- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

We’re a long way from the kind of freewheeling street performance that was Cirque du Soleil’s hallmark when it was founded by accordionist and stilt walker Guy Laliberte in Quebec in 1984.

Fast forward 20 years and Cirque du Soleil’s multimillion dollar extravaganza, “Varekai,” playing in a blue-and-yellow striped onion-domed tent on the RFK Stadium grounds in Southeast Washington, still retains a good slice of its original warmth and offbeat humor.

This is an achievement for a show that is fast-paced, filled with eye-popping acrobatic feats and more than its share of glamour and glitz.

Underneath the hyped-up effects and showmanship there remains a sense of playful creativity. Highly skilled athletes dazzle with daring moves but the choreography adds another dimension, moving beyond technique into the world of imagination.

At times we not only fly empathetically into the air with the performers; our spirits soar, too.

Talented designers and directors make “Varekai” a visual feast, from the strikingly decorated, sleek Lycra bodysuits designed by Eiko Ishioka and worn by most of the show’s acrobats, to a towering bamboo forest created by Stephane Roy on which the performers appear and then vanish.

Violaine Corradi adds a wash of New Age world music that sets the mood and adds dramatic punch, with a booming beat underlying it all.

With nine shows appearing worldwide under the Cirque du Soleil banner, the company has honed a winning formula. It may be formulaic, but putting the focus on the individual talents of its cast members insures intriguing diversity.

Cirque du Soleil is Montreal-based but recruits its talent worldwide. There are contingents from Russia, Spain, Italy, Great Britain and Brazil.

Surprisingly only one Canadian is featured and he plays the key role of The Skywatcher, a comic interlocutor who threads through the story.

The action begins with Icarus (played by Anton Chelnokov from Russia) caught in a white fishnet, plummeting to earth only to swirl upward, swooping through the air in giant parabolas, using the fishnet as a sort of bungee cord. The effect is both poetic and gut-wrenchingly daring.

Many of the most captivating acts are performed in midair: two men suspended by wrist straps in amazing synchronized feats fraught with danger, full of last-minute catches or split-second parallel moves; four women high above, moving swiftly and precariously, but with stunning grace among three swings.

The pace keeps changing. Jordi Deambulants from Spain, hair slicked to a patent sheen, oils his way across the floor as a singer basking in the spotlight.

When the spotlight goes haywire he tries frantically to stay in its beam as the light moves erratically about the stage, then down to the footlights and up to the rafters with the singer in mad pursuit.

Two numbers had a decided dance element — a darting solo on crutches performed by Dergin Tokmak from Germany who had polio as a child; and a rousing Georgian dance performed in fiery style by a trio of natives from the Republic of Georgia.

There was a fast-paced, wild display of juggling — of balls, hats, anything he could lay his hands on — by Octavio Alegria of Mexico and an impressive finale by some brawny men from Russia and the Ukraine who used giant swings to catapult into space, hurtling through the air in summersaults and spread-eagle dives.

The thread of a story finds Icarus united at the end with his bethrothed, Irina Naumenko from Russia, dressed in a glittering white bodysuit.

Except when her act veered into contortionism she was fetching, performing miraculous balances on one hand while her body cantilevered to the side.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” will perform 10 shows a week through Oct. 24.

WHAT: Cirque du Soliel in “Varekai”

WHERE: Grounds of RFK Stadium, 2400 East Capitol Street SE

WHEN: Through Oct. 24, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 1and 5 p.m.

TICKETS: $38.50 to $75 depending on age

PHONE: 800/678-5440

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