From its origins as a homespun amalgam of circus and street-theatre skills in Canada two decades ago, Cirque du Soleil has ramified in a remarkable manner: its 11 shows include a Las Vegas spectacular and a cruise-ship special, with yet another entertainment, inspired by the music of the Beatles, due to be unveiled. But if its direction remains in French-Canadian hands, its talent is now predominantly Russian and Central Asian: at the Albert Hall you have to hunt through the huge cast list to find English or Latin-American names, and there are no Chinese.
This show's title, Alegria, is the Spanish word for happiness, and that's the mood its preamble establishes as the cast mill about on the stage. Apart from the obligatory pair with red noses and baggy overalls, the costumes of the gnomes, hunchbacks, and clowns are fanciful in the extreme, and the acrobats look gorgeous: there is nothing gross about their musculature, just perfect bodies, with the Mongolian contortionists like dainty insects smothered in ostrich-feather plumes. This massive auditorium, which normally defeats attempts to transform it, is for once unrecognisable, with the stage turned into a dappled forest glade.
The first act starts gently, over French-café accordion music, with two trapeze artists borne so serenely aloft that one doesn't register the difficulty of the feat.
After a half-hearted attempt by the clowns to generate some audience participation - why do they bother? - things get going with a troupe of Babylonian warriors hurtling past each other high in the air: this looks satisfyingly dangerous. Then comes a moment of pure beauty, as a blonde youth named Denys Tolstov balances upside down on two raised stirrups, and slowly twists his seemingly weightless body in graceful configurations in the air. Then he does it all again, eight feet up, on one hand: miraculous.
I can't see the point of the firebrand-twirlers who come next - you get such stuff free in the Covent Garden Piazza - but when Maria Sialeva appears with a 20-foot silk streamer and five hula-hoops, I am again entranced: as with Tolstov, the beauty of her juggling is elegantly understated, and her contortions are so decorative that they become balletic. The first half closes with a real coup de théâtre, as a little mimed tragedy redolent of Le Petit Prince suddenly explodes into a snowstorm, filling the entire hall with wind and scraps of white paper.
Not every act in the second half dazzles - the bungee-jumps by the "flying man" look neither death-defying nor very difficult - but I can hardly believe the daring of the Russian bar act, in which some very short but exceptionally muscular young gents catapult each other, somersaulting, 15ft into the air. The climax is a sweet moment in which a little boy dressed as monkey scrambles up into his father's arms and the conjoined pair then do an unsupported somersault of their own. And I loved the Mongolian contortionists, whose arms and legs are indistinguishable, and who move like creatures from the ocean depths. The seven-man high-wire act which brings things to a close is trapeze-art taken triumphantly to its limits.
This is, despite its weak spots, a beautifully-conceived entertainment, and every bit as impressive as the Chinese circus simultaneously showing at the South Bank: it can't be easy devising new ways to present acts which must perforce always remain the same. And, since I first caught it in Vienna 15 years ago, it's replaced a naff populist veneer with a brand of humour which needs no words to put it across: the nonsense language is comic in itself.
It is also rare to find a house band as good as this show's, which - alternating between bal musette, rock, and Miles Davis - shows what variety can be achieved with the aid of a saxophone, a trumpet, an accordion, an African drumkit, plus assorted electronic effects. This Cirque may be big business, but it hasn't sold its soul.
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