High-voltage acts power Cirque’s new Volta

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Volta is Cirque du Soleil’s 41st original production since 1984, and its 18th show presented under the Big Top. The San Francisco stop continues through Feb. 3. The San Jose stop runs Feb. 13 through March 10. Photo by Patrice Lamoureux. Photo below by Benoit Z. Leroux.

In the 30 years that Cirque du Soleil has been bringing shows to San Francisco, the animal-free, new-circus behemoth has been remarkably “on brand” as they say. The shows under the big-top tents are wildly colorful, packed with the best acts/stunts the circus world has to offer and spun through with that inscrutable Cirque style that looks fun and feels meaningful but is just so much pretty wrapping around the acts.

I’ve had the good fortune to see most of those shows over the last three decades, and I’ve whined about Cirque fatigue. But the truth is I always look forward to a new touring show because I’m hopeful that a) they’ll break the pattern and come up with something revolutionary and mind boggling b) I’ll recapture the absolute awe I felt when I saw my first Cirque show nearly 30 years ago. The closest I’ve come to either of those goals is in the Las Vegas Cirque shows O and Love (the Beatles show).

The company’s last touring show, 2016’s Luzia (read my review here), passed through my brain so quickly I could hardly remember it to write the review. I remember beauty and Mexico, and that’s about it.

The new touring spectacle, Volta, opened Thursday night under a gray-and-white-striped tent in the AT&T Park for a nearly three-month run before heading down to San Jose. It’s a high energy show with more sparkle and verve than the requisite Cirque pretension, and it was a welcome relief to the smoke-choked air that was strangling the world outside the tent.

That’s not to say the show is any more understandable than any other. Sure, Cirque is packed with great acts, but there’s also some sort of high-concept story that you have to go to the website and read about if you want to understand it. To save you the trouble, here’s what the website says Volta, written and directed by Bastien Alexandre, is about:

Waz, a gameshow contestant, that has lost touch with himself. He’s ashamed of who he is because of his difference. Follow him as he enters the show in search of fame, thinking that this will bring him love and acceptance from others. What he will find is something else. That fame is not the answer. If fame doesn’t provide freedom and acceptance, then what does? Will Waz reconnect with his true self – and stand up for all that makes him truly unique? Will he realize that his difference is what makes him extraordinary?

Watching the 2 1/2-hour show, I picked up on about 25% of that. I recognized the talent show (“The Mr. Wow Show”) and sort of got that Waz has faced difficulty in his life because he has spiky Jack Frost hair. Poor lamb. He wanders about, interacting with circus acts and ends up…in a circus? I don’t know.

The good news is that Waz is played by Joey Arrigo, who creates an endearing if inscrutable character, and all is right with the world when he dances – a thrilling, beautiful fusion of acrobatics and modern dance.

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The rest of the Waz business simply doesn’t matter. What counts are the bright, sparkly costumes by Zaldy Goco, the ’80s-movie-sounding score by Anthony Gonzalez (from the French electronica outfit M83) and the highly enjoyable parade of circus acts.

From double dutch jump ropers to unicyclists to a guy swinging on a lamp, it’s all exciting and with a dollop or two of beauty. The biggest surprise of the evening is Danila Bim’s act, which involves her swinging around the tent by her hair, which is pulled into a tight bun and affixed with a hook and a rope. It’s a lot lovelier than it may sound.

The most exciting act isn’t the raucous BMX frenzy that concludes the show (ramps, airborne bicycles, flipping bicycles, lots of renegade little boy energy) but rather the “trampowall” in the middle of the first act. Two trampolines are separated by a wall, which means the acrobats bounce from tramp to wall to tramp, flipping and flying like a human water fountain.

Another exciting act is low on tech but high on thrills: the shape divers jump through an increasingly challenging tower of hoops, and if, by chance, the knock the tower over, they put the thing back together and try again, accompanied by a “please succeed” vibe from emanating from the cheering audience.

My least favorite aspect of the Cirque oeuvre involves the clowns. Sometimes they’re brilliant, but more often than not they’re annoying. Andrey Kislitsin as Mr. Wow has two bits here, one with uncooperative washing machines (pretty good) and one with a visit to the beach (annoying).

The music in a Cirque show is often a weird fusion of New Age and electronica with singers spewing gibberish words. But the Gonzalez score for Volta is highly enjoyable, with its electric guitars and keyboard washes. Though the lyrics aren’t always intelligible (singers Camilla Bäckman and Darius Harper do their very best), it does seem that there’s actual English being employed this time around.

Even though this is a Cirque show, there’s something unfussy and straightforward about Volta that delivers on all the Cirque promises but cuts right to the heart of circus entertainment: dazzle and thrills. Can’t ask for much more than that.

And finally, just wondering: if you go see the show for a second time, are you in re-Volta?

[bonus video]

Cirque du Soleil’s Volta continues through Feb. 3 under the big top in the AT&T Park parking lot. Tickets start at $54. The San Jose stop runs Feb. 13 through March 10. Visit cirquedusoleil.com/volta or call 1-877-9CIRQUE (1-877-924-7783).

Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia low on thrills, big on beauty

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The feathered hoop diving squad opens the new Cirque du Soleil show Luzia in the gold-and-white tent in the parking lot at AT&T Park. Below: Benjamin Courtenay works magic on the straps in the rain. Photos by Laurence Labat / Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi / 2016 Cirque du Soleil

Having seen abundant Cirque du Soleil shows over the years, I’ve come to think of them as lovely packages. It’s not what’s inside the package that intrigues – we know each one will be filled with some of the world’s best acrobats, assorted clowns and acts that range from prosaic to heartstopping, dopey to achingly beautiful. So it’s not the content so much as the packaging itself that makes the arrival of a new Cirque show so exciting.

The newest touring show, Luzia is subtitled “a waking dream of Mexico,” and while all Cirque shows have a dreamy, slightly hallucinatory quality to them, Luzia really does feel like a dream. The Mexican theme lends itself to rich, jewel-like colors, some of the best music I’ve heard in a Cirque show (lots of guitar and trumpet and singing in an actual language!) and a beautifully textured design that incorporates rain and storm, sun and moon, desert and jungle, tradition and modernity.

It’s a spectacularly lovely show that feels earthbound rather than some bizarro Cirque-invented reality. Humans and nature feature prominently in the design, and in the shorthand of Cirque tours, this is the one that will be known for featuring rain and a pool of water to great effect. Every time the curtain of rain descends from the top of the tent, the results are spectacular. The first act to get wet involves three women – Angelica Bongiovonni, Rachel Salzman and Emily Tucker – bathed in golden light, one on a trapeze and two in Cyr wheels (giant hoops). The round stage, ringed with primeval desert plants, revolves while the women spin through an act that feels more like dance than circus. That quality infuses a number of the acts, which is especially welcome.

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In Act 2, Benjamin Courtenay performs his straps act above a small pool, and while he flies around the stage, he skims through the water, his long hair flipping drops across the stage like the best shampoo commercial ever. Prowling around the periphery of the pool is a giant puppet jaguar, one of several impressive animal puppets paraded across the stage.

The whole show, including the 25-minute intermission, is about 2 1/2 hours, and while it’s all pleasant, it’s fairly low on the thrill meter. Act 1 dazzles more with lights, sets and costumes than it does with actual acts. Except for the addition of a treadmill to a hoop-diving act, there’s not much to write home about. Act 2 features livelier acts, including a a masked wrestler (Krzystof Holowenko on a 360-degree swing and a contortionist (Aleksei Goloborodko) who defies all logic. I am freaked out by contortionists, and let it be a compliment to Mr. Goloborodko that I could barely peek at his act through the fingers covering my face.

There’s also a high-speed juggler (Rudolf Janecek) and a finale involving some high-flying leaps from swings that’s liable to cause some cardiac palpitation.

The clowning in Luzia is topped by the sweet antics of Eric Fool Koller, but the acts are not especially memorable (except the Act 2 scuba diving sequence, which is memorably awful).

Luzia ends with a big fiesta, revelers jumping on tables and having a marvelous time. The show itself feels less like that kind of party and more like a gorgeously rendered fantasy of Mexico that would make any wannabe wall builder feel like the world’s biggest idiot.

[sneak peek]
Here’s a look at some of the highlights of Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia

Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia continues through Jan. 29 in the Big Top at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Tickets start at $49. Visit www.cirquedusoleil.com. The show movees to San Jose Feb. 9 through March 19.

Cirque’s Kurios: Happy, happy, joy, joy

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An acrobatic act called “Banquine” is part of the latest Cirque du Soleil touring show, Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities, written and directed by Michel Laprise and running through Jan. 18 under the blue-and-yellow-striped tent in the parking lot at AT&T Park. Below: A prelude to the act “Rola Bola.” Photos by Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

In the realm of Cirque du Soleil, the first time is the best. My first Cirque show, Quidam was at Oakland’s Jack London Square in 1997. I thought I’d never see anything as good, and in a way, I was right. My first exposure to the particular world of Cirque – spectacle under a blue-and-yellow-striped tent filled with costumes, lights, music and acrobats designed to dazzle, distract and delight – was among my most powerful theatrical experiences (yes, circus is a very specific kind of theater) ever, and I immediately fell in love with Cirque.

Thirty years after it was formed, the Montréal-based Cirque is still going strong. They preside over a worldwide empire and have long set the standard for “new circus” (circus mercifully free of animals). Every year or two, a new touring Cirque production rolls into the Bay Area, and there was a period there (Kooza, Ovo, Dralion, Varekai) when the shows were interchangeable: fun (to a degree), filled with obtuse, artsy worlds, vague storytelling, bouncy music and a reliably thrilling act or two. The clowns could pretty much be counted on to be awful, but there was usually enough there to compensate.

Beginning with Totem (themed as vaguely indigenous peoples) in 2011 and with last year’s Amaluna, the Cirque brain trust seemed to be making an effort to stretch the bounds of their product and refresh it. In this anniversary year, that effort fully pays off in Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities now in the parking lot behind AT&T Park into the new year.

Written and directed by newbie Michel Laprise, a longtime Cirque newbie enjoying his first run under the big top, Kurios is simply delightful, with the key word being “simply.” In many ways, this is a low-tech circus with much more emphasis on personality and charm than on artsy spectacle and cold thrills.

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The opening number is the perfect example of what Kurios gets right. On a set that marries a steam-punk vibe with the inside of a giant clock (design by Stéphane Roy), a jumble of performers spill out. There’s a juggler juggling hands. There’s a llama head on a stick. There’s an airplane. There’s a guy who looks like he’s wearing a diving bell (we find out what’s inside later on, and it’s fantastic) and there’s general merriment and mayhem. Surely it’s all carefully choreographed, but it has a spontaneous, genuinely fun feel to it, and it sets the tone for an irresistibly playful 2 1/2 hours.

Kurios may be the least pretentious Cirque show of all time, which is quite an accomplishment, unless that is, you read the press notes, which attempt to explain this merry universe. For instance, the guy in the diving bell is Mr. Microcosmos, and then there’s Mini Lili, who “represents Mr. Microcosmos’ unconscious mind, his intuitive self, his fragile and poetic side.” You get none of that from the show, but both characters are wonderful anyway.

Among the stand-out acts are “Rola Bola” in which James Eulises Gonzalez Correa balances on precarious stacks of things like balls and boxes and is raised higher and higher into the air with no safety net below him. Act 1 includes a truly surprising act: a funny clown! David-Alexandre Despres presents the “Invisible Circus,” which is exactly what it sounds like. There’s a high-wire act, a high diving act and even a lion (Felipe) who escapes, and it’s all charming. Despres returns in Act 2 with an audience member whom he takes on a date and introduces to a dinosaur and a cat with hilarious results. All praise funny clowns.

Things really take off in Act 2 with the bouncing men of the “Acro Net,” a sort of giant, stage-wide trampoline that inspires airborne wonder and high-energy clowning. I wasn’t thrilled with the yo-yo act, but I did enjoy the “Theater of the Hands,” which involves some very clever hand puppetry caught close up on video and projected onto a screen above the stage.

The finale, “Banquine,” involves 13 acrobats throwing each other around, stacking each other up and generally torturing gravity, and it’s a fittingly thrilling way to close this “cabinet of curiosities.”

It’s so nice to see Cirque taking itself less seriously and letting its audience have fun without that feeling that you’re just missing what it’s all really about. Cirque du Soleil learned how to put the “irk” in new circus, but with Kurios it seems they’re just as happy to bring back the light of the sun.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Kurios writer/director Michel Laprise for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities continues through Jan. 18 at AT&T Park, parking lot at Third Street and Terry A. Francois Boulevard, San Francisco. Tickets are $53-$135. Call 800-450-1480 or visit www.cirquedosoleil.com.

Amaluna captures a tempest under a big-top

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Laura Jacobs Rigolo steals the show with her hypnotic balancing act in the highly entertaining Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna under the yellow-and-blue-striped big-top just outside AT&T Park. Below: The Castaways defy gravity with a thrilling teeterboard act. Photos by Laurence Labat

The last time Cirque du Soleil rolled through town with Totem in 2011, the company seemed refreshed and revived. Gone was the pretentious stuttering and back was the purely enjoyable spectacle and thrill.

Now with Amaluna, the company’s 32nd show since 1984, they remain firmly in that mind-blowing, eye candy groove, and it feels so good. Broadway veteran Diane Paulus is at the helm, and though there’s a vague attempt to riff on an all-female version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that’s really just an excuse to hire a lot of great women (including a kick-ass, all-girl band) and put on an eye-popping pageant.

Paulus, whose Tony-winning Porgy and Bess opened in San Francisco earlier this week, has done a lovely job integrating the essence of a story with the spectacle and the circus acts. There’s an extremely high level of beauty in this Cirque outing, from the grace of Scott Pask’s set (influenced, it seems, by peacocks and fireworks) to the dazzle of Mérédith Caron’s era-busting costumes to the exquisite lighting by Matthieu Larivée. There’s really nothing on stage for 2 1/2 hours that isn’t, in some way, absolutely gorgeous (the exception being, as is so often the case in a Cirque show, the tiresome clowns).

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There’s an aerial ballet in Act 1 that is thrilling and steamy, accompanied by Prospera (the gender-altered Prospero played by Julie McInnes) playing the cello while dangling from the moon and two purple-clad electric guitar players (homage to Prince?). It’s the perfect combo of circus act trimmed with just enough theater to give it a little meaning and then sumptuous dressing to make it irresistible. The same is true for the giant water bowl on stage. Prospera’s daughter, Miranda (Iulia Mykhailova), does some hand balancing on the rim of the bowl before diving in and doing a confined aquatic ballet in which she is later joined by a shipwrecked Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin at Friday’s opening-night performance).

There’s a sharp, all-women uneven bars act and a zippy all-male teeterboard, but the highlight of the show is Laura Jacobs Rigolo’s surprising balancing act, which involves the manipulation of what look like small to large palm fronds with the tines shaved off. Slowly and gracefully, she lifts each frond with a foot and places one on another until she’s holding a delicately balanced leaf-like sculpture. At one point, she places the whole contraption on her head and spins slowly. That’s it – that’s the act. But it’s among the most mesmerizing and beautiful I’ve ever seen. No flash, no ta-da! Just delicacy, grace and quiet skill. In the flashy world of Cirque, it’s practically poetry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with flash. When Amaluna turns on the spectacle, costumes flaring, acrobats spinning and flying, the band (playing music by Bob & Bill) wailing – it’s the joy of the circus combined with that Ziegfeldian need for color, lights and sparkle and the sheer pleasure of expertly orchestrated pageantry. That’s what Cirque can do better than just about anybody and what Amaluna does with warmth and charm.

[bonus interview
It’s what we’re calling the great Paulus-palooza of 2013. I talked to Diane Paulus about directing Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna (and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna continues through Dec. 31 at AT&T Park, Third Street and Terry A. François Boulevard, San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$175. Call 800-450-1480 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

Thrilling return to form in trippy Totem


One of the most thrilling acts in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem involves five women on tall unicycles. Photo by Daniel Auclair. Below: Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme are absolutely charming in their trapeze duet. Photo by David Desmarais

It’s never good to speak ill of those no longer with us, but the last touring Cirque du Soleil show that stopped in San Francisco, Ovo, was all about the insect world. And truth be told, it bugged. The show only added to my Cirque fatigue – a feeling that my enthusiasm for the company, which had once thrilled me beyond belief, was wearing terribly thin.

But then along comes Totem, the latest touring show from the Montreal-based circus empire, and the enthusiasm barometer rises again. This show, playing in the yellow-and-blue striped “grand chapiteau” behind AT&T Park, returns a sense of wonder to the big top. There’s visual magic in this show and scenes of breathtaking beauty.

Directed by famed Canadian artist Robert Lepage, the man responsible for the Las Vegas behemoth Ka, Totem has some of the Vegas wow factor (especially in aspects of Carl Fillion’s amazing set) but it has a human scale, which is helpful because the theme of the show is human evolution. Like any Cirque show, that theme floats in and out to make room for some astonishing circus acts (which you could consider the highest form of human evolution if, in addition to being beautiful and thrilling, contributed in some way to world peace) and, more awkwardly, the clown bits.

At more than 2 ½ hours (including a 30-minute intermission), Totem is packed with thrills, but even more than the gravity-defying acrobats, it is infused with visual lyricism. The musical score (by composers Bob & Bill) has that vaguely South Asian feel and heavy percussive tone that so many Cirque shows have, and I wished the music were a better match for the visuals.

The set includes a round performance area in the foreground, and at the back of the stage, behind the tall reeds is the eight-piece band and a bridge to the central performance area. Under that bridge is an extraordinary screen filled with high-def images of water in many forms. We see waves crashing on the shore, rippling waves across a pond, lava burping from a volcano and, most stunningly, a massive waterfall with spray seeming to come right out of the screen.

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The most thrilling of the acts involves five women on tall unicycles. At Friday’s opening-night performance, one of the women fell and rushed off stage. As the other women continued kicking bowls and catching them on their heads (a feat that sounds rudimentary but is actually incredibly exciting), the fallen performer returned to a rousing ovation and only heightened the thrill of the act. The fumble reminded us that even Cirque professionals – the best of the best – are just people, and that raised the stakes for every act that followed. Error is good – grounding and oh so very human.

In Act 2, fixed-trapeze duo Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme completely charmed the audience with their artistry and good humor. What differentiates their act is the hint of story and character. Theirs is a tale of courtship and anger and aggression and submission, all on a trapeze, high above a safety cushion on the stage floor.

Also in Act 2, what started as a clown act with the Darwin-like Greg Kennedy cavorting with an ape turned into a dazzling display of juggling colored lights within a giant plastic cone. I’d never seen anything like it and loved every minute of it.

As ever, the technical aspects of the show are stunning, especially the colorful and bold costumes by Kym Barrett. Her Aztec cosmonaut costumes for the final act of the evening (an impressive Russian bars routine) were like high fashion if there had been a catwalk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The best visual joke of the evening involves the seven stages of man’s evolution, beginning with ape and ending with a guy in a suit on a mobile phone. That has to be Lepage working the show’s theme like the substantial showman he is.

It seems Cirque shows are constantly striving for something new, and that’s certainly admirable, but too often they stray from the core entertainment and wonderful dazzle that the earlier shows offered in such abundance. Totem is more like those early shows, which may seem like reverse evolution, but it’s really just mastery of the form.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with Totem director Robert Lepage and costume designer Kym Barrett for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Cirque du Soleil’s Totem continues an extended run through Dec. 18 in the tent behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Show opens in San Jose on March 2. Tickets are $47-$248.50. Call 800-450-1480 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

Kym Barrett designs a Cirque evolution

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Top: One of Kym Barrett’s designs for Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. Bottom: Barrett’s costumes as they appear in the touring show. Below: Costume designer Kym Barrett. Photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

You don’t go to a Cirque du Soleil show just to see the costumes. Audiences are usually slathering for the death-defying acrobatics and goofy clowns. But what separates a Cirque show from the rest of the circus fray is the spectacle, and that certainly has a lot to do with the costumes.

The latest touring Cirque opus is Totem, another artsy epic under a blue-and-yellow striped tent behind AT&T Park. The theme for this show is evolution, and the costumes are by a charming Australian designer named Kym Barrett. She’s best known for her work in movies – perhaps you’ve seen one of the Matrix movies or Speed Racer? If you haven’t caught one of those, you can check out her work in the upcoming reboot of the Spider-man franchise and the film adaptation of the hit novel Cloud Atlas.
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I interviewed Barrett and Totem director Robert Lepage (a Canadian theater icon) for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Check out the story here.

Here’s Lepage on working with Barrett:

“We’re not doing period pieces. We create a kind of closed-circuit universe with its own laws and color charts and vocabulary. Kym came with all of that. She is extremely creative, funny, playful and versatile and immediately set the tone for the universe we were creating. This is very much her show. We didn’t even know the characters we were trying to create, but she had photos and fabrics and references and ideas. She was very inspiring.”

And here’s a word from Barrett:

“By the end of the show we’re into kind of Aztec astronaut stuff. We used a lot of imagery from Aztec culture, but all the patterns you see in the actual fabric are from around the world. It’s sort of a designer United Nations in a way. They transcend their borders and move into the next sphere together. It’s all a bit transcendental.”


Cirque du Soleil’s Totem continues through Dec. 11 behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Tickets are $47-$248.50. Call (800) 450-1480 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

Life in the balance with Cirque’s Quidam

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Maintaining a sense of balance can be hard enough in an off-kilter world. But just try doing the way Anna Ostapenko does it – on one hand clutching to a skinny narrow pole.

Somehow, the 24-year-old Ostapenko keeps her equilibrium. But don’t try this at home. She’s a professional.

Ostapenko is an acrobat – a hand-balancer by trade – with Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian company that has redefined the notion of modern circus. Out with the animals, ringmasters and stinky tents. In with the dazzling lights, costumes, music and gravity-defying performers.

Ostapenko is currently on tour with Quidam a circus that has been around in one form or another since 1996. The last time the show played the Bay Area, it was in the usual Cirque big-top. But this time around the show is playing indoor arenas: in San Jose at the HP Pavilion through March 27 and at San Francisco’s Cow Palace April 6 through 17.

In her native Ukraine, Ostapenko started participating in AcroSports, a program of gymnastics, tumbling, dance and circus arts for kids at age 5. Ten years later, she was so good at it that she auditioned for Cirque du Soleil when they came a-calling.

Keep in mind that while Ostapenko was auditioning for the world’s most successful circus, she had never seen a Cirque show or even a traditional Russian circus. Her coach told she should audition, so she did. And then her life changed.

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Once she was cast in Saltimbanco, she said goodbye to her home and quite literally ran away with the circus. Suddenly life for the teenager was all about a community of people from every corner of the world working together on a show. She was required to go to school and learned to speak English (and quite well, it must be stated).

“The people at Cirque, they spoil you a lot,” Ostapenko says on the phone from Vancouver, where the Quidam tour was slated to open that night. “They teach you an enormous amount of different things that you wouldn’t have a chance to learn in real life, things about acting, dancing and everything about the stage world.”

In her first show, Ostapenko worked with a partner who would hold her in a handstand, throw her around and catch her.

These days, after almost nine years with Cirque, Ostapenko is a solo act – but that’s only on stage. In real life, she’s with Gabriel Dube-Dupuis, whom she met when he was part of the backstage management crew on Saltimbanco.

The Quebecois Dube-Dupuis is now the general stage manager for Quidam, and the couple is happily touring together.

“Just because you are in Cirque doesn’t mean you are locked in a closet,” Ostapenko says. “You have your right to be a human being. It’s really nice to have somebody there for you on the road. He feels the same way. It’s good to have a partner, somebody to help you in hard moments. What helps is that Gabriel and I have different jobs. I’m an artist. He’s a stage manager. We see each other at work, but not that often. We come home and share what happened at work.”

Home is, of course, a never-ending stream of hotels. Life on the road can be grueling – and now that Quidam is in arenas instead of in a tent, the tour moves more swiftly and to even more cities.

On this day in Vancouver, Ostapenko is nervous. It’s opening night in a new show (new for her) and her first time as a solo act.

“I’m pretty nervous,” she admits. “I’m feeling a little pressure because I want to do a good job and do my best. With hand balancing, you have to be calm. My body is prepared and ready, but I have a lot of nerves in my body right now. I’ll try to meditate and really calm myself.”

Even when she’s no longer an acrobat, Ostapenko says she’ll probably stay in show business.

“I’m really in love with the stage,” she says. “I love the reaction of the public, so I’ll do it as long as I can. I won’t do acrobatics forever. I do enjoy acting a lot a lot a lot. Maybe later on, I’ll look into acting, which could take me to a different place in the theater. Maybe a little cabaret show. I don’t know. We’ll see where time takes me.”

[bonus video]
In its tent-touring incarnation, here’s what the hand-balancing act in Quidam looked like.


Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam continues through March 27 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose and moves to San Francisco’s Cow Palace from April 6 to 17. Tickets are $40-$115 for adults ($32-$99 for children, seniors, students and military). For San Jose tickets call 1-800-745-3000. For San Francisco tickets call 1-866-448-7849. Or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/quidam for information.

A galloping good time at Cavalia

Extended through Jan. 2, 2011!
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One of many gorgeous horse-and-man images in the captivating show Cavalia in the big white tent behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Below: The aerialist/rider routine known as “La Vida.” Photos by Frédéric Chéhu

A few years ago, if you’d asked me what I thought about horses as theater, I’d have probably said something like, “Call me when Mr. Ed performs as Hamlet.”

But then I saw Cavalia, an inspired Cirque du Soleil-like spectacular built around the beauty and strength of horses. That was in February of 2004, and I’ve never quite looked at horses the same way since.

I joked at the time that the show was “Cirque du Horse,” but that shorthand quip doesn’t fully express the originality and power of this gorgeous creation. Sure, Artistic Director Normand Latourelle is one of the founding members of Cirque, and he brings that sensibility with him in the form of an immersive tent experience that combines high-tech theatrical wizardry wrapped around live music and acrobatics.

But the way he features the horses is really what it’s all about. You can have dudes doing backflips and ladies swinging on trapezes ‘til the cows come home. When the horses take the stage, Cavalia is part circus, part rodeo, part competitive dressage and entirely breathtaking.

Latourelle and director Érick Villeneuve (who also conceived the show’s striking visual design) wisely involve the horses in almost every act of this 2 ½-hour show. For instance, when Faiçal Moulid is balancing on a giant ball, it’s your typical circus act – well done but ordinary. Then a gorgeous horse trots out onto the giant, 160-foot-wide stage and starts playing with him. Suddenly the act is completely original.

The 30 humans on stage (with the six musicians above the stage and behind the giant screen that stretches all along the back of the stage) interact with dozens of horses ranging from quarter horses to Arabians to Lusitanos to Percherons. I don’t know my Mustang from my Comtois, but I know I couldn’t take my eyes off the animals.

Cavlia 4

My two favorite acts are the same as they were six years ago. In Act 1, aerialists Andréanne Nadeau and Marianella Michaud fly around the center ring, where riders Thomas Aubron and Julien Beaugnon keep their animals running at a brisk pace. The combination of speed and flight, of galloping horse and airborne human is completely entrancing.

And in Act 2, Sylvia Zerbini spends a good long time cavorting with a crowd of nine equines. She seemingly controls them with soft commands, tossed sand and – I’m guessing here – her mind. The horses frolic like dogs at the beach, sometimes toeing the line, sometimes not.

We also get Roman stampedes, impressive jumps, saddle-bouncing high jinks, a snowstorm and minimal clowning that seemed to make the kids happy.

I admire how essentially restrained the show is in terms of razzle-dazzle. The costumes by Manon Desmarais and Mireille Vachon are tasteful and tend to look like medieval paintings. There are no Electric Cowboy atrocities, no Vegas schmaltz. Horses are dignified creatures, and Latourelle and his creative team are celebrating that fact.

Tickets for Cavalia are pricey, no question. But you see the money on the stage, especially when those beautiful beasts are in motion. Horsing around has never been so captivating.


Cavalia continues an extended run through Jan. 2, 2011 in the white big top adjacent to AT&T Park, Fourth Street and China Basin Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $64.50 to $139.50. A special “rendez-vous” package includes a visit to the stables, a pre-show buffet in a private pavilion, beverages (wine, beer, soft drinks) and a souvenir. Those tickets start at $229.50. Call 866 999-8111 or visit www.cavalia.net.

Clowning around in the Chronicle


In today’s SF Chronicle Sunday Datebook, I wrote about the fine art of clowning.

A couple weekends ago I attended a clown class in the Teatro ZinZanni spiegeltent with Peter Pitofsky.

Read the story here.

I also talked to one of my favorite clowns, John Gilkey. I first saw him as the emcee of sorts in Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam back when they were putting their tent in Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Read the story here.

Bay Area native Gilkey came through in a few more Cirque shows and has landed back in the Bay. He’s performing with the comedy trio We Are Nudes in Show No Show Thursday, July 9-Saturday, July 11. at the Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St., San Francisco. Call 415 704-3260 or visit www.climatetheater.com.

Enthooza for `Kooza’

Opened Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 in San Francisco

Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza thrills more than chills
Three stars Killer `Wheel of Death’

I can be a jerk about Cirque — I fell out of love with Cirque du Soleil, even though I wanted our affair to continue. I suppose it’s all a matter of over-exposure to a good thing, and judging from the response to my whining about this fancy-pants Canadian circus troupe, some of y’all feel the same way.

Well, having paid a visit to the blue-and-white-striped tent behind AT&T Park on Friday to see Cirque’s latest touring show, Kooza, I have to say: It’s pretty thrilling and mostly unfussy.

It’s also kinda long — with a 30-minute intermission (one has to shop for trinkets, mais bien sur) we were out of the tent at five to 11 — and there are definite slow spots. Even though director David Shiner is an expert clown, the clowning in Kooza left me cold. I liked that the clowns spoke, and spoke in English, but their routines, especially the audience-participation bits, ran long and wore out their welcome.

But there are two clowns whose mission is not laughter but “atmosphere” and “tone.” Jason Berrent (below in the vertical stripes) is The Trickster, a wily presence in stripes who seems to orchestrate things with a high-voltage wand. Berrent is incredibly lithe and graceful (his entrance out of a giant jack-in-the-box is extraordinary), and though he’s silent, he’s a powerful presence. His co-star is Stephane Landry (below in the horizontal stripes) as The Innocent, a childlike kite-flyer who is lured into The Trickster’s snare.

The stage (designed by Stephane Roy) is spacious and gorgeous. Giant swaths of fabric move up and down — sort of a breathing curtain — to conceal and expose a central three-tiered gazebo. The lower level contains a traditional theatrical red curtain, the middle level contains the band (fantastic! but more on them in a moment) and the top level is often a perch for clowns.

Over the years I have grown indifferent to the Cirque musical approach. I used to dutifully buy the CDs and zone out to their trippy blend of New Age-worldly wise sounds. After a while, it all sounded the same. Kooza actually sounds quite different, and the thing that sets apart Jean-Francois Cote’s score is a big, fat, brilliantly bold horn section. To have trumpets and saxophones and trombones cutting through the cuteness does wonders. Sometimes there’s an Indian Bollywood feel to the music, other times it’s 1950s movie soundtrack, then it’s jazz, then it’s (and this is my favorite) Earth, Wind and Fire. Loved the music and will buy the CD (or download it — hey, it’s the 21st century).

Highlights of the circus acts:

– The crowd loved the three lady contortionists (Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson and Dasha Sovik), who are clearly among the best at what they do, but they grossed me out — one girl actually runs around her head! — and I thought that when they were all doubled over, they looked like a giant shrimp cocktail.

Darya Vintilova’s solo trapeze bit, which looks like a whole lot of fun and about as close as a human can get to actually flying, benefits from a pusling rock ‘n’ roll underscore.

Anthony Gatto and Danielle Gatto’s juggling — very Las Vegas with his silver lame jumpsuit and red-feather skirt — is old-fashioned and delightfully cheesy, but Anthony is such a skilled juggler, the cheese melts away and you’re left awed.

– The highwire act by the Dominguez family (with Flouber Sanchez, who is likely an honorary Dominguez), is also exciting. For much of the act there’s no net, and they’re not hooked to safety wires.

– The best act of the night is by far the “Wheel of Death” (pictured at the top of the review) Performed by Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza, the act involves what looks like a giant propeller, and at each end of the spinning arm is a round cage big enough for a man to run around in or on top of. I don’t often gasp or hide my eyes at circus stunts, but this one made me flinch and shriek like a little girl at a prize fight. Extraordinary.

As usual, the costumes (by Marie-Chantalle Vaillancourt) are gorgeous, and the lighting (by Martin Labrecque) couldn’t be any sharper.

It’s an exciting night under the big top — one that gives me a little more faith in Cirque du Soleil’s ability to keep jaded audience members such as myself coming back for more.

For information on Cirque, which has been extended in San Francisco through Jan. 20, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.