Cirque du Soleil's athletic prowess compensates for show's flaws

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Cirque du Soleil's Dralion - Images by Independent Weekly

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: DRALION
* * * stars
PNC Arena
Through Aug. 19

Cirque du Soleil is a global juggernaut, but it's still a surprisingly youthful institution. In contrast to, say, those 19th-century animal drivers Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque is a babe. Officially dating to 1984, the Montreal-based troupe exploded in the 1990s. In the middle of that decade, the troupe developed an Eastern-themed show called Dralion. The show focused on Chinese acrobatics and became a huge hit, running for about 13 years.

In 2010, the show was revived for arena tours, and that's what audiences see this week at PNC Arena. We caught the show Wednesday night at Raleigh's PNC Arena. We can report that the show is filled with dancers, singers, tumblers, trampoliners, aerialists and an impossibly ripped guy who does this thing with a "crossed wheel" routine. The latter comes early in the show, as Jonathan Morin tumbles onto the stage in his self-invented device of two steel circles, intersecting in the shape of an egg. Morin does a variety of spins, cartwheels and flips with the device. It's amazing, inventive stuff, the sort of thing people come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. However, the routine goes on for a couple minutes too long—and it's not the first time in the evening that we have that feeling.

You wouldn't know from watching the show, but Morin is playing a character called Kala, who is described thusly on the Cirque website: "Kala is the heart of the wheel that represents time and the infinite cycle. He is the internal propulsion of the wheel that makes time evolve. It is the ongoing circle of life."

There's a lot of this "ongoing circle of life" stuff in this production. A group of dancers and singers establish what seems to be a narrative framework, although we can't understand the invented language the trio of singers sing ("an invented language to which only Cirque du Soleil holds the key. Their mysterious accents echo down through time").

Nor do we know exactly what is meant by the character called The Little Buddha, who steps forward at the beginning of the show (after the clowns have warmed up the crowd) and meaningfully brandishes an oversized sand hourglass. Our lives are finite, I suppose. Time is running out in this circle of life. For those interested, the website helpfully tells us that the "Little Buddha is the chosen child. Although it possesses special powers that will allow it to eventually become an Âme-Force, it dreams of being just a regular child."

What's an Âme-Force? "L'Âme-Force symbolises ultimate harmony between the four elements."

OK, it's best not to peer too deeply into the story of Dralion, when it's really just a mostly solid evening of human tricks and stunts, topped off with some gorgeous, death-defying aerial dances over center ring, and a thrilling wall trampoline routine at the rear of the stage (the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many ex-Olympians, especially gymnasts, divers and synchronized swimmers, find work with Cirque du Soleil.)

Some of the routines are rather rote, particularly the Chinese male tumblers. While there's no doubt of their extraordinary athleticism, one comes to Cirque expecting to see something fresh and mind-blowing, and a dozen acrobats jumping through rings, and rather uninspired Double Dutch jump-roping, doesn't quite meet that standard. The clowns were decent, and an recurring gag involving an audience member produced a solid payoff.

Given that this show, which lasted more than two hours (including an intermission) was specifically adapted to arenas, it was surprising to see some basic technical problems. Only the lower bowl of the arena was open, and the show played to 12 sections at the east end (sections 102 through 121). The problems came from the lighting: sometimes too much, sometimes too little. The spectacular wall trampoline routine, at the rear of the set, nonetheless could have packed more punch with better illumination.

Worse was a subsequent aerial dance routine by performers in white dresses, which was essentially conducted in the dark, with only the color of their outfits making an impression. The overall lighting ambience was made worse, too, by the brightness of the aisle lights in the arena. While the fire code is no doubt a factor here, one wonders if it would be possible for the arena's operators to dim them.

Too often, when I wanted to get lost in the phenomenal athleticism of the performers, I kept being reminded that we were in a hockey arena.

But it's still Cirque, and it's still a spectacle, albeit a pricey one with tickets ranging from $45.70 to $160.20. To be sure, it's my first time seeing them, but I couldn't help but suspect that the work that made this company famous is being done somewhere else right now, perhaps in one of their many permanent Las Vegas shows or perhaps one that's passing through Dubai or London or Cape Town.

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