Arts: Tumbling, flying, twirling with ease

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Cirque du Soleil

Royal Albert Hall, London

's latest show, Alegra, by Andrew Watson is another masterly blend of circus skills and baroque imaginings. At the centre of the Albert Hall, the cross-section of a skeletal dome lurks amid a web of rigging and provides a peculiar world inhabited by punky, commedia dell'arte-style figures in beaky masks and lumpily padded pantaloons. These characters play host to a succession of clowning and circus acts which spin the evening out to a slightly over-generous two and a half hours.

The first act's highlight was a fast-track tumbling display by 15 golden figures in fishnet shorts. A sunken trampoline gave anti-gravitational ballon to the familiar moves and enabled the gymnasts to fly and twirl as if being tossed by the expert wrist of a juggler. I find it hard to count revolutions unless I have a weasel voice in my ear telling me that someone just fluffed the landing on their piked Tsukahara, but I swear I saw a quintuple back somersault.

These moments of wonder are proudly punctuated by the endless whimsical doings of rude mechanicals. As someone who didn't even think Oleg Popov was funny, I'm probably beyond help, but the audience certainly found the clowning amusing enough.

The second half was stronger than the first. Featured acts included the Russian Bars - bendy poles suspended on strong men's shoulders while acrobats somersault fearlessly from one to the other. The low point (for me at least) was a matched pair of Mongolian contortionists. There is something faintly ludicrous about women folding themselves in half the wrong way - I keep expecting them to start firing ping-pong balls. This is not to say that they didn't perform miracles of balance while turning themselves inside out, or that their unique talents hadn't been deployed with great style and originality by Debra Brown. I just feel that a young girl's ability to bend her back so tightly that she can stand on her own shoulders is less a matter for applause than commiseration.

The erection of a safety net (in a staggering 60 seconds flat) confirmed that they had been saving the really good stuff for the second act. The net was required for the Flying Lev act, in which fearless men hurl themselves from the top of the rig into the safe hands of the two catchers swinging on the trapeze below. Trapeze acts used to be corny but these eight Russians staged the sort of spectacle you'd book for the wedding of an emperor.

The solo highlight of the second half was Paul Bowler, who manhandles a giant steel cube in an act devised by Mikhail Matorin. Bowler, a former Olympic gymnast, has the shorn good looks and god-like physique of Barbarella's angel and spins and plays with the shining cube like Atlas shouldering the globe. There is a strange, Olympian quality to this stylish take on the familiar sight of the juggler dwarfed by his prop. The slow strength and awesome beauty of this act was ill-served by a thumping Euro anthem. Bowler's communion with the cube was worth the price of admission on its own but I would have preferred to worship in silence.

To 8 Feb (booking: 0171-589 8212)

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