Cirque is the French word for circus, but the translation is not that simple.

“A Magical Cirque Christmas” will be in Portland Friday at Merrill Auditorium. Photo by Lou Baldanza

While American circuses entertained the masses for generations with animal tricks, clowns and some high-flying acts, the modern shows that use the cirque label are more about the skill, technique and artistry of the performers. Old-time circuses were often in a tent set up in a grass field. A cirque is likely to be performed at a concert hall.

When a touring show called “A Magical Cirque Christmas” plays Portland’s city-owned concert hall – Merrill Auditorium – on Friday, there will be no clown cars and no elephants. But there will be highly-trained and competitive professionals performing all sorts of acrobatic and athletic feats, from swinging on a trapeze to balancing in a giant wheel.

“Today it’s more about skills and technique, it used to be more about doing a trick and making people laugh,” said Zoe Sanscartier, who performs a duo trapeze act in “A Magical Cirque Christmas.” “It’s more of a sport now, with everyone trying to outperform themselves.”

“A Magical Circus Christmas”  began its tour earlier this month in Reading, Pennsylvania, and will be on the road through December. It’s not affiliated with the well-known Montreal-based Cirque Du Soleil,  but is produced by a company that has put on several touring shows over the years, including “Le Grand Cirque,”  “Cirque Adrenaline” and the Broadway show “The Illusionists.”

The show on Friday will feature circus performers from all over the world, including Japanese juggler Yusaku Mochizuki, who was a contestant on the TV show “America’s Got Talent” and British magician John Archer. Sanscartier, who grew up in Montreal and attended the National Circus School there, will perform a duo trapeze act with Virginie Gerbeau, a native of France. The pair perform a kind of aerial dance, Sanscartier said, weaving and spinning from their trapezes, as well as flying through the air.

“A Magical Cirque Christmas” comes to Portland Friday. Photo by Lou Baldanza

Sanscartier, 21, said she became hooked on cirque-style circus performances when she was a child in Montreal, and enrolled in the National Circus School there at the age of 11. She graduated two years ago and has been performing with various shows and troupes since.

Oleksiy Mruz, from Ukraine, will perform something called Rola Bola, which is the art of stacking seemingly incongruous items into a tower and balancing atop them as the tower grows higher and higher. Cuban born performers Ray Rodrigues and Henry Green will perform a foot juggling act, while one performer literally juggles the other one with his feet. The performer being juggled does flips and spins in the air.

Other skills on display will be the Cyr Wheel, which looks like a giant, sturdy Hula Hoop. Performers balance in the wheel while manipulating the wheel in a variety of ways. The show also features several other acrobatic acts that combine a ballet-like grace with thrills and strength.

“To me, a lot of it is just breathtaking to watch,” said Sanscartier.

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