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September 29, 2011

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Cirque du Soleil shines bright

CIRQUE du Soleil is mesmerizing audiences nightly with its mix of circus arts and street entertainment, this time about contrasts and contradictions in Shanghai.

The popular show "Saltimbanco" ("Street Performer") by the famed Canadian company is underway at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Pudong through Saturday night. It was extended by a week.

"Saltimbanco" sets up a series of seemingly urban contradictions, such as the powerful and the powerless living side by side, which seems a natural topic for a diverse and multicultural city such as Shanghai.

"Saltimbanco" is the Cirque du Soleil's oldest and one of its most popular performances, one that has gone through many variations over the years due to changing times, changing technologies and changing performers, says artistic director Neelanthi Vadivel.

Adapting to the vast Mercedes-Benz Arena and huge stage required changes in the show, such as replacing a high-wire act with an acrobatic bicycle act.

The core of "Saltimbanco" is unchanged.

"We keep reminding ourselves that "Saltimbanco" was inspired by street performers," says Vadivel, "There were no special effects or crazy dressing, just the artists and what they could do. That's what makes the show special and inspires us in many other shows."

Shanghai Daily speaks with three artists in the international cast of 51 musicians and performers.

The clown Eddie

Martin Pons, from Argentina

Eddie is a boy with lots of imagination, trying to escape a big house and a big city. Wearing a red cap, black bow tie, striped shorts and suspenders, he finds adventure in his own imagination.

He's always at play, he turns into a cowboy and then a baseball player - he can be anything. He moves easily between the world of "Saltimbanco," the street performer, and the "real" world, on and off the stage.

In the performance - much of it spontaneous - he tries to get the audience to join him and have fun on stage.

"The idea is to invite people to play, and I do the same thing in every city," says Argentinian Martin Pons who plays Eddie. "But because of different cultures and backgrounds, people react differently in different cities."

In China, he says, people laugh a lot when he does things like touching other people's hair or brushing his armpit. "But in Europe, they don't laugh at that," he says.

He first scans the audience and tries to make eye contact with people who might have the spirit of play. Sometimes he's wrong, and those who seem expressive are very shy. He says some are shaking or shocked when they're invited on stage to be watched by so many people.

Pons deliberately chooses adults more often to remind them of the spirit of play, which many have long forgotten.

"Some people don't know how to play when I start a game; they just copy me. But play should be more interactive. If you kick a ball, you want it to be kicked back," he says.

Of course, some people in Shanghai are very playful.

"They want to play and they are so smart and so fast that I sometimes don't have time to play and have to stop them."

Pons doesn't speak English well and of course he doesn't speak Chinese, but play doesn't depend on words.

"Kids don't need words to play," he says. "They don't need to be told that they are soldiers or cowboys. No words, just acts."

The Baron

Gerard Theoret, from Canada

The imposing Baron plays a guiding role, ringmaster delivering monologues on the action in a made-up language. He is ageless, timeless and tells tales from the past. He wears a black and white striped cape, long red gloves and a top hat perched atop serpentine hair. He uses a beguiling voice to welcome people to the world of "Saltimbanco."

The Baron is crazy and dreamy, Theoret is quite down-to-earth. "Whenever people ask my age, I say I am older than anyone else in the show but also wiser," he says.

Before joining Cirque du Soleil in 2007, Theoret was a farmer, ballet dancer, actor and university professor of dance, all contributing to his role as the Baron. He was artistic director for the Cirque du Soleil show "Coreto" (Italian for "funeral"), which was anything but a grim affair.

"People ask the meaning of some words I repeatedly say in the show," says Theoret, "but there's no clear answer and everything the Barson says is a made-up language, with word meanings changing every day."

They change with his tone and body language.

Memorizing the script is difficult but Theoret was taught by the actor who originated the role and wrote the monologues - "he told me what he felt everything meant."

Trapeze artists

Twin sisters Gabriele Janke and Julia Janke, from Germany

The twins joined Cirque du Soleil six months ago, and China is their second show; their first was in Australia.

They sway on a trapeze high above the audience and perform an aerial ballet of beauty and harmony. Each appears to be part of the whole.

They're not afraid.

"We trust the safety arrangements and swaying in the sky as trapeze artists has always been our dream," says Gabriele. "We always have great respect for heights and for doing all kinds of freaky things."

They find the Chinese audience to be rather subdued, compared with spectators in other countries.

"They don't freak out a lot when we do freaky things, but they seem to enjoy the show," says Julia.

Having a twin is comforting.

"Our lives are not so steady and we travel around. It's nice to have at least one constant partner with you," says Julia.


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