Cirque du Soleil's classic show, Quidam, opens with Zoé (Alessandra Gonzalez), a bored little girl whose parents ignore her. We enter the world of her imagination when Quidam, a headless wanderer under an umbrella, hands Zoé his blue bowler hat. (This imagery will resonate with those who know the surrealist paintings of René Magritte, a 20th century artist whose paintings challenged traditional perceptions of reality.) Zoé's self-absorbed parents float away and we are transported to the magical reality of Cirque's physically astonishing performers.
The "world" presently inhabited by Quidam is Dayton's Nutter Center, on the campus of Wright State University, through Sunday, June 16. The show, which originated as a big top production (it spent several weeks in Cincinnati in August and September 2006 in a "grand chapiteau" on the Ohio River bank near the Suspension Bridge) is now an arena show, and it works beautifully in the Nutter. Five giant metal arches are used to suspend performers in mid-air, but you quickly lose sight of the mechanics thanks to the artistry, visual and musical, of Cirque.
To me, the greatest wonder — beyond the physical precision and discipline of Cirque's athletic artists — is the universality of shows like Quidam, which tour the world. (In a few months, this company will be performing in Europe, playing to audiences in cities including Vienna, Munich and London, where it has a month-long engagement at Royal Albert Hall.) The performers are ethnically diverse and the storytelling spans cultural boundaries: Wordless clowning (Quidam features a segment about making a silent movie that recruits a few audience members as "actors") is laugh-out-loud funny, and the ringmaster John (Mark Ward) borders on intentional incompetence in a way that endears him to the crowd even as he moves us from act to act without saying a word.
And what acts we see: German Wheel (a pair of man-sized double hoops containing a guy who rolls around the stage); Diabolo (spinning Chinese yo-yo's tossed high into the air from a string and caught); Aerial Contortion (Tanya Burka is an amazing silk contortionist, many feet above the stage); Skipping Ropes (using 20 acrobats); Aerial Hoops (three women spinning and pivoting through the air); Hand Balancing (incredible strength and flexibility by a woman on yard-high canes); Spanish Webs (five fellows on high, hanging and twisting on ropes); Statue (a mesmerizing performance by Yves Décoste and Valentyna Sidenko who slowly and powerfully balance in various positions); and finally Banquine (acrobatics). The latter section, Quidam's finale, uses 15 artists, launching tumblers high into the air and catching them. At one point they build a tower of four humans atop each others' shoulders. Each assemblage or toss seems more daring than the previous.
Quidam might be the product of Zoé's boredom, but the show expands imaginative horizons. It's definitely worth a one-hour drive from Cincinnati.