Arts » Cover story

Cirque du Soleil's Quidam is crazy, sexy, cool

Sensuous aerial show returns to Charlotte



Whoa. Is she naked? Oh. My. God. She is! She's naked. No, wait. That's a body suit. A nude body suit, so she really looks naked.

This is like an aerial version of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How is she contorting her body like that? And so high above the stage. That red silk cord is like a more dangerous version of a stripper pole. Wait. Now she's tied herself (by one wrist!) to that silk cord, and she's suspended in midair.

I don't even think this is in the Kama Sutra. This is too much. Now she's bound by one ankle. Looks like the kind of kink that makes people write Dan Savage to ask, "Is this normal?"

Damn. Can one person have an orgy? That's what this looks like.

That was my reaction to one of the signature scenes from Cirque du Soleil's Quidam (pronounced like the French would say it: Kee-dahm). "Aerial Contortion in Silk" (Google it and see what I mean) was daring when Cirque first performed it in Montreal in 1996. It won that year's silver clown medal at the Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo, the circus' equivalent of the Oscars. Publicist — or Attachée de Presse, as the French Canadians would say — Jessica Leboeuf calls the act "super mainstream" now and says there are even people who perform aerialist arts for fitness.

Who can possibly do this for exercise, I wonder? Olympic gymnasts? Sex pervs?

Cirque's Quidam makes a return visit to the Queen City July 3 through 7. Since Cirque du Soleil originated in Montreal in 1984, the human (and humane) circus has brought many shows to Charlotte (Alegria, Totem, Varekai and last year's Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL). This is Quidam's first appearance since 2002. Its extravagant aerial theatrics are ripe for analysis — after all, not everyone will see the show the same way.

For example, 38-year-old Tara Riley has an interesting perspective — one that's usually high up in the air. The founder of Queen City Aerial Artists says of the aforementioned scene, "This piece was absolutely inspiring to me. It takes a lot of skill, practice and bravery to perform such a feat. I don't think it was meant to be as erotic as it seems to be. Contortion is sexy, no doubt about it. Combine it with aerial fabric, and you get magic — the magic that Cirque is now known for."

Despite Leboeuf's insider's perspective, she is reluctant to divulge her own take on the performance, as she wants audiences to find their own meaning. But of the character in the fantastical, freestyle silk rope dance, she says cryptically, "It could be the mother character. If she could give herself a voice, this might be what she would say: She's sexy, and she knows it."

The mother Leboeuf is referring to is mom to our young heroine, Zoe. The child is bored — her parents seem detached from her and disconnected from each other — so she enters a world of make-believe to escape her loneliness. Zoe meets the proverbial stranger in the crowd, Quidam (Latin for "a nameless passerby," according to Leboeuf), who encourages her to use her imagination and re-engage in life. And how.

That the nameless passerby is a headless character carrying an umbrella may seem comical and cartoonish to kids. To adults, though, it may seem sad and surreal — as if René Magritte's anonymous, faceless "Man in the Bowler Hat" painting had come to life.

Indeed, adults may find the show haunting, exhilarating and dangerous. Leboeuf calls it "romantic and tragic." To a kid, though, it's probably just plain cool. (Although the innuendo wasn't entirely lost on my 10-year-old nephew, Will, who wrote in his notebook-paper review that it was "passionate" with "shifting emotion from scene to scene." Yeah, he's advanced for his age.)

Another young reviewer, 6-year-old Mia, sat transfixed while watching YouTube snippets from Quidam with her dad. She said she liked the performance and noted that it shifted from ballet to something entirely different. "Modern?" her dad prompted. "Yes," Mia replied.

"And what else do you remember?" Mia's dad asked.

"That girl who looked naked. That was kinda weird."

Sex and innocence

Certain scenes from Quidam — which has been touring for an incredible 15 years — look like two parts circus and one part strip club. (Don't get too excited though; the clothes don't come off.) So to many, Quidam may be just a crazy display of gymnastics. But intuitive adults will probably see something more — and not just passion and sexuality. A sense of melancholy permeates the show. While Quidam celebrates athleticism and grace (and skimpy costumes), it also hints at isolation and ennui. And it makes the sad point that we adults lose some of our wild imagination as we age. OK, a lot of our wild imagination.

Is he dancing with fire? Isn't this dangerous? And is that some sort of primal screaming or Gregorian chanting I'm hearing? A man with a Mohawk has begun hula hooping. And now the hoop is moving on its own, as if it's under his power. Freaky.

OK, a jump roper. This looks normal; I get it. Oh, not so fast. Now there are multiple jump ropers and some sort of fever dream music. Now there's — how to describe? — French carny music and acrobats and scads of people jumping rope at the same time. In double and triple time. Bizarro. There's so much going on, I don't know where to look.

Now everything's dark, and there's sad music. And now back to a robotic jump rope routine. This is totally surreal.

The crazy, dreamlike aspect of Quidam, including this jump rope sequence from Act I that I attempted to wrap my head around, may leave some viewers baffled. Leboeuf reports that some audience members leave a performance with, "That was amazing, but what was it about?" The fact that there's not a single intelligible word in the show — when the characters do speak, it's in an invented language — may leave realists scratching their heads. In our interview, Mia said, "I couldn't really understand her." But Mia made that comment as she was twirling around in her Hello Kitty pajamas, thus suggesting that Quidam inspires both kids and adults to get up and spin.

Born to be wild

There's a bonus for those of us who think Barnum & Bailey is the Cruelest Show on Earth: No wild animals have been trained into submission to be part of this extravaganza. The only animals in this circus are of the human variety, and they're all here willingly — even if they are temporarily bound at the wrists and ankles.

One warning, though: Four unsuspecting adults will be called onto the stage for an audience participation segment titled "Clown Cinema." And, Leboeuf cautions, latecomers to the show may be made fun of from the stage.

It's all in fun. In fact, the entire show — whether you find it uplifting or a little unsettling — is designed to amaze and awe. Some of the world's most talented acrobats, including international jump rope champion Adrienn Banhegyi, are part of the high-flying cast.

If you need more convincing, my nephew, Will, wrote of the jump rope sequence, "One performer even amazingly jumped rope sitting down!" If that doesn't entice, I don't know what will.

Should you check out Quidam next week, you may see innocence lost. You may see alienation and existentialism. Hell, you may even see some light S&M. But you may also see inspiration. Leboeuf says some adults leave motivated to take up jump rope again. Who knows? Maybe you'll instead be inspired to hang a red silk cord from your ceiling and do a nude aerial dance while suspended from it.

Purchase a lower level ticket to Quidam for the July 3 showing for $56 (retail price is $110.55).