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Performance Review:

Cirque du Soleil’s "DRALION" at the United Center


Three years have passed since Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil pitched its blue-and-yellow high-tech tent at the United Center. And, although the stylized acrobatic artistry is a constant, the organizers are calling "Dralion" – its Asian-themed circus-art spectacle – a turning point in Cirque’s history. This is the first show created by a new team of artists headed by Gilles Ste-Croix.

But "Dralion," whose name refers to the revered Chinese dragon symbol, is quite a glitzy departure from Cirque’s more subtle psychological pieces (like "Quidam" and "Saltimbanco") featuring mystical but deeply human through lines. This work, which premiered in Montreal two years ago, combines so many disparate images – from"Dungeons and Dragons" to Fellini to "Star Wars" to Chinese New Year – that any attempts at potent storytelling get muddled.

An exploration of the elements – air, water, fire and earth – is at the core of "Dralion," but not particularly noticeable amid the glaring lights, endless thunder claps, revolving spherical structures and loud electronic world-based score.

Yet the performers and their jaw-dropping feats of daring do not disappoint. Those who have never seen a Cirque show will no doubt be awed. But, in comparison, to the enterprise’s more textured works of art, "Dralion" ranks as the least adventurous. In essence, one act follows another – punctuated only by a little boy carrying an hourglass, two soaring vocalists in robes and four dancing figures who represent the elements and diverse cultures of the earth.

It’s difficult to discern why the ensemble is periodically suctioned onto a metal backdrop like Spider Man; or why Italian "bumbalini" clowns (in the exaggerated orchestra maestro tradition) are central characters in a show devoted to Asian acrobatics.

Director Guy Caron aims for an endless flow of movement and music – all circling around the audience as if "Dralion" is a part of an alternate solar system propelled by spectators. The pacing, however, could pick up. And the programming could more powerfully highlight the varying moods of each act.
"Dralion" features more than 55 artists from nine countries (Brazil to the Ukraine), including a house troupe of 37 Chinese acrobats. The opening routine evokes stunned silence as the petite Zhao Yashi contorts her body in frog-like formations while balancing on a cane with one hand. She is followed by a fiery ensemble of acrobats tumbling dangerously under and over large moving flags and heavy bamboo poles.

An intriguing solo with an evolutionary, robotic and slightly erotic bent, Viktor Kee – who emerges in a flesh-colored unitard with red streaks from a mechanical cockroach – juggles while shifting his body into otherworldly shapes. The teeterboard house troupe extends five bodies high and incorporate stilts and flying splits into this more conventional circus act. The double-trapeze artists from China bring the first act to a close with an unexpected release of blue-and-white streamers as they fly through the arena.

The second act tends to drag a bit – due mainly to the repetitive humming and circular movement of the singer-dancers. But highlights include Chinese acrobats performing multitiered balances while standing in full pointe shoes atop light bulbs; Juliana Neves’ luxurious suspended scarf dance; the house team forming a large body pyramid while skipping rope; and the same acrobats rolling atop enormous balls in elaborate dragon costumes.

From the moment audiences enter the Big Top, they will brashly meet head on three Fellini-esque clowns dashing about in tuxedos, big bellies and wild hairdos. They tie spectators to poles around the arena or steal their wallets and run away, while babbling in deliberately unintelligible Italian. They are an inventive, albeit incongruous, highlight of "Dralions."

A running gag with a likable "audience member" in which the shortest of the clowns keeps calling an unassuming blonde man on stage and pulling off his shirt or grabbing his shoe is quite enjoyable. The blonde guy is so believable that most viewers will be convinced that he is not a plant. But when that illusion is destroyed for no compelling reason, the audience truly feels duped – and that crushing sense of deception tainted my overall impression of the show.

The best way to enjoy "Dralion" is to absorb its most aesthetically moving moments – and, despite its flaws, the spectacle still carries the circus arts to an inspiring high-art plane.•

Cirque du Soleil’s "Dralion" runs through July 29 at the United Center, Parking Lot K, 1901 W. Madison. Tickets: $28.75-$65. Call 800-678-5440.

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