When Cirque du soleil writer-director Franco Dragone set out to create a show called Quidam in the mid-1990s, his initial inspiration came from black-and-white photographs by Robert Doisneau.
The Frenchman Doisneau is most famous for his 1950 image of two young lovers kissing on a crowded Paris street. His camera captured fleeting human moments in urban environments.
"Franco wanted to explore something totally new," recalls senior artistic director Pierre Parisien, a Montreal native who has been on the Cirque team since 1994.
After creating fanciful non-human characters for the earlier spectacles Saltimbanco and Alegria, "Franco wanted to be inspired by the life of real human beings," says Parisien. "The essence of Quidam is real human emotions. It touches people.... The comment that I hear the most is, 'Oh my god, I was moved.'"
Quidam had its premiere as a "big top" show in 1996 and was later reworked for arenas. It's the sixth Cirque production to play the MTS Centre, after Delirium in 2006, Saltimbanco in 2008, Alegria in 2010, Dralion last summer and Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour last fall.
The word "quidam" (pronounced "key-dahm") means a nameless passerby; a nobody (or everyman) in the crowd.
The theme of the 52-performer Quidam, which opens a seven-performance run at the MTS Centre on Thursday, is that inside every nobody is a unique somebody who longs to free his or her soul, express individuality and be noticed.
The central character (one of the show's two singers) is a bored little girl named Zoé whose parents ignore her. A faceless character who wears a bowler hat and carries an umbrella leads her into an imaginary realm where dazzling acrobats, aerial performers, clowns and characters help liberate her spirit and heal her family.
The highly skilled circus feats include hand-balancing, German wheel, human pyramids, diabolo (Chinese yo-yo), a virtuosic skipping-rope routine, Spanish webs, juggling and aerial hoops.
Art lovers will recognize the influence of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte on the bowler-hatted figure. Another surrealist painter, Paul Delvaux, also influenced the show's design.
Quidam was the first Cirque show to costume the acrobatic acts in modified street clothes, to emphasize their links to the everyday world.
The set has a grey, moody urban feel, meant to evoke a busy public space like a train station or airport. It's dominated by a huge metal structure with trolleys that run on five tracks. The trolleys transport performers and props, and aerial acts are suspended from the structure.
The coldness of the setting, Parisien says, "makes a big contrast with the emotions."
Reviews of the show always praise an astonishing, semi-erotic act called Statue in which a male and female acrobat perform "sculptural, slow-motion, intertwined lifts and contortions" (to quote England's The Telegraph), never losing contact with each other.
Parisien notes that Zoé's alienated parents separately watch this beautiful expression of harmony, intimacy, equality and interdependence. "It's a reminiscence of them when they were a (happy) couple. Who is the female force and who is the male force? Sometimes you will see it switch. It's a nice balance."
Also frequently praised by critics is a clown who pulls people out of the audience and improvises charming scenes with them. It ties in with the theme of a nameless person emerging from the horde and expressing themselves "under the light for a few minutes," says Parisien.
"We are all creative if we want to be," he adds.
Cirque du soleil
-- MTS Centre
-- Thursday to Sunday
-- Tickets $55.75 to $112.50 at Ticketmaster
-- Cirque du soleil (Circus of the Sun) was founded in 1984. The Montreal-based entertainment empire grew out of a street-performance troupe.
-- More than 100 million spectators on six continents have seen a Cirque show.
-- Current touring shows: Dralion, Varekai, Quidam, Alegra, Saltimbanco, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, Corteo, Kooza, Ovo, Totem and Amaluna.
-- Current resident shows in cities such as Las Vegas, Orlando and New York: O, Mystère, Zumanity, La Nouba, Iris, K, Love, Criss Angel: Believe, Viva Elvis, Zaia and Zarkana.