Dance: The Circus plc is back in town

Alegra Royal Albert Hall, SW7
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The Independent Culture
Back in the sweltering summer of 1990, a tent went up on the South Bank to house a circus show called Le Cirque Reinvente. The ones doing the reinventing were an obscure bunch of French-Canadians calling themselves Cirque du Soleil. The season passed without comment. The box office bombed. In the dark days of January 1996 the same outfit took up residence in the Albert Hall. Suddenly, everyone knew about Cirque du Soleil. Alegra, the Canadians' current offering to London, now on its second visit, is a typical product of the global franchise Cirque du Soleil has become: slick, blandly international, and expensive. It no longer seems to matter that Alegra compares poorly with Cirque's previous London show, Saltimbanco. It's the brand name that counts. Cirque du Soleil has genuinely reinvented the genre as a glossy blend of pop ballads, non- stop choreography and unified design.

Half-filling the cavernous roof space of the Albert Hall, a classical pergola rises from a shadowy set suggesting a chateau from a fable by La Fontaine. The MC is a humpback goblin in red satin tails, backed up by a gaggle of baroque zanies in alarming latex masks, which give them sagging jowls, rapier noses and permanently outraged expressions. It's hard to say what these extras do other than hobble about and fuss between acts, but their presence has the effect of tethering the hi-tech element of the show to a fantastical storybook past. It's this theatricalising of the circus framework that is Cirque du Soleil's big idea.

It extends to the onstage band, whose soft rock and jazz and Frenchy- Spanishy ballads underscore the show. The lead singer is a good fairy in a sparkly white crinoline who blesses the scene with her honeyed croonings between working the floor, fingering men's ties. The circus acts proper get tied into the fairytale too, though the theming gets a bit muddled: acrobats with satyr curls and Pegasus tails, sky-diving pirates, contortionists with bird-of-paradise wings and a gymnast styled on Michelangelo's geometry- man.

It doesn't do to watch too critically. Nothing adds up, and the idea that a narrative runs through the piece is spurious. But where the between- acts business brilliantly succeeds is in eradicating awkward gaps between turns, smoothing the business of people shifting to such an extent that if you had a box of chocs to dip into, you'd forget to eat them. A red- nosed Russian clown sees off the Hawaiian fire-eater with an inspired echo of his act involving a limp candle and scorched fingers. A matching pair of 15-year-olds whose legs must have been put on back to front (otherwise how could they sit on their own heads?) are carted off on the strongman's shoulders.

The best of the headline acts would be thrilling in any context: the fast-track tumblers who hurtle along hidden springboards, backflipping faster than the eye can register; the daredevil trapezists who freefall 30 feet to spot X in thin air, where a swinging pair of hands will catch them. For spectacle on a grand, nay grandiose, scale, there's nothing to compare. For intimacy, for freshness, for sheer humanity (and change in your wallet) the London Mime Festival is more the ticket.

And now for something completely different - a prostration from your critic, no less. In last week's preview of the year I referred to problems the Royal Ballet might encounter with its new ballet Turn of the Screw, choreographed by one William Tuckett, believing that Tuckett was one of the six defectors to Tetsuya Kumakawa's breakaway group. I was wrong. It is his near-namesake William Trevitt who has quit. William Tuckett is creatively staying put.

'Alegra': RAH, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to 31 January.

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