As any sham artist can tell you, imitating someone else's success is a dangerous enterprise. That axiom may have something to do with the less than overwhelming audience numbers at Neil Goldberg's Cirque — Dream It Live, presented April 10 and 11 by the Carolina Union Performing Arts Series at Dean E. Smith Center. If spectators stayed away because they feared a cheap knock-off of the far more famous Cirque du Soleil, all I can say is "too bad." They missed a hell of a show.
Despite a few unnecessary diversions, Goldberg's extravaganza was an enormously entertaining evocation of the classic European circus ideal. This American entrepreneur, a modern-day Ziegfeld of the athletic, has gathered an astonishing collection of acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists, clowns, and other wonders from Russia, Eastern Europe, North America, and the Far East and given them ample space to perform their miracles. And, like his predecessor, Goldberg set his diamonds on an over-stuffed marshmallow.
A vocalist — I think that's the correct word — called Noemie Jane sashayed about in gold lame and a high headdress singing nonsense in a language "created from her own imagination" that sounded something like an amalgam of French, Italian, Spanish and, quite possibly, Esperanto. Keith Heffner's music, meanwhile, was merely an unbroken series of repetitious techno-pop, complete with the occasional burst of laughter or whoop. Atmosphere, I suppose. Now and then giant puppets appeared, or large headless figures looking like slinky rolls of M&Ms, did almost nothing and, having done it, retreated, never to be seen again. I presume they were a part of the show's loose dream structure; they were certainly as pointless as most dreams.
None of this was required, because most of the acts were quite imaginative, jaw-dropping, and other-worldly enough by themselves. Goldberg's wonder show contained too many splendors to enumerate without providing something approaching a play-by-play, and only one set-piece failed to engage me completely: "Twisted Being," which offered a trio of Asian contortionists (Biambajav Janchivdorj, Indra Tsogtbaatar, and Solongo Tsogtbaatar.) The young women were certainly expert at their chosen trade, but contortion acts have always seemed to me less athletic than grotesque.
On the credit side were "Wound Up in Knots," in which Angel Fraguada climbed a rope backwards(!), wrapped himself in its tendrils and plummeted, stopping mere inches from the floor; "Timeless Stars," which spotlighted three stunningly accomplished trapeze artists (Emilie Dion, Nathalie Herbert, and Veronique Thibeault); and "The Pendulum Swing," wherein Vladimir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy balanced, on a rounded cylindrical pillow set atop a platform, tables, urns, and themselves.
Martin Lamberti, the evening's chief clown, hails from an old theatrical family, and it showed. This diminutive harlequin spun balls on the tips of his fingers, performed a W.C. Fields-esque cigar-box juggling act, ruffled his hair like Stokowski to conduct a half-dozen audience members in the charmingly impromptu "Ringabella's Wish," and all without uttering a word. Some of our more garrulous homegrown comedians should take note. Take note, I say, and sin no more.
While it's a bit unfair to single out one performer of genius among so many, I must commend the protean talents of Sergey Parshin, the busiest — and I daresay, the most spectacularly gifted — of the evening's tummlers. In "Flipping Out," he performed complex acrobatics with the air of a master; in "The Masquerade Hour," he balanced on eight chairs, stacking them almost to the flies atop a tiny stool; in "Heartbeat of the Spirits, he and two beefy compatriots (Serguei Slavski and Alexander Tolstikov) built totem poles of themselves and became, for one dizzying moment, one long extension of a single body. Best of all was "Fantasy Flyer," in which Parshin and a partner (Maria Kvartalova) made a lavender silk rope into a thing of exquisite beauty, swinging on, flowing within, and ultimately flying with it until it resembled a pair of enormous butterfly's wings. In Parshin, Cirque — Dream It Live found its ideal embodiment.
A personal note to the shutterbugs who persisted in taking photos despite the warnings: next time you're balancing at the top of a half-dozen chairs, I hope some inconsiderate clod blinds you with a camera flash.