs was a dream that has bettered the world. The message that the universe improves when individuals realize their potential is true in the case of Cirque du Soleil; those corny New Age songs describe its own singular success.
Cirque du Soleil's `Delirium'
Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles
When: 2 and 8 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 27-29
Ends: Sept. 29
Price: $69.50 to $125
Contact: (213) 480-3232, www.LiveNation.com, www.Ticketmaster.com