Hello Dali, meet Magritte

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In the parking lot of the Palace of Auburn Hills, they'll unpack and erect the blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau (that's "Big Top Tent" in American), and crank up the gears of an elaborate universe never before seen in metro Detroit. Finally, the elusive Cirque Du Soleil has fit Detroit into its schedule, beginning June 20 for a limited engagement, which might mean until the performers get tired and decide to pack up their big red noses and leave.

This French Canadian circus was founded in Quebec in 1984, but it's inadequate to call any Cirque Du Soleil production a circus. That is, unless your definition of a circus is to bombard the senses with an externalization of all the bizarre and quixotic crevices of the imagination, outrageously embellished with pumped-up colors, then set into motion with a reality-defying sense of balance — and without the use of animals. Cirque Du Soleil has transmogrified the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey three-ring extravaganza, focusing down to a single intimate ring in a real tent, then taking traditional circus acts and reinventing them while letting the collective unconscious of its creators run wild.

In this tent, a straightforward mastery of the Chinese yo-yo isn't enough. The Diabolos performers are transformed into red and purple pixies with pointed hats and sharp skirts, in perfect control of a mysterious group-powered mechanism. Underlying themes and narrative impressions permeate each act and segue, giving the viewer more to latch onto, yet still stay abstracted enough to leave room for audience imagination and participation.

Today, Cirque Du Soleil has garnered so much acclaim and demand that eight different shows are in production all over the world, with two permanent shows in Las Vegas (Mystère and O). Unlike most of their other shows, Quidam has a more ominous tone, like a dreamscape morphing from desolation to a fantastic visual ecstasy. Dark, floating, headless men emerge from all directions with no direction, like the disquieting paintings of René Magritte.

"There was definitely inspiration from there, but at the same time we allow ourselves to take the basic inspiration but go wherever we feel like going," says Benoit Jutras, who has been working with the Cirque since 1987, and is Quidam's musical composer and director. Jutras says Cirque Du Soleil's creative process is the key to tremendous success.

"Franco the director is overseeing everything, but really Cirque Du Soleil creations are group creations ... What we try to do at first is work on the ambiance, what wraps everything, and then from there, the acrobats will start training and make their acts with those atmospheres."

Jutras composed his score for Quidam by feeding on internal inspiration.

"The thing that will inspire me the most will be the work of the look of Luc (LaFortune) on the light or Dominique (Lemieux) on the costume."

All of the creators involved work back and forth, individually then together as a group for two years.

"I will create a musical ambiance, and then after that, I come back a month or two later. I present my stuff and Luc presents his stuff, and everybody presents their visions of the first ideas that we have, and usually those influences will inspire me a lot more."

It's a collaborative process with a success story worldwide. But when it comes to this show, Anita Nelving, publicist for Quidam, sees a difference.

"I think some of the inspiration for the costumes in Quidam is this anonymous passer-by and everyday person that you can relate to, and I think Quidam more than a lot of the other shows is less fantastical, if you like. There's more of a human element in terms of the characters and people on stage. You'll see a prince character — you'll see a person with suspenders and a cap on. There's more individual, real characters."

In "Banquine," men in tattered street clothes approach women dressed in white baby-doll dresses with garters. They interact through outstanding feats of acrobatic agility as the men toss the women about like rag dolls and all form human pyramidal diving boards. It's a vision that can evoke the aura of Toulouse Lautrec with its colorful and playful eroticism and its circus veneer. It's just one of the many tableaus, or acts, that form this performance, which could be seen as a real-life illustration of a series of French impressionist and surrealist paintings.

Jutras had Kurt Weil in mind when he composed the music for the show. Although the music is far from an intimate cabaret repertoire, knowing that could explain Quidam's somber tones imbued with a light fascination or humor, or why Quidam's musical number, "Atmadja," sounds like Carmina Burana meets Las Vegas.

The center ring has always been a great metaphor for refusing to be held back by the rational world's limitations. Over and over again, the law of gravity is defied. Burning barriers are broken through and impossible dreams come alive, helping to remind us crusty old adults of the secrets of alchemy that kids and creators already know. Cirque Du Soleil has taken that initial Barnum-bred rebellion against what has been done and pushed it to the ring's wild and wonderful extremes.

Cirque Du Soleil’s Quidam begins June 20 at the Palace of Auburn Hills (I-75 Exit 81 at Lapeer Road, Auburn Hills). Call 800-678-5440 for tickets. Anita Schmaltz writes about film and performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]

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