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Three-ring experience

Travelling Cirque du soleil show aims to recreate the intimacy of the big top

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As theatrical productions go, call this one the anti-fringe.

Circus feats


Cirque du soleil was founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthie to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Canada's discovery by Jacques Cartier.

The company has grown from a staff of 73 to more than 4,000 employees from over 40 countries.

Tours have stopped in almost 300 cities on every continent except Africa and Antarctica.

An estimated 90 million people have seen a Cirque show.

Cirque's 27th production, Totem, directed by Quebec star Robert Lepage, opened in May in Montreal.

There are seven Cirque shows resident in Las Vegas: O, Mystère, Zumanity, La Nouba, Kà, Love and Viva Elvis.

A feature film version of Alegria, directed by Franco Dragone, was released in 1999.

For the past week, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival has offered more than 150 separate shows, many of them low-budget, low-ambition efforts thrown together by a couple of performers employing little more than a chair and a spotlight.

But Alegria, which arrives for its first-ever Winnipeg visit tonight at the MTS Centre, takes the opposite tack.

This long-running Cirque du soleil production, blending music, dance, acrobatics and clowning, aims for grand spectacle.

Its nine acts employ the talents of 55 performing artists, including 32 acrobats, 10 other circus daredevils, three clowns, five instrumentalists, two singers and three principal actors.

Eighteen semi-trailers are required to haul in the massive stage, which requires the skills of 80 technicians, plus another 50 stagehands hired locally, to set up in 12 hours and tear down in three.

This Alegria, in fact, is an expanded version of the tent production the Montreal-based showbiz monolith unveiled in 1994 and toured to major markets throughout the world for many years.

Directed by Franco Dragone, one of the Cirque's original creative forces, it had a mere 41 performers and seven acts.

A tent would be set up in each location. Because capacity was a relatively small 2,500, Alegria (Spanish for "joy" or "jubilation" and pronounced (Al-eh-GREE-a) had to run for at least six weeks to turn a profit, and this required an IKEA-like market size of at least one million people.

This jumbo arena-friendly version, which plays to much larger houses in shorter time frames, has been designed with smaller markets in mind.

"It's all about exposing Cirque du soleil to millions more people," says Carmen Ruest, the company's director of creations, who stopped in Winnipeg recently to promote Alegria's seven-performance Winnipeg run.

"We've taken care to make sure the experience remains as intimate as it was under the big top."

Cirque du soleil (which means circus of the sun) was founded in 1984 by Quebecers Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier.

The company has developed at least 27 original shows; seven of them currently have resident productions in Las Vegas.

Alegria, chronologically speaking the seventh Cirque show, is only the third one to come to Winnipeg.

Show No. 16, Delirium, was the first to arrive here in 2006, followed by Saltimbanco, No. 5, in 2008.

Interestingly, the top ticket price for Alegria, $95, is over 25 per cent less than it was for Delirium, reflecting perhaps the over-supply of pop entertainment options throughout North America this summer.

The MTS Centre has been configured to accommodate a maximum of 6,400 seats (it was 9,500 for Delirium and 5,000 for Saltimbanco) with the stage size and distance from the stage to the back row being the same as the tent version, Ruest says.

As with all Cirque shows, Alegria transcends spoken language. With its musical score by René Dupéré blending pop, klezmer and tango with what one reviewer called a "New Age kick," it features a menagerie of odd animal-like characters, from aristocratic-looking bird-men to a herd of youthful, white gazelle-like creatures.

"It's about youth challenging the older generation," says Ruest, who has worked with Laliberté since their street-performing days in the '70s.

"The theme is timeless."

This arena tour began in 2009 in the U.S. It landed in Toronto for a week in late June.

After Winnipeg, it moves west to Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Kelowna, Kamloops and Victoria.

Reviews to date have been mixed. The St. Paul Pioneer-Press in Minnesota called it "one of the less thrilling shows in the Cirque repertoire."

But Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian liked the arena version as much he did the tent one.

"The show's solid structure and exquisite production values," he said, "are given an even greater chance to demonstrate their quality."



Cirque du soleil

MTS Centre, July 22-25

Tickets $45-$95

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2010 D1

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