On October 18th, 1998, purely by chance, I entered the mystical, surreal and magical world of Cirque du Soleil. It’s a world I have revisited many times, almost exclusively with amazing results, but there’s nothing quite like the first time.
I had come into tickets through a promotion at a music store I used to work at, otherwise I would never have dreamed of shelling out for tickets to a circus. I had been to a few circus shows in my thirty-some years and never really found them very engaging; the animal stuff was generally a bit sad, the clowns are unsettling, and then of course there’s the huckster’s creed that prevails over the whole shady racket.
Sure I had heard raves about Cirque du Soleil and their new circus style – my ex-girlfriend’s parents were absolutely giddy about Cirque – but as the accolades rarely came from people that I could picture attending, say, a Grateful Dead concert, I never really thought Cirque du Soleil would be my kind of thing.
I went to the then-barren LeBreton Flats in Ottawa on a sunny afternoon and found the funky Ikea-coloured tent with it’s peaks and arches and settled into my seat in the back row. There were some clowns being wacky with some of the crowd members which was pretty fun to watch, especially from a safe, non-interactive distance.
The show was called Saltimbanco and I had no clue what to expect. What I got was a two-hour string of jaw-dropping acts that left me spellbound. With not a discernible word I followed the abstract adventure of a family as they encountered jugglers, acrobats, clowns and characters that felt like The Magical Mystery Tour done right. The opening act featured mom, dad, and child climbing all over each other creating a statuesque morphing display of grace, beauty, strength, and endurance. This was followed by a troupe that climbed up and down twenty-foot high poles as if the gravity had been shut off.
The juggler did things with her balls (and my mind) that I’ve never imagined, and the kids throwing the Chinese yoyos all over the room were more engaging than could ever be described. But my favourite trick of the day was when the MC casually cast away a hula hoop, and as he kept speaking in his fabricated language to the crowd that hula hoop proceeded to circle the entire stage-in-the-round and without a thought arrive back at the MC’s hands where he nonchalantly caught the hoop without even the slightest of glances. What a trick.
For a franchise that started with a couple of busking street-jugglers in Sherbrooke, Quebec to grow into a worldwide entertainment behemoth requires rabid word-of-mouth, and after this show Cirque had earned another excited promoter as I spouted to all who would listen that this Cirque du Soleil stuff should not be missed.
If I’m not mistaken I walked around for at least several months muttering about how it was the best show I had ever seen, and in many ways it was.