Circus Saltimbanco / Cirque du Soleil Royal Albert Hall

'It isn't a freak show, though sometimes it verges on it'
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The Independent Culture
Its title suggests a cross between an Italian veal dish and a dodgy private bank, but Cirque du Soleil's much-hyped, big-budget extravaganza is neither of these. In fact, nothing is quite what it seems. Formed from a vast international family of street performers and circus artistes, it presents itself as new circus, when in reality it is just a plain old circus minus the animals but with fancy costumes, Andrew Lloyd Webber- style production values, and wall-to-wall-pounding New Age/Rock crossover music, which dictates the mood and leaves nothing to the imagination. There is no coherent narrative to link the acts. The music is portentous and evocative, but of what? For much of the evening, the singer Laur Fugere emotes soulfully over a series of songs in an invented, multi-cultural language which has no meaning at all.

Underneath the costumes (brightly coloured Lycra bodysuits and some vaguely reminiscent of commedia characters), many of the acts are extremely impressive. The Russian family Tchelnokov are amazing contortionists, though their skills are as bizarre as their presentation of them. The mother and father strike up tableaux of the happy family with their 10-year-old son, before tying him in a knot and using him as a human hula-hoop. It isn't a freak show, though sometimes it verges on it.

Wang Jingmin is a most reckless, graceful tightrope artist who jumps fearlessly about on a wire 50ft in the air with only a frail little red parasol to steady her, then gets out a unicycle and cycles along the wire. A troupe of Chinese pole acrobats leap up, around and in between vertical poles with the choreographic precision of a Buzby Berkeley number and the strange, inhuman agility of a swarm of insects.

But in between these marvels, there are many fey interludes with cutesy, masked creatures, and a thousand fancy lighting cues. Slick and seamless it certainly is, and impressive in a Broadway sort of way. The excited first-night audience rose to their feet in a rapturous ovation. But despite all the rhetoric in the programme ("Spirit and body, shadow and light, between earth and sky" translated into four different languages) there is little here that is truly frightening, truly erotic or in any sense mystical. There are some top-class acts and some dazzling stage effects, but in the interests of a multinational, family show, all the tack, pathos and danger which makes the old circuses so romantic is missing.

n To 21 January. Booking: 0171 589 8212