The rules of enchantment

Michael Church goes backstage with the circus troupe Cirque du Soleil to ask: how do they do that?
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The Independent Culture
When the Cirque du Soleil hits Malibu beach, Arnie, Clint, and Whoopi become camp-followers. Barbra Streisand brings groups of children, Danny de Vito hangs around backstage, Liz Taylor buys up the tent for her Aids benefit nights. Impeccably green, with no animals or freakshows, this French-Canadian circus - or circus-industry, since the original troupe has spawned two more - seems perfectly packaged for its time.

The current show, which I caught on its world tour, is indeed wonderfully slick. The smooth-muscled myrmidons shinning backwards up Chinese poles, or diving down them with death-defying speed, seem not so much androgynous as sexless. The macho Cuban juggler treats his obedient swarm of balls as though they're beneath his notice. The Portuguese pocket Atlases look absurdly camp.

The bungee jumpers soar like birds, figures fly off the great swing as though shot from guns. The Russian acrobats resemble dreamily abstracted figures in a Cocteau fantasy. The parasol-toting Chinese girl hops like a butterfly from one tightrope to another. The whole thing is a triumph of fey whimsy and exquisitely calculated spontaneity. But circuses have traditionally meant Charlton Heston and Burt Lancaster, blood and tears, courage and quirkiness. Where's all that? Has this Nineties variant lost its soul? I look for the answer backstage.

The first person I run into is the resident physiotherapist. Her past experience has been with ballet companies and rugby teams, but this lot get similar injuries: 57 varieties of tendonitis. Nothing serious? Actually, yes: a few months ago, a Polish boy landed so badly after flying off the Russian swing that he almost died from his injuries. His knee hit his forehead: the fact that you're landing on a trampoline doesn't mean you can relax.

While we talk, four girls are coiled up and standing on one leg in a position defying both gravity and all laws of anatomy. Without a word, they uncoil and reform in a new contortion. Since they first met at primary school eight years ago, they have studied, eaten and slept together, pushing their strange art to ever more exotic extremes.

What happens to their internal organs when they fold their backs in two? "Everything gets pushed up towards the lungs," replies their leader, a voluble Peruvian. "I never had to work for flexibility. When I was small, my elder brother used to frighten my parents by bending me like a rubber doll. I'm now so flexible that it could be dangerous. I have to strengthen my muscles to combat it." Apparently some puzzled doctors in Munich tested their spines for slipping discs, and found them to be healthier than average.

They may not come from the same egg, but their communion is so intense that they finish each other's sentences. The Peruvian dreams of new, anatomically impossible positions. One of her adoptive sisters has nightmares in which a member of the group is missing like a severed limb. Their only serious rivals in this weird game are Chinese.

The Cirque's Chinese tightrope walker, an elfin 19-year-old called Chen Wei, never goes anywhere without her minder, her assistant, and her interpreter. She's the latest in a string of performers leased to the Cirque by the Chang Chun Acrobatic Troupe: none is allowed to do more than six months. The Canadians think this reflects the Chinese fear that their girls may jump ship. The interpreter insists it's because they miss their families. I think six months of such intensive chaperoning would drive anyone home.

Huang Zhen, the Chinese pole expert, has been on the road since he was plucked out of the classroom at nine. "Short, stocky boys are bred up as tumblers,'' he says. "I was never allowed to do tumbling because they didn't want me to build up my leg muscles. I had to have the lightest legs possible." Quite so: he's shaped like an inverted triangle.

His wife, a San Franciscan trapeze artist called Shana Carroll, is fascinated by the mechanics of her art, particularly the "dead spot" at the end of the swing. "If you catch that moment right, you're weightless and everything is easy. But if you make your move a little late or early, you need strength to recuperate things." She distinguishes between "strength moves" and "danger moves", some of which she does without nets or safety ropes. "The biggest danger is of doing a figure incorrectly and hitting the bar with your head or spine. But most people have their accidents when they're doing something very simple, and just not paying attention. The trapeze is a metaphor for everything - the pendulum of life, the heartbeat - except when you are doing it. Then it's just the trapeze."

Those dreamy Russian acrobats - Nikolai Tchelnokov, his wife Galina, and 10-year-old son Anton - turn out to have a surprisingly entrepreneurial approach to life. But since they had to make their debut as street artists when the company they were touring with went bust, this is understandable. Nikolai proudly tells of the speed with which they earnt enough, busking in Miami, for their first car, then enough for a big trailer: their communal dream is a farm with its own lake and woods, back home in Russia. "But the business in Russia is not good at present."

The ease with which Anton contorts his little frame in mid-air is mirrored by the ease with which he slips from Russian to English to French (the language in which he does his daily lessons with the company's resident teacher). He gave his first performance at four - "handstands, splits, little stuff" - and never wants to work anywhere but in a circus.

Gradually it's becoming clear that, beneath the surface glitz, this is a circus in the age-old tradition. The point is clinched by Brian Andro- Dewhurst, veteran tightrope walker and one of the company's few Brits. His grandfather was a clown, his father was a knife thrower, and his son is a tightrope walker. There may be more safety nets now, he says, but acts are more ambitious: the same virtues will always be required.

I tell him of the circus I saw, aged three, on the beach at Conway in north Wales, and of the man who walked the tightrope over lions, blindfold, with baskets on his feet. Dewhurst's eyes grow wide. "That was Rico! I was in that circus - for the victory celebrations in 1945. I was 13, and it was my first job." We both fall silent, stunned by the coincidence. Then I mention another tableau from that day, which has stayed in my mind ever since: a man in Mexican costume, throwing knives at a woman hidden by paper. "He was my father, and she was my mother."

n Cirque du Soleil from tonight, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171- 589 8212)