- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Icarus, legend has it, failed miserably after taking flight, falling to his death when his man-made wings of wax and feathers melted under the sun’s lethal glare. Things turn out better for Icare, the character at the heart of “Varekai,” Cirque du Soleil’s new multimillion dollar extravaganza, which settles in for a monthlong stay beginning Thursday at RFK Stadium.

Like his mythical namesake, Icare soars into the heavens, but instead of spiraling into the Aegean Sea, he free falls into a magical forest (at the summit of a volcano) filled with enchanted creatures and foliage, including more than 20 acrobatic “trees.”

If only Icarus had been so lucky.

On the other hand, this is Cirque du Soleil — which in its magical merging of circus with theater, has convinced audiences that just about anything is possible.

“Varekai,” one of nine Cirque productions on two continents, is no exception.

“From the moment the creators get together, it takes about a year to mount a production,” set designer Stephane Roy says of “Varekai’s” 15-member creative team, which includes costume designer Eiko Ishioka, an Oscar-winner for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and a Tony Award-winner for “M. Butterfly.”

“Each show is totally different and is uniquely tailored to individual talents,” notes Cirque’s artistic director Nicolette Naum, who last week joined Mr. Roy on an advance swing through Washington to talk up “Varekai” and the 57 performers (many are former Olympians) in 130 visually arresting costumes who will bring the show’s vision to life over the course of 21/2 hours.

Among the specialty acts: the flight of Icarus (Russian aerialist Anton Chelnokov), intertwining body skating, the triple trapeze and water meteors featuring Chinese acrobats Liu Xin Xin, Wang Yue, Wang Zhin Zhen and Zhang Chen.

Clowns Jordi Deambulants and Joanna Holden provide comic relief, and composer Violaine Corradi’s rock-infused score, complete with chorus, runs throughout the colorful and engaging tapestry of wonderment.

Yet for all its fanfare, “Varekai’s” message, at heart, is a simple one: Can’t we all just get along, recognize our own unique differences and pool our talent?

The question seems timely as Americans observe the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

“The space where they are, the people are survivors,” Miss Naum says of “Varekai,” which means “wherever” in the Romany language of the gypsies. “They need each other. All have different skills. Some have better skills than others. [But] we all have to be together. It’s really about when humans gather together, the power they can generate.”

Speaking of power, Cirque has certainly generated its own steam, heating up the traditional view of the circus — drama is a key factor, and there are no animal acts — since its debut 20 years ago.

Its growth has been staggering. Growing from a handful of street performers in 1984, the Canadian company now employs nearly 3,000 (600 artists from 40 countries and 1,200 workers at its Montreal headquarters) and has been seen by an estimated 42 million people — including 7 million in 2003 — in 90 cities worldwide.

The secret of Cirque’s success? “We love what we do,” Miss Naum says.

There have also been a few missteps. The company came under fire last year when it dismissed Alexandria native Matthew Cusick after the gymnast tested positive for HIV. They later offered to reinstate the performer, but he refused.

Company officials have said in published reports that they “didn’t have all the knowledge on what HIV is and how it’s transmitted.”

“What makes this company special is taking risks,” says Mr. Roy, who also acknowledges the danger involved in some of Cirque’s acts. Hence, the life-saving equipment on hand for every show and the intensive training that’s required of all performers.

“But taking risks always comes with being creative.”

WHAT: Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai”

WHERE: RFK Stadium, 2400 East Capitol St. SE

WHEN: Thursday through Oct. 24. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 4 and 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 1 and 5 p.m. on Sundays.

TICKETS: $55 to $75 for adults, $38.50 to $52.50 for youngsters age 2 through 12, and $49.50 to $67.50 for students and seniors.

INFORMATION: 800/678-5440

WEB SITE: www.cirquedusoleil.com

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