Martin Lamberti comes from a circus family with roots going back a couple of hundred years. And he's been an acrobat, hand balancer, mime, clown and comic himself for nearly 50 years.
But Lamberti, who will be coming to Wichita for three performances this week with "Cirque Dreams Illumination," believes the future of circus is with young people who have no background in or family ties to the business.
"I've seen way too many children from circus families go into the ring or into the variety theater and do the same old things over and over. They've lost the innovation," says Lamberti, who grew up in Indiana with performing parents who were stranded there in the 1950s when the Clyde Beatty Circus disbanded after a disastrous fire.
"One of my passions is to encourage young people with the interest but no circus backgrounds to try it. They bring the heart, the curiosity and the drive to do it. You have to teach them the proper posture and how to present themselves, but they bring the new blood and the fresh ideas."
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"Cirque Dreams Illumination," which follows "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy" as a Theater League offering from a couple of years ago, will be performed Tuesday through Thursday in Century II Concert Hall. This show, like its predecessor, features innovative acrobatic skills and breathtaking stunts set to evocative music, with exotic costumes and sets to tell a story about the human condition.
"'Jungle Fantasy' was about the wild and the natural. 'Illumination' is about people in an urban setting," Lamberti says. "You have people using ordinary objects to do extraordinary things, such as when an electric lineman ends up being a high-wire walker. I'm on stage in all but two scenes. I make things happen or watch them happen or things happen to me. I play the man in the street."
During the show, Lamberti creates three different characters, from a vagabond to a vaudevillian to a silent film director who enlists people from the audience to enact skits.
Besides performing, Lamberti is also a designer of several of the illusions in the show, including a mystical scene in which objects appear and disappear under black light.
"It's not like standard magic. It's black arts, which is an entirely different thing. It relies more on the visual splendor than the trick," he says.
Lamberti, who began as a juggler and hand balancer and later directed shows for a German circus for 13 years, joined Cirque Productions as a performer and designer in 1998, five years after the company's founding. Producer and artistic director Neil Goldberg had founded Cirque Dreams in 1993 as America's answer to Canada's famous Cirque du Soleil.
But officials for both groups stress that, while similar, the two groups have no affiliation and no real rivalry because they do different things.
Cirque Dreams is designed as a family-friendly theatrical event that tells stories while Cirque du Soleil creates exotic moods and vignettes, sometimes purposely adult-oriented, in large arenas and tents. Cirque Dreams is the only show of its type to go to Broadway. Cirque de Soleil has permanent shows in Las Vegas, Orlando and other major cities.
But both groups tour, which occasionally makes them cross paths. In Wichita, Cirque du Soleil will bring its "Alegria" to Intrust Bank Arena two weeks after "Cirque Dreams Illumination" is at Century II.
Although Lamberti is on the road for 36 weeks a year with the Florida-based "Cirque Dreams," he has plans for an eventual retirement home in the Carolinas. But he admits he can't quite picture himself giving up the stage.
"I've been on stage for 48 1/2 years — ever since I was 8 — and it's never been work. I'm an entertainer first because I like to make people laugh and see them have fun. The secret is that I don't actually work, I play. Actors don't 'work' in the theater, they 'play' parts. If and when it becomes work, then it's time to retire."
If you go
'Cirque Dreams Illuminations'
What: Theatrical spectacle that combines acrobatics, elaborate costumes and rock concert music; second offering from Theater League this season.
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu.
How much: Tickets: $29-$64 with discounts available; call WichitaTix at 316-219-4849 or go online to www.theaterleague.com.