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Over The (Big) Top 

Blowing the Whistle on Ringmasters, Animals, Sawdust, and...Drum Rolls

Lights up on Zoe, a slightly boyish ingenue circling the stage warily, dressed in a simple white pullover and a pink jumpsuit. While her lyrics are French, the anguish and longing of the teenager's song shatter the language barrier. But Zoe's parents -- Dad reading his newspaper, Mom listening to a radio and staring off into space -- sit motionless in their chairs, oblivious to their daughter's pleas.

Someone at the door. Only Zoe responds, ushering in the enigmatic intruder. He's dressed in a mustard-and-blue overcoat, eerily aglow in the hypnotic light, a blue bowler hat in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Striding to the middle of the living room, he does a most curious thing: instead of closing the blue, translucent umbrella, he opens it.

All of which accents the most absurd attribute of our silent visitor. No man could need an umbrella less. He has no head!

Inspired by the surreal paintings of Rene Magritte, liberally laced with Parisian attitude and ennui, Quidam is like no circus you've ever seen. No sawdust. No animals. No drum rolls. And that guy with the whistle and the bad haircut is not so much a ringmaster as a crazed refugee from a Brecht drama.

Quidam is even strange for Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based company that began breaking the mold for mod circus productions in 1984. They began as a ragtag team of street performers unbound by previous concepts of what a circus should be. Guy Laliberte recognized and organized the talent of the streets, and the Canadian government bankrolled his first Cirque du Soleil production.

But the groundbreaking concept probably did not come before the strange fire-eating, stiltwalking accordion player visited his favorite tarot card reader.

Since Cirque's first triumph, they've successfully invaded New York, L.A., and Disneyworld. Not to mention Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and Biloxi.

The main corps of Quebeckers have always known what they're about. As early as 1987, when they first premiered in the US, they were brashly calling their new LA show We Reinvent the Circus. Vegas was just as enchanted as Disney.

But Laliberte and his inner circle didn't answer Sin City's call until the times -- and the vision -- were right. Cirque's longest-running show, Mystere at Treasure Island, was at the vanguard of a monumental facelift -- aimed at transforming Las Vegas from a haven for honeymooners and high-rollers into a family vacation destination.

So a whole lot of Cirque style has rubbed off on the new Vegas. And along the way, as Cirque became more successful, elements of Vegas and Disney rubbed off on them.

They are big and expensive. Currently there are some 2100 employees on the Cirque payroll, including some 700 staffers at their international HQ in Montreal and more than 500 artists.

And they can definitely juggle. Seven different Cirque shows are up and running right now -- four on tour, two in Vegas, and one in Orlando. Artsy and enterprising as Cirque du Soleil is, there's still a retro side to this Canadian juggernaut. While Ringling Brothers swore off that familiar icon of touring circuses -- the big top -- way back in 1956, Quidam opens next week at Lowe's Motor Speedway under its blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau. Perched on the Speedway infield, this huge tent will accommodate 2,600 - more than either Belk Theater or Ovens Auditorium.

With audience surrounding about 240 degrees of the stage, you can count on sitting fairly close to the action. It's one big ring, not three, with an area of 29,000 square feet.

For all those poetic and retro elements, Quidam is also dazzling and high-tech. Even Gotham critics were wowed, as Cirque Surreal snapped up the Drama Desk Award in 1998 for Unique Theatrical Experience after its New York engagement.

"With success comes money," explains Quidam's artistic director, Serge Roy. "With money comes the possibility of buying new toys or more expensive costumes and building a thing like the conveyer."

Like so much of Quidam, those conveyers -- five of them spanning nearly the entire Chapiteau -- turn the notion of circus upside down. Instead of running in and climbing to the tops of their respective apparatuses, aerial artists arrive overhead, carried along the ceiling of the big top by upside-down trolleys rolling along 120-foot aluminum rails. Down below, no poles or ladders clutter the view.

Dad is floating above us, walking on air, half his head sticking out the other side of the hole in his newspaper. When he disappears, the Ringmaster makes an unintelligible announcement on his bullhorn...The wind swirls moodily, and Zoe sings disconsolate monosyllables in the lonely dark.

Spooky noises and echoing whispers. Warm spotlights pierce the darkness to the mesmerizing spectacle above. A pillar of fiery silk wraps a hooded corpse-like figure. She comes to life, emerging from her chrysalis. Her buttocks are tensed, bulging, uncanny. With spidery speed, she has wrapped the silk around her legs, forming a perfect T as she dangles herself down toward the ground below -- her legs fully split above her torso.

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