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Where art and athletics collide

In Alegria, Cirque du Soleil creates a surreal world of music, metaphor and motion. There's no place these performers would rather be.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published February 15, 2004

[Photos: Bill Cooke ]
Gymnast Jason Berrent: “For what I do, this is the best place. The most elite. I think anything else, using my talent, would be a step down.”

Isabelle Corradi is one of two singers in Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria.

Karl Sanft comes from a fire-knife dancing family. His parents had a Polynesian show in which he and his brothers learned the traditional South Seas dance, with fiery variations.
Ulziibayar “Ulzii” Chimed has been the contortionist in Alegria since the show’s premiere in 1994.
Isabelle Corradi, born in Italy and raised in Montreal, is a mezzo soprano whose mother was an opera singer. Corradi’s sister composed the scores for the Cirque shows Dralion and Varekai.

MIAMI - Going to a Cirque du Soleil show can be disorienting, beginning with the site of the Grand Chapiteau. Because the company's blue-and-yellow big top, the artists' training tent, the touring village of trailers and other facilities require a vast expanse of asphalt, a Cirque show tends to be located in a less than glamorous part of town.

In Miami, where Alegria played in January, the show was set up in scruffy downtown Bicentennial Park (right across a canal from the American Airlines Arena where, coincidentally, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was playing at the same time). In St. Petersburg, where Alegria (Spanish for jubilation) opens this week, Cirque pitches its tents in the parking lot of Tropicana Field.

Though the contrast between the mundane reality outside the big top and the dazzling dream world inside is not really calculated, it only enhances the surrealistic Cirque experience.

The Montreal-based company works hard to maintain that sort of mystique, but on a balmy afternoon early in the Alegria run in Miami, its site had a laid-back workaday feel. About a dozen children and young people, either in the show or the offspring of cast and crew, attended classes in schoolroom trailers, receiving close personal attention from four teachers using the Quebec curriculum.

Amid racks of costumes, props and footwear, a seamstress and shoemaker made repairs. A Cirque publicist tried to shake loose tickets from the box office to that night's sold-out show for Sting and his entourage, in Miami for a concert.

Around 4 p.m., performers began trickling in to exercise in a tent equipped with weights, mats and other workout equipment, get a massage, have a meal in the dining trailer and put their makeup and costumes on for the show.

In pleasant but carefully controlled interviews, with a tour publicist always close at hand, four members of the Alegria cast talked about what it's like being a part of the Cirque juggernaut.

Karl Sanft, Fire-Knife Dance

Karl Sanft was fire dancing at Walt Disney World near Orlando when he auditioned with Cirque. His father, a show business veteran, cautioned him about leaving the security of Disney. But the lure of the road was too strong.

"I like the travel," Sanft said. "Right now I feel like I don't really want to settle down. I was at Disney for a long time, and while I was there I thought I'd never be able to travel again. Now I'm looking forward to when Alegria goes to Japan and Europe."

Sanft, 41, is a family man, and his wife and five children travel with the show. The youngest child is 2, the oldest is 17, and they go from city to city in the United States in a 15-passenger Ford van, with dad at the wheel.

"I would say the hardest thing for me is the packing. I think there were 18 pieces of luggage the last time we packed," he said.

Sanft, part Samoan and Tongan, got his start as a fire-knife dancer in his parents' Polynesian show in California, following in the hot-footed steps of his father and older brothers. The act is rooted in a traditional South Seas dance that was done only with knives.

"It was a war dance, kind of like psyching yourself up to go to battle," Sanft said. "I've always done fire. It's more spectacular visually."

Sanft's performance, in Alegria's first act, puts a premium on hand-eye coordination as he twirls the flaming knives. "You've got to keep moving so you don't get burned," he said. "I think one of the major things is that the constant motion of the knife keeps you from getting burned. I've had my shirt burned. I get a lot of little burns on my hands. I think the worst has been a pretty bad burn on my back."

And then there are the practical tricks of the trade. After some experimentation, Sanft has found that Coleman camp stove fuel works best.

"We used to use unleaded gasoline, but that was really smoky," he said. "The reason why I went to Coleman's is because it burns cleaner. If I used unleaded inside the tent, it would be filled with black smoke."

Jason Berrent, Fast Track

Quidam was the first Cirque show Jason Berrent saw, as a 12-year-old in the Washington, D.C., area. He had been a gymnast since age 5, and went on to become a member of the U.S. national trampoline and tumbling team, with the possibility of competing for a place in the 2004 Olympics. But then Cirque called.

"This is just an opportunity I couldn't pass up," said Berrent, 20, who has been in the cast of Alegria since September. "For what I do, this is the best place. The most elite. I think anything else, using my talent, would be a step down."

Berrent is part of the House Troupe in a spectacular number called Fast Track, in which 14 men and women in gold lame perform flips and other acrobatics on an X-shaped trampoline built into the stage.

After a lifetime in sports, Berrent was trained in theater and dance at Cirque's Montreal headquarters before joining the show. "They tell us how to move, how to stand," he said.

"I'm not really learning anything new here technically. You don't have to stick your landings anymore, you don't have to have the perfect form. You may have to change your technique just a little bit to add more of a showy flair to it. It's more artistic."

Still, for Berrent, every performance in Alegria feels like a gymnastics competition. "It's almost the same," he said. "You get the same kind of nerves before you go out. Once you step on the stage it's all adrenaline. The same dedication to your body and to what you're doing is still there as it was when I was competing."

Ulziibayar Chimed, contortionist

Strong, incredibly flexible, strange and beautiful - such are the descriptions inspired by Ulziibayar "Ulzii" (pronounced "Och-kee") Chimed's contortionist act, in which she twists her willowy body into the shape of a pretzel and more. The 19-year-old from Mongolia has been on tour with Alegria since its 1994 premiere, one of five original cast members still with the show.

"I was a dual act before. But (my partner) had some problems with her back and had to leave," said Chimed, whose back has rarely given her problems.

"I have to warm up before the show for about 30 minutes. I have to warm up my back, my legs, every part of my body. I do 20 pushups because I have to be strong to handstand for about two minutes. It's kind of like yoga. Just relax and stretch your body."

Mongolia, situated between China and Russia, is a center of contortion. "They just have a lot of flexible people there," she said. "We have schools for contortionists. My sister does contortion. My mom said that when I was a baby I would cry in a contortionist's position. My first performing as a contortionist was when I was 7 years old in Mongolia."

Contortion doesn't seem especially remarkable to Chimed, who speaks excellent English but also gets to speak her native language with two other Mongolians in the company. "I've been doing this forever. People say it's like amazing, but it's just normal to me. My mom and dad and family are proud of me, so I'm happy."

Occasionally Chimed's back gets tight, but she expects to be a contortionist for a long time. "My coach in Mongolia was 47 or 48 and still doing contortion."

Isabelle Corradi, singer

Alegria has a story line of sorts that loosely links the acrobatic acts - something about a society whose ruler has been overthrown and the ensuing rivalry between an older and younger generation to assume power. It's typical Cirque, a bit pretentious but effective in the context of the show's vivid music and staging.

For many performers, the story functions as a kind of metaphor, a motivational device to get into character. But for Isabelle Corradi, one of the two singers, it is closer to what she actually does in the show.

"I see my role as very much like the voice of the acrobat that is doing the number," Corradi said. "Whenever the artist comes in I connect myself to see what his or her energy is tonight. How does she feel? Is she tired? Is she sad? When I sing I'm conscious of this, and I push if I feel she needs more energy. I always strive to be the voice of the body that the people are seeing."

Corradi, 45, born in Italy and raised in Montreal, is a mezzo soprano whose mother was an opera singer. Her sister, Violaine Corradi, composed the scores for the Cirque shows Dralion and Varekai.

Corradi was in Alegria for five years in the 1990s, then was in Saltimbanco, and now is back performing the Rene Dupere score, which is the bestselling Cirque CD. The singer thinks one reason for the popularity is its mix of English, Italian, Spanish and gibberish.

"It was one of the first Cirque shows to have four languages," she said. "The last couplet of the song Alegria is in English: "Alegria, I see a spark of life shining/Alegria, I hear a young minstrel sing.' It's beautiful. I really love singing it."

After the interview, Corradi went to the big top for a sound check, which the company does before every show. "Because we are in a tent, it's not a set environment like a theater. If it's too dry or it's very humid or it's very sunny, the texture of the tent changes, which changes the sound. That's why we do sound checks."

Corradi was loving the Florida humidity. "It's perfect for singers. It's good for the voice and the hearing, and the sound carries. It's fantastic to sing in this kind of weather."

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or by e-mail at fleming@sptimes.com

PREVIEW: Cirque du Soleil's Alegria opens Thursday and runs through March 14 under the Grand Chapiteau Big Top in the Tropicana Field parking lot, 16th Street and First Avenue S, St. Petersburg. 8 p.m. Thursday, 4 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. No performance on March 9. $50-$70 adults, $35-$49 children. Special prices for students and seniors for some shows. Toll-free 1-800-678-5440; or www.cirquedusoleil.com

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:12:52]


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