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  • Al Seib / Cirque du Soleil

    The strength and flexibility shown in Cirque du Soleil performances is legendary. Lesser known but almost as impressive is the effort it takes to keep massive shows like "Quidam" moving – and safe – on tour.

  • Al Seib / Cirque du Soleil

    "Quidam" performers dazzle from the stage, to be sure; but part of the magic is hidden in structures and machinery above and below.

  • Each "Quidam" artist wears two to seven custom-made costumes in a show. The wardrobe department works full time to care for the clothes, including daily laundering and frequent touch-ups.

Moving 'Quidam' is a circus

Published: Sunday, May. 1, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1I
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 1, 2011 - 1:36 pm

More than a few jaws will drop at the acrobatics and special effects of Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam," yet the logistics of transporting and housing this spectacle-in-waiting also deserves an audience.

The process is as coordinated and precise as the best of military maneuvers. Every piece of equipment will be securely mounted within a day of the performance.

The "Quidam" circus will begin wending its way to Reno even before the audience departs the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario at 7:30 this evening.

A line of trucks, part of a fleet of 17 big rigs, will be on the road with wardrobe, props and equipment that were packed just as soon as the performers came off the stage.

The entire show will be moving by 11 p.m., heading to Reno's Lawlor Events Center for a run Wednesday through next Sunday, then to Sacramento's Power Balance Pavilion from May 11-15.

This spectacle was created in Cirque du Soleil's home base of Montreal in 1997 as a tent show, but it has been on hiatus for nearly 15 years, remounted this year as an arena show. In keeping with Cirque's tradition, it is packed with acrobatics, fantasy, clowning and special effects that can be achieved only because of its custom-designed set.

It takes a sturdy structure to handle "Quidam" safely. For instance, a telepherique – 120 feet of aluminum rails – is suspended just below the ceiling. It serves as a transport system to bring athletes into position over the stage for descent into place. Sometimes it lifts characters who then slowly drift into the darkness in the back while continuing action takes place on the stage. It is one-of-a-kind and requires specially designed computers to run it because of the complex algorithms.

The telepherique and accompanying dollies hang at 95 different points from the ceiling of whatever structure is housing the show. In total, the hanging equipment weighs 89,000 pounds.

(At one arena on the tour, it was necessary to keep snow swept off the roof so there was no danger of further stress.) There are 32 miles of cable for the lighting and sound.

Production manager Christopher Brislin, a veteran of arena tours for Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, among others, follows stringent guidelines for safety. There are 22 full-time technicians who travel with the show, and every nut and bolt is inspected and reinspected.

Fed-Ex boxes of replacement equipment await at every new venue, and a history is made of every harness, clip, hook, or other prop. Some require replacement after one show, others after 100 shows, but Brislin, interviewed backstage at a performance in the Bay Area's Cow Palace, said: "When its time is up, it's up. We don't play games or take any chances whatsoever. And the inspection process never stops."

Roughly 130 local technicians are hired to bolster the traveling staff. (College campuses such as the University of Nevada's, where Lawlor is located, are favorites of Brislin because he can hire students and give them some financial boost.)

Those Fed-Ex boxes at each stop, by the way, also contain joy for performers. That is mail call for the acrobats and clowns whose native lands and languages are disparate.

Most are from Ukraine where the tradition of circus and acrobatics is still strong, and those with the right build and flexibility are trained from an early age. Brazil, Canada, Australia and Japan are also represented. The performers display remarkable agility and therefore can fill in for each other in skills ranging from jumping rope to balancing to flying.

The performers wear 2,500 pieces of costuming, including wigs. There are 250 different "looks" on display in the show, with the first half tending to be brighter than the second.

Each artist can wear two to seven costumes (handmade to fit), and each costume is laundered daily in washers and dryers brought on the tour. Almost needless to say, a full-time wardrobe department also comes along to make repairs and perform upkeep. The hand-painted shoes need daily touch-ups.

All technology aside, "Quidam" is ultimately about the performance. It is a surprisingly dark show, the main plotline, or what plotline there is, being that a young girl named Zoe is ignored by her parents and finds some imagination through the gift of a derby hat. Strange beings populate her new world – a headless man in an overcoat, a man with airplane wings, a slouching boxer. These characters and more inhabit the stage on and off while the acts take place.

The darkness comes from an eerie subtone of isolation, war, death and storms. "Quidam" may have the word circus in its description, but it is not for small children.

The acts themselves are twists on the traditional. Cory Sylvester performs the German Wheel, a variation of a spinning coin with a man spread-eagled inside the disc. The Chinese yo-yo, or Diabolos, is taken to amazing and literal heights. There is a contortionist suspended in silk, a rope-skipping exhibition with a rapid-fire succession of many athletes, some aerial hoops, hand balancing, moving-statue balancing, and high-flying diving and plummeting.

The principal clown of the piece is Toto Castineiras, who revives the classic "clown cinema" sketch in which audience members are brought onstage to enact a piece of silent melodrama under the direction of an irritable, frenetic and very funny director.

The finale is called "The Banquine" (an Italian tradition dating from medieval times) and a suitable ending it is with its series of leaps, tosses and catches.

Everything is performed on or above (sometimes coming from underneath) a thrust stage that has 200,000 perforations and is partially revolving. The music is performed by an eight-piece band and two singers, and has that surreal quality associated with Cirque scores.

Before the last note sounds at Sacramento's Power Balance Pavilion, the logistical show will already have begun backstage. The next stop is over the border: London, Ontario, Canada – about 2,450 miles away.

QUIDAM

What: This surprisingly dark Cirque du Soleil show tells the story of a young girl who is ignored by her parents but finds a new world populated by strange beings. Regional audiences can choose from two venues to see this show.

Where: Lawlor Events Center at the University of Nevada, 1500 N. Virginia St., Reno

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Power Balance Pavilion, One Sports Pkwy., Sacramento

When: 7:30 p.m. May 11, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. May 12-14, and 1 and 5 p.m. May 15

Cost: $35-$100 (plus fees)

Information: "Quidam" may have the word circus in its description, but it is not for small children. (775) 784-4444 at Lawlor, (916) 928-6900 at Power Balance, www.cirquedusoleil.com

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Read more articles by Mel Shields



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