Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Out of the Ordinary

By Lydialyle Gibson

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  After two weeks of reading the gauzy descriptions of Cirque Ingenieux that seem to dissolve into thin air (what, exactly, is a “whimsical flight of fancy”?), I began to hear somewhere in the back of my head, someone saying, “You had to be there.”

Poised, its creative team insists, at the dawn of a new genre, Cirque Ingenieux is a fusion of choreography, costumes, acrobatics, ballet, lighting, music, and – however overshadowed – a plot. (Only the dialogue is missing.) The result is the “ingenious circus” coming to The Orpheum next week, a weird hybrid of circus, dance, and musical theatre that hopes to stir the intellect by overwhelming the senses.

But, again, this explanation is incomplete. Jason McPherson, the show’s 25-year-old juggler, clown, and tailor, as well as scarecrow, lion, and tinman to its Dorothy, takes a stab at elucidating Cirque Ingenieux.

“I think the show is kind of like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, or that type of story in which there’s an adventure from reality to a dream world and back to reality,” he gropes. “And the circus acts themselves come out as symbols for the story. It’s really an attempt to be as theatrical as possible. Having a circus tell a story in a very theatrical, almost literary, form, even though there are no words, I think is very poetic.”

But what is it? McPherson tries again. He explains how creator and co-producer Neil Goldberg, founder of Cirque, Inc., and producer of more than 100 Cirque performances worldwide, traveled the world developing Cirque Ingenieux from the kernel of an idea. Along the way, Goldberg was collecting acts and performers from nine different countries – some of them Olympic medal winners – like pebbles on a beach.

“And so that’s why you have a cast of people who are kind of vaudevillian street-performing clowns, like me, as well as Mongolian contortionists, Polish hand-balancers, and then dancers and singers from shows like Kiss of the Spider Woman and 42nd Street,” explains McPherson, who was juggling for tips on the San Francisco wharf before he auditioned for Cirque Ingenieux.

The eclectic troupe began their first tour in Dallas, Texas, in August. Goldberg and fellow producer Kenneth Gentry assembled a team of acclaimed directors, designers, choreographers, writers, and new-age composer Kitaro to stage and score a dream-saga in which the proverbial little girl, this time enchanted by a trapeze artist at the circus, slips into a fantasy world filled with many wonders and dangers. This is the vehicle for the circus.

“All the same characters in the real-world circus come back to her as much more fantastical, outrageous characters, doing these incredible routines,” explains McPherson. “We draw the audience into different worlds through the acts and the choreography, the acting, the music, the lighting, the projections, the sound effects, and the movement of the whole thing.”

And that, it seems – incredible routines enhanced by theatrical effects – must be what Cirque Ingenieux is finally about. McPherson gets really excited describing the performers’ acrobatic feats. “You will not believe it – I mean, it looks absolutely surreal,” he insists. To prove it, he brings up the hand-balancing act by two Polish acrobats. “It begins – this is just the beginning –when one of them presses into a handstand on the other’s head. Just slowly presses his body up into it, doesn’t jump.” McPherson waits for this to sink in. “It’s a one-arm handstand!” he bursts out. “There’s another fellow from Russia who does a strap-act routine. The way he does it – it’s an aerial ballet – he’s basically dancing in the air. Add that to the music and the lighting and the projections, and it really looks like he’s flying through the sky. It’s just incredible.

“And the acts aren’t just a freak show,” McPherson continues, “like, ‘Look, I can bend my body in half.’ It’s all very, very specifically choreographed to music. There’s always a visual image in any skill or trick that’s being performed.”

What’s more, he says, Cirque Ingenieux not only blurs the line between circus and theatre, but also breaks down the traditional barrier between audience and performer as it sweeps everyone in the room into its dream journey.

“There is no fourth wall between us and the audience,” McPherson explains. “Even though we are telling a story, it’s not like looking at a movie or a traditional theatre performance where the actors aren’t paying any attention to the audience. Even our most choreographed acts relate to the audience – you really feel a connection with who you are performing for. And it’s intense.”

Even after years of honing Cirque Ingenieux and six months of almost nightly performances, it is still a show still in flux, says McPherson. “This is not a set show that’s been running for five years,” he explains, winding up one more time. “Each day we do it, the story becomes clearer and more fascinating. We all like to think that eventually we will get a perfect, polished stone.” He pauses. “Until then, it’s really an amoebic performance.”

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