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Dralion

No longer the little Canadian circus that could, Cirque du Soleil, now a brand name, runs seven different productions simultaneously throughout the world. Several are anchored for long-term runs. To keep topping itself, to continue finding new talent and ideas, it must search everywhere for inspiration, so it makes perfect sense for Cirque du Soleil to look East for its newest show, "Dralion," which borrows heavily from Chinese traditions and melds them into an eclectic celebration of the global melting pot at the turn of the millennium. If it's not as surprisingly inventive and awe-inspiring as previous Cirque shows at the Santa Monica Pier, it's still just as spectacular, exuberant, and downright delightful.

No longer the little Canadian circus that could, Cirque du Soleil, now a brand name, runs seven different productions simultaneously throughout the world. Several are anchored for long-term runs. To keep topping itself, to continue finding new talent and ideas, it must search everywhere for inspiration, so it makes perfect sense for Cirque du Soleil to look East for its newest show, “Dralion,” which borrows heavily from Chinese traditions and melds them into an eclectic celebration of the global melting pot at the turn of the millennium. If it’s not as surprisingly inventive and awe-inspiring as previous Cirque shows at the Santa Monica Pier, it’s still just as spectacular, exuberant, and downright delightful.

The slow-moving, spare images that provided such striking dreamscapes in “Quidam” and “Mystere” give way in “Dralion” to a kind of foot-stomping, multicultural carnival. The colorful Chinese dragons appearing throughout, each performed by two humans working in wonderful unison, seem for a while to be purely atmospheric in function. But soon they’re performing acrobatic stunts of their own — to music that resembles nothing so much as the sounds of a country hoedown. This kind of cultural juxtaposition is repeated many times, with, for example, an African dancer conjuring an act of young Asian acrobats diving through hoops as Gaelic-inspired music keeps the rhythm.

The show revels in its inconsistency of time as well as place. The back wall of the stage provides a futuristic, golden grid, and at times performers climb all over it as if they were spiders preparing a web. At other moments, the show seems to take the audience back in time, using imagery more classical in nature. What does remain consistent is the sense of festivity.

The most remarkable of the acrobatics come from 13-year-old Peng Rui of China, who contorts her body while balancing herself on one hand for a shocking length of time. Some of the other acts, however, are a bit underwhelming, although that could be because the show is still early in its run. There are definitely some rough edges to be worked out in the double trapeze act and in the hoop diving, both of which, especially the latter, could eventually become crowd favorites. The teeterboard, where the acrobats are propelled up onto one another’s shoulders, is performed here entirely by women. Another group of five Asian women also perform a ballet on light bulbs, an act that is beautiful to watch but seems intended to come across more impressively than it does.

That the pageantry, rather than the acrobatics, is more the focus here points out both the strengths and potential weaknesses of Cirque du Soleil.

“Dralion” is actually the company’s third new show to premiere in the last year, and it’s questionable whether it can keep up its very high standards at this pace. Already, the focus seems to have shifted somewhat from group to individual acts. Will the always-amusing clowning, the gorgeous design work and the grandeur be enough to attract the audiences if the acrobatics themselves are no longer as awesome? Or will Gilles Ste-Croix, the troupe’s new director of creation, render the question moot by finding the next new human wonders of the world?

For now, at least, there’s a party to go to. “Dralion” celebrates life on Earth, including beasts both big and small, flying and crawling, past and present. If the images don’t stay in one’s head as long as those from “Quidam,” the pleasant feeling still lingers long after leaving the big top.

Dralion

Santa Monica Pier; 2,500 seats; $55 top

Production: A Cirque du Soleil presentation of a performance in two acts. Director of creation, Gilles Ste-Croix. Directed by Guy Caron. Set, Stéphane Roy; costumes, François Barbeau; composer, Violaine Corradi; choreography, Julie Lachance; sound, Guy Descrochers; lighting, Michel Beaulieu; clown act co-designer, Michel Daillaire; lighting adaptation, Luc Lafortune. Opened Sept. 23, 1999, reviewed Sept. 24. Runs through Nov. 7. Running time: 3 HOURS

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