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Cirque du Soleil is thrilling again

With Kurios: The Cabinet of Curiosities the troupe puts the focus back on the jaw-dropping talents of humans, not eye candy.

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When you come down to it, there's only a limited number of circus skills. You can throw, spin, balance, bounce, hang, fly, catch, contort, somersault, or clown. Your average show is pretty much guaranteed to feature somebody juggling pins, walking a wire, flying off a teeterboard, swinging from a height, touching toes to head, or doing a handstand atop either another person or a swaying stack of chairs or both.

In short, there's nothing categorically new under the big top.

So unless you abandon all self-respect and go with the motorcycle cage of death, the trick of classic circus tricks becomes a matter of presenting them in a way that makes them feel new again. Often enough that means pushing the danger factor to another level. But risk works only up to a point. Circus artists are professionals, after all—they're not in the business of trying to kill themselves but of giving you a thrill while they flirt with the illusion of getting themselves killed. Back when I joined the circus (no, really!), I watched a tightrope walker make the same slipup at show after show, just to add a little frisson. She was so good she had to pretend to fail.

An alternate option is the one Cirque du Soleil pioneered and has been plying lo these many years: find ways to embed the traditional techniques in opulent, high-concept fantasies. Danger is no longer a primary value here, though it remains present (and real enough, as demonstrated by the 2013 accident that killed CDS acrobat Sarah Guyard-Guillot during an aerial bit in Las Vegas). The point instead is to supply a hip, very high-tech sense of spectacle, toggled to an evanescent narrative played out by lots of beautiful young performers.

This worked supremely well for a long time. But the ratio of eye candy to real expertise seemed to skew in the more recent shows that toured to Chicago. It looked more and more like the Cirque formula had devolved to the point where cast members were simply buckled into their harnesses and plugged into whatever elaborate conceit the creatives had conjured for us. The narratives weren't played out so much as populated. The beautiful young performers were interchangeable.

Well, now there's a new production in the blue-and-yellow Cirque tent next to United Center. And it restores the ratio with a vengeance. Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosties is thrilling, not just in its elegant, endlessly allusive steam-punk aesthetics but in its return to a version of circus that respects and showcases the often jaw-dropping talents of the artists onstage.

The ineluctable old circus tropes have been recast in delightful ways. A hand-balancing act called "Upside Down World" has Andrii Bondarenko building a chair tower such as you've seen everywhere and over and over again; the neat little twist comes when his double starts building a parallel stack downward from on high. Gabriel Beaudoin soups up an essentially ordinary juggling turn with the help of percussionist Christopher Chatham, increasing the stakes, first, by working to a frenetic beat, second, by operating on more than the usual number of planes, and third, by manifesting great precision and an enormous amount of enthusiasm.

Facundo Gimenez brings a Roberto Benigni-like puckishness to his clowning. The contortionists are superb in their ability to coalesce into a single creature, like something from a coral reef. And in the most perfect passage of Kurios, a corps of six acrobats from various corners of the old Soviet Union offer a banquine, strongmen heaving their birdlike colleagues into the air by making a launching pad of their arms. Imagine a teeterboard act without the teeterboard.

Kurios has its dull patches. A yo-yo interlude combines pedestrian effects with an unearned seriousness reminiscent of, say, David Copperfield. Likewise the rola bola, in which James Eulises Gonzalez goes to great, grim lengths to do less that you'd expect. The Acro Net is basically a very big trampoline. And while an aerial straps duet has its moments, it feels dated overall, as if Siegfried and Roy had come back with a strange new shtick.

But the marvels overwhelm the doldrums—and the design is eccentrically, exquisitely anachronistic in the spirit of movies ranging from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! to most anything by Terry Gilliam, but especially The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. More important, Kurios puts human beings back at the center of the circus, which is where they belong. Because if it isn't humans doing the defying (of death, of gravity, of our usual bungling lack of grace), then who cares?  v

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