Royal Albert Hall, London SW7
Opened 8 January, 2004

In the twenty years since its inception, Cirque du Soleil has grown from a small group of alternative circus practitioners to a huge global enterprise with three permanent shows in Las Vegas alone, quite apart from various touring presentations. Watching the European première of the Montréal-based company's latest show, Dralion, at the Royal Albert Hall, it's easy to see why. In conception, design and performance, it's a breathtaking spectacle almost from start to finish.

Cirque du Soleil use no animals; it's all about what the human body can do. That and whatever theme is selected for a particular show. With Dralion, it's sort of generally Chinese (the title comes from the company's hybrid version of the dragons and lions seen in Chinese circus), with simultaneous nods to various other cultures across the globe, and a live score which takes the term "world music" to extremes. There's also some broad impressionistic reference to the harmony of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, with the various acts wearing colour-coded costumes to symbolise their allegiances. (Although it escapes me why, for instance, the troupe of almost pocket-sized female Chinese teeterboard acrobats, propelled on to one another's shoulders from a spring-loaded see-saw, are clad in green for water.)

On a set including a vast hi-tech climbing-board backdrop and a disc-shaped gantry that descends from the Albert Hall's dome, a succession of balancing, gymnastic, tumbling and aerial acts engage in a dazzling presentation. The action blends seamlessly, so that in a moment we progress from the relatively languorous beauty of the aerial pas de deux a couple suspended overhead on a band of blue cloth to a high-speed frenzy of diving through hoops. It's all quite remarkable.

And really rather bloodless. The element of spectacle is so predominant that it diminishes the impression of humanity which should be at the core of these feats. I said above that it's about the human body, but seldom during Dralion did I experience a fundamental sense of physicality, of bodies locked in contention with nature, with gravity or whatever. This partakes of the nature of dance rather than combat.

Sometimes the dance is magnificent. Ukrainian juggler Victor Kee remakes the act into a magical solo ballet, concerned less with keeping up to seven balls in the air than with fitting his body in amid their movement, as the balls leap and slide between his hands, feet, head and back. Only at one other point did I feel that basic physical engagement: as with Kee, it wasn't one of the high-speed or high-danger acts, but Marie-Ève Bisson's routine with the hibana, a large single hoop. Wrapping her body around this abstract geometrical shape, she conveys a bodily passion almost entirely absent elsewhere. With circus, we have to smell the sweat, as it were, but here it's been sprayed away.

This may also explain why so many people, myself included, find the periodic appearances of a quartet of clowns so tiresome. They're obviously talented, but their act is rooted in an earthier conception of circus which the rest of the show implicitly disavows. This is designer circus, or, better, nouvelle circus: like nouvelle cuisine, it's a beautiful, exotic arrangement of original ingredients, expertly prepared and presented; you contemplate it with unbridled admiration, but there's curiously little to actually get your teeth into.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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