Big Acts Under the Big Top Cirque du Soleil Raises the Blue-and-Yellow Roof at Staples
Twister is one of dozens of fantastical creatures inhabiting the otherworldly forest set of Cirque du Soleil's Varekai. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

The newest addition to the Downtown skyline that promises to be full of earth-shattering, jaw-dropping, mind-boggling entertainment isn't the much-ballyhooed multi-million dollar Walt Disney Concert Hall, but rather a tent.

Named the Grand Chapiteau, the yellow-and-blue pavilion set up in the Staples Center parking lot houses the Cirque du Soleil until Nov. 16. If you're not familiar with the troupe, whose current show is called Varekai, suffice to say it is vastly more entertaining and artistic than anything going on inside the Centre du Staples. The acrobatics and athleticism would make Kobe and Shaq jealous, the intricate teamwork would dethrone the Kings, and the incredibly outlandish costumes would make Cher look matronly.

The Canadian-based troupe first tasted international success when it staged its unique brand of circus acts, live music and performance art in Los Angeles in 1987. Now the company has eight different shows running worldwide, and expects to entertain more than 7 million people this year alone.

On opening night, audience members including Sylvester Stallone and Samuel L. Jackson were transfixed by the magic within the tent. Although there isn't a bad seat in the venue, no matter where you sit you'll still miss a lot of the action, because so many unbelievable things are going on simultaneously. It's impossible to catch them all. Cirque du Soleil does not employ animals, but some of Varekai's performers are dressed as fantastical creatures as the show opens on an otherworldly forest set. As a trapeze act occurs high above, other players inhabit the stage in eye-catching garb, while another group ascends a stairway to the top of the tent, and still more climb "trees" in the background.

Varekai, which means "wherever" in the Romany language of the gypsies, tells the story of a young man (Anton Chelnokov) who loses his wings, like the legend of Icarus. He ends up hanging high above the stage with a net. Unfortunately for him, the net is not below him - he's dangling from it. The Russian performs the first of the night's many high-flying costumed acts that sparkle in their originality and artistry. As the story (written and directed by Dominic Champagne) unfolds, four women intertwine and interact acrobatically on a trapeze that's only big enough for three. Twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton of the U.K. sail synchronized through the air held only by waist straps and by each other. Acrobats perform human juggling, catapulting, flipping and catching each other more times than the dazed and amazed audience can count.

Adding to each act's degree of difficulty is the live seven-piece band. The performers don't have a moment to catch their breath, or let a muscle relax before the next grueling maneuver. When Olga Pikhienko from Russia contorts her body while supporting all of her weight on one hand, there isn't even a muscle quiver visible through her skin-tight costume.

Also entertaining are the clowns. Brazilian Claudio Carneiro and Canadian Mooky Cornish break up the storyline with their hilarious vignettes. French is utilized a few times, but my ignorance of the language in no way hampered my enjoyment of the show. The only things that did bother me were the cries of the young boy in front of me who was frightened by the dark side of Varekai; his complaints ended only when his guardian took him outside. This is not a Disney performance, and may not be appropriate for young children.

Today's audiences are used to cinematic special effects, which allow humans to appear superhuman. It is absolutely awe-inspiring to watch these performers defy the laws of gravity and physics, and perform stunts one wouldn't think humans could accomplish.

Varekai runs through Nov. 16 at the Staples Center Parking Lot #2. Tickets are $60-$80 for adults; $42-$56 for children 12 and under. (800) 678-5440 or

(page 14, 09/22/03)

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