At last: there is something new under the soleil

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The Independent Culture
NO drum roll, no crack of the whip, no swirl of arc lights warns you that the circus has begun - just the growing awareness of excitable goings-on in the darkened stalls. A gang of spike-haired hoodlums has tricked a whole row into giving up their seats (pounds 35 a throw - so they're uneasy). But the pranksters swiftly move on to other audience mischief: inspecting bald heads and giving them a polish, plucking out punters only to flip them upside down, or strip them half-naked and throw away their clothes. They shriek, they gibber, they jabber in Italianate double-dutch. They're ticklish and they're terrifying. And they're just the warm-up clowns of the Cirque du Soleil.

Like many modern circuses, this Canadian outfit has shaken up the old formula. Out go blobby noses, custard-pie-and-water fights, and, of course, trained animals. In comes a new breed of circus animal - weird, beautiful, hermaphrodite, and more dangerous than any cage of tigers. The "ringmaster" is a mincing gremlin with a long blue tail, whose barking exhortations to performers (in what sounds like a hybrid of Hungarian and Norse) go largely ignored. The show - called Saltimbanco - seems driven by itself: a seamless son et lumiere- cum-choreographed rock concert that effortlessly envelopes acrobatic feats - tightrope, trapeze, tumbling and so on - that would be conventional in any other context but here acquire a high, wild beauty.

Sixteen slinky harlequins swarm up four tall metal poles to perform a furious formation dance on the vertical, arms and torsos flung wide at the slippery pole, supported by a single shin or ankle. They spin, swivel, and jump-slide up as well as down. It's Cecil B DeMille with the devil in him. There are no winches, ropes or tricks. It is impossible. Dazzlingly impossible. And Cirque du Soleil throws this one in at the start.

The square-jawed Loredor brothers, Marco and Paulo (who steamed up the Royal spectacles at the last Variety Performance) strut their stuff in skin-tight leather trews and oiled torsos, but gently send up the homo- eroticism with subtle smirks. They sweetly peck each other on the cheek and spend a lot of time holding hands - one 13-stoner supporting another on a single raised fist. Only their companions register their titanic effort. A group of girl contortionists in pierette outfits slink their way through another rock-driven, "adult" routine in which you lose sight of how bottoms were originally linked to legs and torsos.

But in among the freakshows are moments of almost spiritual simplicity. The Tchelnokov family from Russia - father, mother and 10-year-old boy - perform an unhurried series of acrobatic lifts that develop into a dance-emblem of human wholeness. Mother bends herself into a ring to be picked up and dropped over her husband's body, like a quoit on a stick. When he lifts his son, another human ring, he holds him for a moment and peers out at the world through the perfect circle of his slender body, before putting him on like a necklace. Strange how the unnatural can bring humanity into focus.

The named acts are linked by swarming tumblers tricked out as commedia characters - the crabby doctor, the bragging captain, the harlot, the young lovers, and countless other clowns and zanies - who remain in character even while performing hair-raising feats. The Royal Albert Hall makes a perfect Big Top, and Cirque du Soleil uses all the great, domed roof- space, catapulting bodies from a huge kind of swingboat into freefall acrobatics, and, in an inspired finale, sending gleaming white figures swooping and plummeting in a bungee ballet of serene loveliness.

These are just a few of the reasons for scraping together the high ticket price; go and you'll see a show which, for once, really does provide the promised novel experience. And despite its elaborate staging, Saltimbanco still leaves room for that intimate connection between audience and players which is the essence of circus art.

'Saltimbanco': Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to 17 Jan.