Cirque du Soleil's campaign to take over the world — at least the show business part of it — has a fresh manifestation in its arena show Saltimbanco, which opens tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. This is not a new Cirque show. Saltimbanco goes all the way back to 1992, and its creator was Franco Dragone, one of the gurus of the Montreal-based company. It's more of a pure circus show — complete with a juggler, trapeze duo and trick bicyclist — and doesn't have the thematic pretensions of later Cirque productions like Quidam or Alegria. When I saw the show in Lakeland in April, these questions popped into my mind.
What's with the title?
Saltimbanco is a typically elusive Cirque title, derived from the Italian word salto, which means flip or somersault, of which there are many in the show. It literally comes from the phrase saltare in banco, which translates as "to jump on a bench.''
Does it have a plot I can follow?
"It has kind of a narrative thread,'' artistic director Adam Miller says. "There are characters who take you through it. It is more of a journey than a story. There are nuances based on a narrative idea, but it's not a necessity for the audience to know the particulars of it.
"The underlying story is a sense of growth from innocence and conformity to diversity and excitement over everything the world has to offer within the urban experience. It's supposed to have a street feel to it.
"I think Saltimbanco is the most human of the Cirque shows. To me there's a bridge between the show and the audience. It's not quite as theatrical in its cohesiveness as some of the other shows. Because of that it has a freewheeling feel to it.''
Why an arena staging? (This was the first Cirque tent show to be restaged for an arena.)
“Saltimbanco is our least complicated show technically,'' says Carmen Ruest, director of creation for the restaging. "And this is a show that has proven itself very successful in many different new markets. It's a very good show for new audiences to experience Cirque du Soleil. Altogether, it was easier to bring a show into the arena that we know inside out. The stage is higher but the same size as for the big top, which has 2,500 seats. We designed the set in arenas and other venues for not more than 4,500 seats. Spectators are on three sides.''
Will fans of the Cirque tent shows see their return?
Cirque swears that putting its shows into arenas doesn't mean that it won't be touring as much in tents, and I hope that's true, because as entertaining as Saltimbanco is, it's just not the same to see it in the bland, institutional setting of an arena as it would be under the big top.
The company brought three tent shows to St. Petersburg, where it set up in the Tropicana Field parking lot for Quidam, Alegria and Varekai, the most recent in 2005. They drew sellout crowds, but the last time Cirque brought a tent show to Florida, Corteo, in December 2008, it played only in Miami.
Cirque continues to develop tent shows. The latest, Ovo, premiered in Montreal in April and tours to other Canadian cities this year.
What are Saltimbanco's best parts?
There are three major acrobatic acts, including the amazing Russian Swing, in which the performers soar into the upper reaches of the arena. The other two are Chinese Poles and the bungee act that winds up the show. The duo trapeze act, performed by sisters Ruslana and Taisiya Bazaliy, from Ukraine, looks incredibly risky as they swing and catch each other with their feet. The surreal, Magritte-like costumes by Dominique Lemieux are among the best ever done for Cirque. René Dupéré's score includes Kumbalawe, a song with gentle flute solo and nonsense lyrics that you'll be humming for weeks.
What's it like to fly so high with no safety harness, no net, in a daredevil act like Russian Swing?
"It's pretty scary, but it happens so fast you can't really think about it,'' says Michelle Vera, 21, a gymnast from Miami who has been in Saltimbanco for two years. "You don't necessarily get used to it. You always have an adrenaline rush before you jump off the swing. The main thing is to stay focused because you can lose your concentration pretty easily.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.