It took almost three decades, but the spectacle of Cirque du Soleil finally came to Portland on Wednesday.
And what a spectacle it was.
Death-defying acrobatic jumps that almost reached the rafters. Rubber-limbed contortionists who scoffed at the limits of human anatomy. Jugglers and clowns and strongmen and pole climbers and dancers.
Even a five-piece rock band.
Simply put, if the Montreal-based troupe wanted to make a good impression on a Maine audience, it succeeded with aplomb for a crowd of 3,000-plus at the Cumberland County Civic Center during the first of eight performances, which stretch through Sunday.
Cirque du Soleil (French for “Circus of the Sun”) has been entertaining audiences worldwide since 1984 with numerous shows, but despite its close proximity to our state, this week marks the first time it has performed before a Maine audience.
So it’s somewhat appropriate that it’s making its Maine debut with its signature show, “Saltimbanco,” which premiered in 1992 as a large circus-tent production and was revamped for arenas in 2007.
Featuring a cast of 51, “Saltimbanco” explores the life of a major city — its people, its buildings, its atmosphere and energy. It’s Cirque du Soleil’s longest-running show, and cemented the company’s now-famous reputation for combining the acrobatic feats of the circus with the theatrical bombast of a modern Broadway musical, gift-wrapped in fantastical costumes and sets.
There is no discernible plot, so don’t bother trying to find one. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle, which is divided into three primary acts with a 20-minute intermission: Chinese poles, the Russian swing (a long board that can hold several people at once), and a third act featuring bungee and trapeze aerials.
A few recurring characters help keep the show’s momentum going between segments, most notably a buffoonish ringmaster who acts tougher than he is, a boyish mime who makes sound effects with his mouth, and a jester/monkey who interacts with everyone. At several times during the show, audience members are chosen at random to “help” with a comedy bit.
As the troupe’s name implies, the show is built around classic circus acts, amped up by carefully choreographed skits featuring numerous casts of characters. But it’s also an amalgamation of traditional styles, including pantomime, tribal drumming and ballet.
Humor abounds, and there is just a hint of sexuality in a couple of numbers, but nothing offensive.
Where “Saltimbanco” excels is when its main performers take center stage and perform feats of strength, balance and dexterity, often at the risk of injury or death. They hang from poles reaching 24 feet into the air; bounce, somersault and leap off each others’ bodies; and jump as high as the lighting rigging onto a platform that’s no bigger than a toddler bed. There are no safety nets, just supporting cast members and the occasional bungee cord to break their falls.
According to Cirque du Soleil, “Saltimbanco” is scheduled to make its final curtain call in Montreal this December. So this could be the first and only time a Portland audience will get to enjoy it. You have seven more chances to do so.
Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or at: