Circus Maximus

The artful Cirque du Soleil performs Quidam

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In the parking lot of St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, encamped beneath the newly erected blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau big top, the staff of Quidam (pronounced "key-dam") prepares for its opening Nov. 7, Cirque's premiere in the Bay area.

Quidam is Latin for an anonymous passerby, a stranger rushing past on a crowded street. And if there's one lesson that can be drawn from watching the inimitable production it's that every so often we all need to take a break from our lives of faceless interaction to enjoy a bit of fantasy.

In a vivid series of tableaus, a young girl, disillusioned by a meaningless world, is swept into a spectacular universe: a headless man carrying an umbrella, a daffy ringmaster with just a poof of hair on the crown of his head, astonishing acrobatic acts, jugglers and a burlesque clown trio.

The set is gray and urban-esque, dominated by a bridge-like conveyor that transports performers and props overhead. A live soundtrack of haunting industrial sounds and French rock hurries the pace of everything, incorporating classical string instruments, synthesizers, samplers and guitars. But the acts' tremendous color and vibrancy play off of these subtle melancholy touches.

Artistic director Serge Roy explains that sadness is only part of Quidam. "We want to bring reality to the show," he says. "And how can you have happiness without some sadness?"

The show's creative team, led by director Franco Dragone, is the same one that conceived Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas-based shows "O" and Mystere, La Nouba at Walt Disney World-Orlando, Alegria and Saltimbanco.

Roy is faced with the task of upholding Cirque's world-renowned reputation for elegance and the unexpected, which he does by visiting all of the various productions and offering bits of coaching.

His history with Cirque goes back to its dawning.

In 1982, in the rural artist's village of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, a group of young street performers called Club des Talons Hauts (the High Heels Club) began mixing regularly with crowds of tourists and artists, walking on stilts, juggling and eating fire. In 1984, Guy Laliberte, a multitalented artist among them, convinced the Quebec government to grant the club money to hold a street festival, the Fete Foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul, a precursor of Cirque du Soleil. And from then on Laliberte, as co-president, built upon the innovative concept of mixing circus arts, street entertainment and drama.

Roy joined in 1984 and worked as a backstage manager.

He also performed a bit, ice skating on stilts and pretending to be an unsuspecting member of the audience who gets doused by a bucket of paint.

Cirque du Soleil shows have evolved dramatically since then. Roy cites Quidam's Banquine act, 15 Slavic acrobats who lift and throw one another into human pyramids. 'they"re maniacs," he says. "Next to these guys, I"m not much."

Equally impressive is the German Wheel, in which a gymnast stands inside a metal wheel that's 6-and-a-half feet in diameter, acting as a human hub, doing somersaults and maneuvering it in stunts that resemble the lid of an aluminum garbage can rolling on its rim, tilting and falling in fast centrifugal spins.

Other acts are less impressive only because the artists perform them so effortlessly. Aerial Contortion in Silk is performed by a contortionist named Isabelle Chasse. She embraces and hangs from a column of translucent red fabric, intertwining with it and changing poses in the fashion of modern dance. She's so graceful, though, it's easy to underestimate the strength the exercise requires.

German Wheel and Contortion in Silk are two acts in common with La Nouba, a show familiar to many in Central Florida. It opened in 1998 at Disney World, and is scheduled to run at its permanent site there through 2010.

But the style and staging of the two shows is rather different. La Nouba originates from the French phrase "faire la nouba," meaning to live it up. And the show has a party-like atmosphere that is contrary to that of Quidam.

Further separating the two shows are Quidam's eight other unique acts. These include Cloud Swing and Spanish Web, in which artists perform trapeze and acrobatics high above the stage. The Las Velasquez clown trio creates a joyful spectacle in the tradition of Latin clowning. And in Statue Vis Versa, a powerful, flexible couple balance and press themselves into positions resembling Leonardo da Vinci's 1940 drawing "Le proporzioni del corpo umano" (The proportions of the human body).

The international cast that performs these acts totals more than 50, hailing from 10 countries. And if watching the show makes you want to be part of it than you"ve got something in common with them.

"Many of the artists caught the show and were absorbed by it," Roy says. "(They) joined a circus, built an act and sent in a tape."

Cirque happens to have job openings posted on their Web site for all manner of positions, both onstage and offstage, from physiotherapist to rigger to gymnast to master archer, all sure to draw somebody away from a normal 9-to-5 job.

The seamless beauty and spectacle of Quidam — the lighting, costumes, choreography, tricks, acting and music — is perfect, surreal escapism. All that keeps more people from running away to join the Cirque is the realization of how hard it is to make it all look so easy.

Contact Events Editor Cooper Cruz at 813-248-8888, ext. 291, or e-mail him at [email protected].