"Varekai," the 13th production from Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil, faces a problem born of the company's massive success. In recent years, the company's touring shows have had a hard time matching the level of dazzle found in Cirque's sit-down attractions. The latest show, directed by company newcomer Dominic Champagne, is no exception.

“Varekai,” the 13th production from Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil, faces a problem born of the company’s massive success. In recent years, the company’s touring shows have had a hard time matching the level of dazzle found in Cirque’s sit-down attractions in Las Vegas and Disney World. The latest show, directed by company newcomer Dominic Champagne, is no exception.

When Cirque first burst onto the scene in 1984, it was a refreshing concept: a circus free from animals, sawdust and sleaze. Instead of a cheap carnival atmosphere, it offered something sleeker and finer, with a continental flavor. It became the perfect entertainment for indulgent boomers and their families.

As the years went on, this brainchild of Guy Laliberte grew more and more impressive. Lighting, costumes, sets and music all became part of a seamless whole, and by the mid-’90s, shows such as “Alegria” had reached a breathtaking level of artistry.

But it’s hard to keep reinventing the wheel, even if that wheel is a unicycle ridden 200 feet in the air. Cirque du Soleil’s solution was to create permanent homes where it could mount sit-down runs of even more spectacular shows.

This led to “Mystere” and “O” in Las Vegas (two more are on the way there) and “La Nouba” in Walt Disney World, all of which have proved to be phenomenal success stories.

It’s difficult to maintain that ever-increasing level of excitement with the touring shows, however.

Champagne, Montreal’s avant-garde staging wizard best known for his productions at Theatre du Nouveau Monde, has shaken up the format slightly, imbuing it with increased sensuality and losing some of the artsy preciousness that pushed shows like “Saltimbanco” over the edge.

On the other hand, the thematic thread running through “Varekai” seems more tenuous than that of some of its predecessors. Not all the elements are well integrated. A young man named Icarus falls to Earth, loses his wings and is forced to wander through a surreal forest full of vagabonds and gypsies. (“Varekai” means “wherever” in the Romany language.) At the end of his journey, he encounters a spirit of light named Olga and marries her.

All of this, of course, is just a framework on which to hang, admittedly, some of the most dazzling acts Cirque has ever produced. The Atherton Brothers (Andrew and Kevin) perform an amazing display called “Aerial Straps,” in which they swing perilously above the arena suspended by leather wrist bands, uniting into one being, then dividing and hurtling into space.

Olga Pikhienko brings sheer poetry to her hand-balancing on canes, in which she folds her body back and forth into ever more unlikely configurations. And Octavio Alegria stretches the juggling envelope enormously, utilizing his hands, feet, head and — most memorably — mouth. There are also astonishing group displays of Body Skating and work on the gravity-defying Russian Swings that has to be seen to be believed.

But in between, there are pedestrian slices of testosterone-charged Russian dancing that could have wandered in from “The Ed Sullivan Show,” some young Chinese jugglers who are not quite good enough and a pair of clowns recycling ancient material from “La plume de ma tante.” Director Champagne also doesn’t seem to know how to keep the narrative thread together — tenuous though it is — and young Icarus (who is sensitively portrayed by an amazing Russian contortionist named Anton Chelnokov) frequently vanishes from our sight for far too long.

The wedding finale is vintage Cirque du Soleil, an explosion of sound and color, in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It leaves the audience in a blissed-out state of exaltation; the totally sold-out Toronto run is a testimony to the positive feelings it engenders. Still, “Varekai” proves the franchise needs a strong directorial hand.


Ontario Place, Toronto; 2,800 seats; $54.40 C$85 top

  • Production: A Cirque du Soleil production in two acts. Directed by Dominic Champagne. Choreography, Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon.
  • Crew: Set, Stephane Roy; costumes, Eiko Ishioka; lighting, Nol Van Genuchten; music, Violaine Corradi; sound, Francois Bergeron. Director of creation, Andrew Watson. Opened, reviewed Aug. 1, 2002. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Icarus - Anton Chelnokov Olga - Olga Pikhienko The Guide - Rodrigue Proteau The Skywatcher - John Gilkey The Patriarch - Mathieu Lavoie The Muse - Zara Tellander The Clowns - Claudio Carneiro, Mooky Cornish <b>With:</b> Octavio Alegria, Alexei Anikine, Andrew Atherton, Kevin Atherton, Helen Ball, Roni Bello, Stiv Bello, Vasily Besha, Cinthia Beranek, He Bin, Sergei Bodrovnyk, Badria Essatia, Serguei Gagarine, Vladimir Ignatenkov, Olga Ivanov, Yang Junping, Raquel Karro, Irinia Koliktstionova, Teimur Koridge, Maxim Levantsevich, Polina Lymareva, Valentin Menjega, Roumech Mourtazov, Anna Ostapenko, Oleg Ouchakov, Vadim Podoleanu, Sergei Rissouev, Javier Santos, Ramon Santos, Pedro Santos, Susanna Defraia Scalas, Li Siguang, Valerii Simonenko, Evgueni Tarakanov, Zoey Tedstill, Khivicha Tetvadze, Stella Umeh, Sergei Volodine, Andrei Yakolev, Igor Zoloutoukhine.