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Review: 'Alegría' thrills audiences at the Expo Center by being both totally alien and perfectly Portland.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Using poles designed for pole vaulting, but held horizontally, a group of catchers help propel flyers high over their heads. The so-called Acro Poles were invented for this version of "Alegría."
At Cirque du Soleil, it's always about the contrast.

High and low. Strong and fast. Dark and light. And for one of the circus' most time-honored productions, "Alegría," the hierarchy of haves and have-nots.

So when you host opening night in Portland, of course you offer Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte and Voodoo Doughnut (shudder).

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ammed Tuniziani, left, is both a flyer and a team captain who had a hand in creating the choreography of this show. His wife and brother are both members of the flying trapeze team.
Like most everything else, the pandemic sidelined the famous touring circus for two years, but it's back from hiatus and has dusted off the fan favorite "Alegría," the story of a kingdom without its king, and the clash of the elites versus the street. The show opened Thursday, June 16, to a sold-out crowd at the Portland Expo Center and runs through Sunday, July 17.

The term "better than ever" is a marketing cliché, but it's true here. This "Alegría" feels fresh, exciting, sexy, explosive, quickly paced and edgy. There's a gender-fluid quality to the costumes by designer Dominique Lemieux and makeup by Nathalie Gagné. From a distance, it's difficult to tell the gender of the flyers in the flying trapeze finale (not so the catchers; both guys are built like Buicks). The romantic storyline of the clowns is carried here by two men, Spanish comedians Pablo Bermejo Medina and Pablo Gomis Lopez, while the most sizzling number is a contortionists' tango featuring two women, Daria Kalinina of Russia and Halina Starevich of Belarus.

The reimagining of a famous production — performed continuously from 1994 to 2013 — features a stunning new stage by the set and props designer Anne-Séguin Poirier.

Fly and catch

At Cirque du Soleil, it's always about the contrast.

Example: One of the flying trapeze team captains is Ammed Tuniziani of Venezuela, 32, a slim, wiry man, a third-generation circus performer, who says of himself, "Me, I have been flying for 24 years."

When he releases his hold on the bar, tumbles through the air, it's Ryan Schneider who serves as his catcher (or porter). Schneider is a soft-spoken Texan built like a Division 1 defensive lineman, and who played the sports all good Texans play, like football and baseball, before seeing his first trapeze act.

"It changed my career," he told us.

It's a funny way to make a living. Up above the net, Schneider does his job upside down, his powerfully built legs anchoring him to the bar, leaving his hands free to catch his designated flyer and to set them zooming back. He's got between 50 to 70 pounds on the people he's catching. And they're twirling, twisting, and falling, fast, from about 45 feet in the air to about 30.

"Yeah, I'm a soft target," the big man says with a wry smile.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portlanders gave this aerial kiss one of the biggest applause moments of opening night. Nicolai Kuntz of Germany and Roxane Semiankiv of Switzerland perform with a tool called Aerial Straps, while dancing in three dimensions to the "Alegría" theme song.
If Schneider came to the life of a circus performer accidentally, Tuniziani has it baked into his DNA. His grandfather was a circus tumbler in the 1950s; his mom and his five brothers were all flying trapeze artists (one brother, Gamal, is in this show as well).

"I started when I was 7 years old," Tuniziani says, "I mean, I see my brothers, they are up there? And what kid doesn't want to fly?"

The clan Tuniziani could be seen as newcomers to the Big Top. Ammed's wife, Estefani Evans of Brazil, is a fifth-generation circus performer. And she, too, is in this show. His mom, Fatima, travels with the circus and homeschools Ammed and Estefani's two kids, Davi, 10, and Alysha, 8. For them, schooling includes reading, writing, arithmetic, juggling and strength conditioning.

Ammed grins. "Hey, that was the age I learned all this…."

Well said

At Cirque du Soleil, it's always about the contrast.

Take the simple act of talking to each other. There are 19 nationalities within the cast alone, and 22 within the cast and crew representing 14 languages, according to Francis Jailbert, the Quebecois publicist for Cirque du Soleil.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A soft-spoken Texan, Ryan Schneider is a catcher; in the trapeze world, that means he catches people 50 to 70 pounds lighter than himself, moving fast, while they're twisting and falling. Oh, and he does it upside down.
Just look to the music. The five musicians playing live on stage are from France, Australia, Croatia and Spain, while the ethereal vocalists are Irene Ruiz Martin of Spain and Cassia Raquel of Brazil.

Even the opening act is an exercise in détente. Neither the traditional circus act known as Russian Bars, nor the French act known as Banquine, would quite work for what the choreographers had in mind, so they invented a never-before-seen hybrid art form for this show, called Acro Poles, using the tool created for pole vaulting, held horizontally, enabling flyers to execute crazy-fast and crazy-high moves well above the catchers' heads.

So how does it work on the trapeze, having so many languages swooping around up there? First, English is the lingua franca of the whole circus, cast and crew alike. But second, it's in how one defines "language."

"The communications up there, it becomes more than just verbal," Tuniziani says. "It is very physical, it's very emotional. You have that communication of body language. If you're not synchronized up there, it doesn't matter what language you speak. You will not communicate well up there. To us, Spanish, English, Portuguese, Russian, you name the languages up there, to us it doesn't really make a difference."

And an integral part of the language is "Hep!"

It's that burst of sound uttered by the catchers or porters, directed at the flyers. And it means … well, it means what it means.

"It means go," says Schneider, one of the catchers who barks the catch-all word. "Or go faster, or go now, or speed it up, or when to finish."

Tuniziani says, "It's hard to explain. It's 'let's go' and 'let's move.' It's like on the running track, yes? The starter pistol. The boom. You hear it, and you just go."

Standing below the net, Jailbert, the publicist, hears the "Hep!" echoing from above the net. When asked what it means, he shrugs.

"They know what it means," he said.

Or take the word "Fuerza!" It's Spanish for "strength."

Tuniziani said almost all circus performers are superstitious. "When I fly, I need to be calm. I just need to be in that space, yes? Calm but also focused at the same time."

And to get there, he finds his wife, Estefani, backstage. Every night. And they touch hands and whisper to each other, "Fuerza!"

And then they fly.

See for yourself

Tickets are selling out fast for the entire run of Cirque du Soleil's "Alegría: In a New Light." Tickets range from $112 to $600-plus VIP seats. More information is available on the show's website.

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