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What started in the early 80s as a loose-knit collection of street performers has turned into a multimillion-dollar international enterprise; but in its last Chicago engagement, the 1993 run of Saltimbanco, Montreal's Cirque du Soleil showed no sign of corporate--or corporal--sluggishness. That production boasted the same brilliance, energy, and youthful invention that dazzled in the troupe's 1989 and 1991 appearances; and memories of those shows whet the appetite for next week's opening of Alegria (a Spanish word meaning joy). The Cirque du Soleil formula combines traditional circus elements (including a festively colored big top and an array of risk-taking, beautifully built acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, tumblers, etc.) with pop-concert light and sound displays, audience-interactive clown improvisation, and a loose-knit but identifiable cast of characters. Outlandishly yet exquisitely costumed in a sort of rock 'n' roll Renaissance style that suggests the films of Fellini, they give a strong enough sense of thematic unity ("power and transformation" is this year's hook) to qualify the show as stimulating, stylized performance art as well as crowd-pleasing spectacle--family entertainment in the very best sense, at once imaginative and visceral. Cityfront Center, 400 N. McClurg, 527-5168 or 559-1212. Opens Wednesday, July 26, 7 PM. Then Thursday, July 27, 7:30 PM. (See performance listing for shows through August 27.)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Seib.

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