Cirque du Soleil: Dralion, Royal Albert Hall, London

Chinese fireworks display
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There are two kinds of circus in Cirque du Soleil's Dralion. The title is a mixture of "Dragon" and "Lion", and the show is presented as an East-meets-West extravaganza. In practice, it means the Canadian troupe has brought in the Chinese circus.

The Cirque du Soleil numbers seek to persuade us that Circus is Art, surrounding the acrobatics with elaborate costumes and vague uplifting sentiments. By contrast, the Chinese are blindingly pragmatic. They just come on and get cracking, whipping through dozens of astounding feats. Guess which is more fun.

Cirque du Soleil, founded 21 years ago, prides itself on reinventing the circus. In a series of international hits, founder Guy Laliberté has built his circus acts into themed shows. In Dralion, four leading characters represent Fire, Air, Earth and Water. These elements are carefully multicultural; François Barbeau dresses Water in Indian silks, Earth in African grass skirt.

These figures never quite become characters. They're too non-specific. They just come on and waft about, throwing in a few jumps and turns. Singers descend on wires, but Violaine Corradi's rock-operatic music is warbling bombast. Symbolism is coyly underlined, and the waffling gesticulation keeps us waiting for the circus thrills.

Air (Colette Morrow) does a silk trapeze, an aerial duet. Her dips and swoops should be wonderful, but the choreography is weak. She and her partner keep having to stop, embrace, mime eternal devotion. The audience bursts into applause when, at last, they get to the spins and dives.

The performers are amazingly skilled. The Cirque juggler keeps seven balls in the air, in between writhing. The clowns are winsome and dull, but their imitation trapeze involves real technique. Marie-Eve Bisson's aerial hoop is perhaps the finest act, a taut sequence of balances on a spinning ring, with no pause for gestures.

There are no pauses at all in the Chinese acrobatic sequences, designed by Li Xining. There's no acting, no decoration, and each feat is more spectacular than the last. It's stupendous. They start with spinning paper lanterns, each balanced on a long bamboo pole. The lanterns are spun in different directions, tossed and caught in patterns, still spinning. Du Xue, a tiny woman, does a single-hand balance on top of a pole. She stretches and sways, wrapping her legs around her own neck, then hopping from one hand to another. Female acrobats climb up each other, building up to a tower of five balancing girls. Another woman somersaults on stilts.

Xining's staging is brilliantly paced. Each routine is an accelerating rush, the feats getting wilder and more astonishing. The tumblers are marvellous, diving through hoops in increasingly complicated somersaults - several at a time, making corps de ballet patterns as they dive.

They're all amazing, but my jaw dropped furthest in the skipping-rope scene. Of course, they jump the ropes, dive and somersault through them. Then several acrobats form a pyramid, kneeling on each other's shoulders. They concentrate a moment, holding the balance, and then the whole pyramid jumps over the twirling rope. The Albert Hall burst into roars of applause, and so did I.

To 6 February (020-7589 8212)