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Cirque du Soleil's 'Alegria' soars in opener

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published February 20, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Suggestions of bird life are everywhere in Alegria, the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that opened Thursday night under the yellow and blue big top in the parking lot at Tropicana Field. Bird songs, whistles and chirps play over the sound system. Many of the performers wear feathery caps. A mechanical bird on a wire descends from the darkness. Comically grotesque Old Birds are a constant presence.

Muscular sprites with wings scamper around the stage to strike enchanting poses. A contortionist enters in a white feathered, winglike cape.

The wing motif is probably also meant to bring to mind angels in Franco Dragone's 10-year-old production, which comes with the usual trippy Cirque rhetoric in a program book. But brilliantly costumed humans flying through the air like so many exotic birds are what draw the oohs and aahs from the crowd for spectacular numbers such as Fast Track, Russian Bars and Aerial High Bar.

Fast Track features men and women in gold jumpsuits flipping on an X-shaped trampoline cut into the stage. Their graceful movement and the way they hold themselves between athletic feats raise the aesthetic level to something like dance. Coming early in the first act, the number follows the principal of less is more, happening fast and furious and then suddenly over, leaving the audience wanting more.

The ritualistic Russian Bars, to a hot sax solo, is another soaring act, with featherweight flyers tossed from bar to bar, held by burly catchers. Aerial High Bar provides a fitting finale, as seven daredevils perform on bars and a swing high above a net.

Cirque's trademark is its sophisticated theatrical presentation of acrobatics, but one of Alegria's most successful acts is pure theater.

In Storm, a clown (Yuri Medvedev) with a suitcase mimes a tale to bluesy trumpet that includes clever business with a coat and hat on a hanger, imagery of trains, a torn-up letter and a blizzard of scrap paper.

The show has three red-nosed clowns whose tomfoolery combines inspiration and tedium in equal measure. Their interaction with the audience is fun (there must be a Freudian explanation for why clowns seek out bald heads) with a touch of aggression. When one clown in orange coveralls picks his way through the crowd before the show starts, it's just a matter of time before his giant box of popcorn spills on some hapless ticketholder.

Other characters add to the surrealistic mix. Fleur (Evgueni Ivanov), a twisted, cranky troll wearing a ringmaster's red coat, gets the fantasy under way by stepping through an oval frame. White-clad musicians with powdered wigs and pointed noses are like figures from a ghostly Restoration comedy.

Rene Dupere's score for Alegria is one of Cirque's best and features two hoop-skirted singers. Isabel Corradi, in white, was the lead singer Thursday; Eve Montpetit, in black, sang harmonies. Corradi's wailing vocals were the passionate heart of the show, part Edith Piaf, part Janis Joplin.

Two solo acts are classic Cirque, beautiful and strange. In Manipulation, Maria Silaeva combines contortion with spinning silver hula hoops, as many as six at once.

Contortionist Ulziibayar Chimed coils her unbelievably limber back into shapes that could seem freakish in a less artful context; her performance has a depth of feeling joined with cool detachment that is uncanny.

Alegria is marvelously unpredictable. Even numbers that are less than galvanizing, such as the sensational but ultimately corny Fire-Knife Dance, or the Flying Man, whose routine is limited by what can be done with bungee cords, serve a purpose. They give a bedazzled spectator the chance to take a breath, savor the whole spectacle and ask himself: What amazing thing is going to happen next?

Cirque du Soleil's Alegria runs through March 14 under the climate-controlled 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 March 9. $50-$70 adults, $35-$49 children. Special prices for students and seniors for some shows. Toll-free 1-800-678-5440; or

[Last modified February 20, 2004, 01:31:57]

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