First Night: Circque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, London

Never mind the plot, enjoy the somersaults
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The Independent Culture

Cirque du Soleil is a brand, a hugely successful way of touring circus internationally. As such, its shows are predictable. Before you go, you know you'll get the elaborate make-up, the vague storylines, the singing that gestures at rock, opera and world music. Yes, the circus skills will be remarkable. And yes, there will be bad clowns.

Varekai, written and directed by Dominic Champagne, comes here for a long run. The plot, not that it matters, is built around an Icarus figure. A winged man descends, but doesn't exactly fall. Nobody dies in Cirque du Soleil: the dramas have vague uplift rather than conflict or action. Instead, Icarus learns cosmic wisdom from the other characters, and lives happily ever after with the lead contortionist.

Unfortunately, most of the other characters are clowns. Cirque du Soleil characterisation comes from that immediately recognisable make-up, the thick-painted eyebrows and shadowed cheeks designed by Nathalie Gagn. The clowns are cast as Guide and Skywatcher, but there's really no difference in their material. They all witter on in no recognisable language.

Varekai soon sets up a pattern of alternating clown and circus acts. Even the jugglers and trapeze artists are subjected to the Cirque glossing process. They gesture between tricks, wriggle about in complicated costumes, submit to more rock opera, composed by Violaine Corradi. Pace drops, however fine the technique.

But with all its waffle, Cirque du Soleil does have impressive performers, acts that can make you catch your breath. Varekai ends with Russian Swings. The swings are huge, big enough to take two or three people. Having built up momentum, the acrobats are shot into the air, somersaulting or wriggling, to be caught by partners or on a landing canvas. Sometimes pairs cross in mid-air, diving and tumbling.

The "Icarian Games", starring Roni and Stiv Bello, were even better. One performer lies on a stand, legs stretched up, with a second acrobat balanced on the soles of his feet. From there, they go into whirligig combinations, one acrobat kicked into the air to turn over and over. Sitting on his partner's feet, he flips through dozens of turns, landing sitting or standing. It's all so fast, and sometimes so risky, that you can forget the show's attempts to orchestrate wonder, and watch in honest amazement.

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