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Voracious Varekai

Cirque du Soleil’s latest masterpiece hits San Jose

Words simply do not give Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” justice—although you could sum it up by calling it a sumptuous, exhilarating, jaw-dropping spectacle that leaves you breathless and feeling good. But, you cannot truly describe real art. It must be experienced. And, you really should experience “Varekai,” now playing in San Jose after a show-stopping turn in San Francisco.

The Cirque du Soleil mystique has been enthralling audiences worldwide for nearly 10 years. It debuted in the small Quebec town of Gaspé back in 1984, as part of the hoopla surrounding the celebration of the 450th anniversary of Jacque Cartier’s arrival in Canada. The concept was trés fresh. Never before had audiences witnessed such a circus experience—it had verve, didn’t use animals in any of its acts and boasted a dashing mix of circus arts and street entertainment. The music was ethereal, the costumes and sets, outrageous, often lavish. It was such a hit, it began touring in 1985 and spawned a series of eclectic shows along the way. Many of those shows enjoyed healthy runs under the Las Vegas spotlight: “Nouvelle Experience,” “Mystére” and “O.” Specific tours of “Le Cirque du Soleil,” “La Magie Continue,” “We Reinvent the Circus,” “Tour with Circus Knie,” “Fascination,” “Saltimbanco,” “Alegria,” “Quidam,” “La Nouba” and “Darlion” have popped up around the world—from Japan and Paris, to Disneyworld and, get this, Biloxi, Miss.  The bottom line: when this circus comes to town, it’s a must-see.

Last week’s opening night festivities in San Jose held a child-like fervor—like those moments of anticipating Santa, the tooth fairy and, of course, a trip to the circus. Under a luscious blue and canary yellow big top tent, my guest and I entered the “Varekai” universe and were in for quite a trip. We immediately marveled at the intricacies of the “Varekai” set, a curious concoction of 300 long bamboo-like trees—between 15 feet and 35 feet tall—a skeletal-looking catwalk that symbolizes the spine of what appears to be a large bird, and the “lookout,” a 17-square-foot cabin-like platform that welcomed some of the forest’s characters throughout the show. The vast stage, which jets out from the “forest” behind it, is full of theatrical “potholes,” which many of the performers rise to the surface from or disappear into at a moment’s notice. The eye-candy here is fattening. There’s plenty to see and soak up—even that mysterious music section, which is hidden somewhere beyond the “forest.”

So, what’s the gist of “Varekai”? The word means “wherever” in the Romany Gypsy language, but “whatever” is basically what you get. The show, written and directed with adventurous focus by Dominic Champagne, is not intended to follow a logical, linear path. It’s a living “reductio ad absurdum.” We’re here to feel, experience and absorb a new world and ponder its significance—perhaps with a friend and over a funky umbrella-laden cocktail after the show. The conclusions you draw are neither right nor wrong. The story chronicles the journey of a young winged man known as Icarus (Anton Chelnokov). One day, the sky lets go of the solitary figure and he is left in a magical forest where he soon encounters its fantastical creatures. All at once, we’re introduced to the region’s colorful creatures as they burst onto stage, sporting the friskiness of puppies craving dinner table treats. The production’s scene-stealer—The Skywatcher (John Gilkey)—is also presented in this mix hand and the audience never tires of him throughout the production when he often returns as a quasi-mad scientist-inventor, a befuddled guy who collects the world’s memories and is considered an interpreter of signs. Gregarious, manic and downright hilarious, Gilkey’s wiry frame and savvy nature for physical comedy is applaudable. From here, the story unfolds pitting Icarus—and the audience—as the observer of his new setting. And observe is what we do.

After a powerful “Icarian Games,” somewhat of a welcoming ceremony, along comes “Water Meteors.” Here, three young boys, donning water-blue acrobatic suits, plop onto the stage—with the same bounce of a water drop—and proceed to stun the audience as they whirl above their heads ropes with metal meteors attached to each end. The entire first act resonates with this energetic fusion. By the time the “Triple Trapeze” act is introduced, we’re already a bit breathless as we watch four young women dazzle with a series of acrobatic antics high above the stage on a trapeze. The act concludes with the raw male energy of the “Georgian Dance,” whose on-the-mark dancers somehow capture the Georgian Republic’s struggles against power while vividly entertaining with the intense, frenzied pace of the dance style itself.

Act Two is no less invigorating. There’s the particularly fascinating delivery of “Body Skating,” the phenomenal and intricate spectacle of the “Aerial Straps,” which features twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton suspended on wrist straps synchronizing with finesse and precision the melding of their bodies—a sheer test of strength.  Perhaps the most amazing in this act is the “Handbalancing on Cane” by Olga Pikheinko, who contorts her entire figure mid-air while holding onto one cane, inserted in the stage below her. The show concludes with “The Russian Swings,” which has “circus” written all over it—acrobats are literally hurled into the air and are also flung from one large swing to the next. Definitely showstopping.

Of course, there’s much more along the way—there is Icarus, after all, and his story does unfold. But the clown acts here are particularly attention-grabbing. The lean Claudia Carneiro and the full-figured Mooky Cornish are perfectly cast here as a retro ’50s magic act by way of wannabe Sonny and Cher. The best surprise? They picked my guest to “volunteer” in their act on stage. Proof once again that this circus boasts more surprises, and a hell of a lot of guts, than any of those we may have grown up with.


Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai: In downtown San Jose through February. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $45-$70 for adults, $31.50-$45.50 for children. Visit www.cirquedusoleil.com or call (800) 678-5440 for more information.

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