If you're thinking about going to see Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam" this weekend at the Don Haskins Center — and, really, you should go — you might want to consider buying seats a few rows off the floor. Maybe more than a few.
Unless, that is, you want to be part of the show.
Christina Oswald wasn't looking to do that during Wednesday's opening night performance, the first of eight through Sunday at the UTEP arena. But a bowler-hatted character had other plans.
Appropriately named The Clown, he summoned good sport Oswald from her seat in the first row off the floor, handed her a fake rose and had her sit in a chair next to him to engage in a childlike bit of play acting.
They pantomimed riding in a bumpy car. But when he backed it up, turned on some sexy bump-and-grind music on the radio, opened the sunroof to a moonlit night and handed her a few drinks, it became obvious that what The Clown had in mind wasn't child's play.
Oswald wanted none of his amorous intentions, as I'm sure most women don't when they get called to the stage for this bit of old-school circus chicanery. This is a family show, after all, so The Clown gave up, teasing her blonde hair into a ratty mess, then tricking her into a goodbye kiss.
It was one of the lighter moments in an often mesmerizing, occasionally thrilling and very busy two-hour show that alternates between the dark and the light. "Quidam," first staged under the big top in 1996, throws a lot as you as it tells a simple, human story about a child's need to dream, and their parents' responsibility to be involved in their lives.
You might think Oswald was in on the act, since she used to work for UTEP's Special Events office and now works for the company that manages the Plaza Theatre. "I actually wasn't. Totally random," she texted later from her seat, after restoring some order to her hair. "It was fun! Also fun not to have to work a show."
The 50 or so performers in "Quidam" did have to work very hard to earn the applause, laughs, oohs, aahs and assorted gasps from the smallish crowd, a surprisingly low turnout for the Montreal-based company that brought the circus arts into the modern age.
The arena, which is dominated by the "Quidam" stage, can seat about 3,500 per show, but only had about 2,000 people, if that, for opening night. Venue officials said Cirque staff wouldn't release the actual attendance figure, a sure sign that they were disappointed by the turnout.
Cirque drew 3o,000 for "Alegria" in late 2010, the company's first trip to El Paso, and 34,000 when it returned with "Dralion" last February. Maybe three shows in less than three years is a little much for a growing market. A UTEP Special Events staffer said the troupe probably won't be back before 2015. Maybe local audiences will get a little hungry by then.
Each Cirque show has its own character, and "Quidam" takes its cues from the creators' pre-millennial concerns that we'd grown too far apart as a society. The Father wears a business suit and buries his head in the newspaper (which happened to be a copy of the El Paso Times on opening night). Mother sits by complicitly as bored little Zoe encounters Quidam, a headless, thus anonymous figure in an overcoat, with a blue bowler hat and umbrella.
She puts on the hat, ushering in a world of imagination where the kids take over, including a mischievious clown named John, a gravity-defying guy who spins around in a large metal hoop (called the German Wheel), a contorting aerialist, and an almost elfin guy who made spinning, tossing and catching up to three large yo-yos, called diabolos, look easy. Only the jump ropers, with one noticeably gifted exception, had obvious problems.
That was just the show's first half. The second felt much faster, and was more spellbinding. That included a mesmerizing act called the Statue, a muscular man in what looked like a gray Speedo and equally cut bikini-clad woman who climbed on top of him until her legs were pointed straight in the air, the back of her neck balancing on the back of his.
They slowly, silently moved into one logic-defying position after another, the spare, wind-like accompaniment providing the perfect soundtrack. At one point, he lay on his side as she held herself aloft by a single hand, positioned just above his hip. At another, she leaned back, her back parallel to the stage, holding him off the ground as he jackknifed his feet above her chest.
The Cloud Swing is a single female trapeze-style artist, the only act with a safety line, who swung back and forth on a rope, doing spins, stands and somersaults. At one point, she fell forward, catching herself by the ankles, rose up and fell backward, catching herself by them again. It was the kind of stuff that made your palms sweat.
In between that was another comedy bit in which The Clown pulled four people — three men and one woman — from the seats near the stage and directed them in a tawdry little movie about a guy who catches his girl in the arms of another man. The laughs, of course, came from making them act all this melodrama out.
The finale was the Banquine, a gymnastic act rooted in the Middle Ages, in which 15 performers execute a series of stunts, including leaps and spins, the most wrenching of which came near the end when a tiny woman in white was propelled high into the air, landing on the shoulders of a guy stacked on top of another guy stacked on top of another.
A woman near me gasped "Oh, God!," when it became apparent what was about to happen.
"Quidam" may have a funny name, and it's certainly got some funny moments, but it uses the threat of eminent danger to marvel the kid inside us all. It's a heavier, busier contrast to the more ethereal and beautiful "Alegria," which Franco Dragone also directed.
Dominique Lemieux's costumes capture both the whimsy and sorrow of these child-like figures, many costumes drawn from the '20s and '30s, a new-school show's acknowledgement of its old-school roots.
Michael Crete's larger-than-life stage inventively uses five long, aluminum arms, called telepheriques, that stretch from the back of the staging area to the front of the crowd. They allow the imaginary characters, from aerialists to a trio of specters that hover over the Statue, to move back and forth in a kind of airy choreography.
It's all set to an exotic world music score by Benoit Jutras that adds to the sense of mystery with otherworldly voices (which bounced nicely around the superlative sound system) and strains of Arabic, French chanson, rock, jazz and ambient music.
Like other Cirque shows, "Quidam" takes you to a highly imaginative and imaginary world. You should go. But you might want to think twice about where you want to sit.
"Quidam" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Don Haskins Center. Tickets range from $35 to $95, $28-$76 for children 2-12, $31.50-$85.50 for students, seniors and military, with discounts for family four-packs, at the UTEP Ticket Center, Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com and 800-745-3000.