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Cirque Du Soleil: Saltimbanco

Spooky masked, long-snouted clowns who look as if they might have arrived from outtakes of "Brazil" weave through the audience creating hilarity as a blue Alice-in-Wonderland cat-like mime prances on a shrouded white stage. The shroud is sucked through a hole in the sky as a rock band, beneath a stained-glass-like green canopy, launches into a pulsating song, and a caped, snake-haired master of ceremonies enters.

Spooky masked, long-snouted clowns who look as if they might have arrived from outtakes of “Brazil” weave through the audience creating hilarity as a blue Alice-in-Wonderland cat-like mime prances on a shrouded white stage. The shroud is sucked through a hole in the sky as a rock band, beneath a stained-glass-like green canopy, launches into a pulsating song, and a caped, snake-haired master of ceremonies enters.

So begins Cirque du Soleil’s fifth anniversary show, “Saltimbanco,” which means “skilled street performers and travelling acrobats.” The evening proves that success has not spoiled the artful, enchanting and lyrical troupe.

Once again the Canadian-based company demonstrates they operate with different rules of gravity and musculature while melding circus with dance, music and theater.

If one has never been to Cirque du Soleil, be prepared to redefine the meaning of “circus.” Without animal acts or three rings, and based solely on human exuberance and physicality, the performers enthrall with one act after another, seamlessly joined by stage hands whose costumes, choreography and clown antics are events in themselves.

Each act is a madeleine to be cherished and remembered as a beautiful sight that passes all too soon.

The show has a different flavor than last year’s “Nouvelle Experience,” whose fog, lighting and acoustic music had more of a timeless feel. “Saltimbanco” gives a harder edge with its electronic music and performers who appear anonymous and unisexed behind masks, white-face and leotards that swallow them from head to foot. The show is different, but the lyricism and sense of wonder remain.

In this year of questions of what is family, three acts in particular answer in a kind of visual poetry. In the opening act, Nikolai Tchelnokov, his wife Galina Karableva and their six-year-old son, Anton, perform contortion acrobatic marvels that join them like rose petals to a stem. One senses their constant physical connection speaks of love and interdependence.

Later on, the heavily muscled brothers Marco and Paulo Lorador execute a series of hand-to-hand balancing and gymnastic movements that combine grace with strenuous tests of endurance. The trust one has for the other permeates the performance.

Before them, 17-year-old twin sisters Karyne and Sarah Steben perform 50 feet up on a single trapeze like synchronized swimmers of the air.

As in past shows, most of the routines offer such a simple setting that less is more. Fifteen gymnasts take to four 20-foot poles–“Chinese poles” based on the traditional Chinese circus–and appear as if they’re made up of steel wire and feathers. A juggler, Miguel Herrera, performs on an acrylic set of stairs.

Jingmin Wang walks up a guy wire to a set of uneven tightropes where she dances, jumps, even flips from a unicycle onto her feet.

Two lithe young women, Ann Bernard and Helene Lemay, in flame-colored suits, perform a Spanish flamenco using Argentine “boleadoras”–hard balls on a string that hit the floor–to dance to the accompaniment of percussionist Francois Beausoleil.

The funniest act on opening night was when clown Rene Bazinet, performing mime with self-produced sound effects, ensnared a denim-dressed man from the audience to join him. The man warmed to the clown’s wordless mime lessons, and they enacted eating bananas, slipping on the peels, and, in inspired shenanigans , a shootout at high noon.

The evening ends in a bungee ballet, with four aerial acrobats who, connected to bungee cords and working off of trapezes 50 feet up, fly over and under each other and eventually connect like parachutists in a display.

With them flies the voice of singer Francine Poitras, in operatic splendor. Poitras lends her vocal talents at several points throughout the show.

The highly creative set by Michel Crete unifies all the other elements and allows the performers and stage hands to slip into a backlit horizon.

The light design and special effects by Luc Lafortune and the sound design by Jonathan Deans maintain the high standard of previous Cirque du Soleil shows–to the point it can spoil other circuses.

Costume designer Dominique Lemieux seems to have an unstoppable and vibrant imagination that combines commedia dell’arte clowns with sprites of various sorts to create swirling spirits of color. Rene Dupere’s score carries the show and one’s emotions to the heights.

Cirque Du Soleil: Saltimbanco

(Santa Monica Pier; $ 35.50 top; 2,500 seats)

Production: Les Productions du Cirque du Soleil presents a circus in two acts. Creative director, Gilles Ste-Croix. Directed by Franco Dragone.

Creative: Set design, Michel Crete; costume design, Dominique Lemieux; choreography, Debra Brown; light and special effects design, Luc Lafortune; sound design, Jonathan Deans; music composition, Rene Dupere. Announcer, Alain Gauthier. Opened and reviewed Oct. 8, 1992.

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