Now that they’re returning to the South Street Seaport for the third consecutive summer, the burlesque circus acts that anchor Spiegelworld are challenged by their own legacy. Will this year’s half-naked acrobats be different from last year’s? Are there new ways to utilize the Spiegeltent where the shows are performed? Judging by “Desir,” the new erotic variety show that joins returning favorite “Absinthe,” the answer is, “Sort of.”
There are individual moments when “Desir” feels entirely fresh, serving up routines that demand gasps and applause. Since the show is only 80 minutes long, these highlights are enough to keep things interesting. Yet the larger frame of the piece — directed by Spiegelworld fixture Wayne Harrison — recycles the kinky-comic vibe of “Absinthe” and the outre stylization of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film “Moulin Rouge,” with which it shares a choreographer, John “Cha Cha” O’Connell.
The nominal story takes us backstage at a 1920s-era French nightclub, where performers, maharajahs and a naughty sailor meet for a variety of trysts. Some characters are modeled after historical figures like Josephine Baker and the aviatrix Raymonde de Laroche, but except for the odd detail, costumer David Quinn dresses everyone the same. Women wear a predictable collection of spangly bodices, while men sport tight pants.
The musical palette is also predictable, with modern pop songs cheekily shoved into the period aesthetic.
Plus, just like “Absinthe” and last year’s Spiegelworld offering ”La Vie,” the show suffers from sloppy storytelling. The program names each scene (“The Baroness and the Officers,” “The Cat and the Maharajah”), but the titles rarely match what’s onstage. You could go mad trying to decide if acrobat Antoine Auger is embodying Art, Life or exercise guru Joseph Pilates.
The Pilates joke arrives seconds after a haunting piece about Death (Raphaelle Boitel), and moments before an actual cat walks a tightrope. These are jarring tonal shifts, and they disrupt the flow of the acts.
It’s best to focus on the parts, not the whole. In a universally talented ensemble, standouts include acrobats Marieve Hemond and Annie-Kim Dehry. Their routine in an “aerial square” — a floating, rectangular frame — has them hanging off each other like hooks and performing mid-air flips in unison. Their grace and focus add intense emotion to their physical display, letting them embody the trust and faith of passionate love.
For sheer spectacle, the crown goes to a quartet of Russian tumblers called Evolution. To warm up, they create a human pyramid that involves balancing on someone’s neck with one hand, and for a chaser, 15-year-old Anton Smirnov does a mid-air somersault off a teammate’s shoulders and lands in a standing position on the outstretched hands of another.
Moves like that have little to do with French nightclubs, but they are the reasons to see “Desir.”