Cirque du Soleil's 'Alegria' has many faces

After 20 years as a performer on Broadway appearing in such musicals as "Annie Get Your Gun" with Bernadette Peters, "Sweet Charity" with Christina Applegate and Elton John's "Aida," Tim Smith is having the time of his life as new artistic director for Cirque du Soleil.

For eight months, the native New Yorker has been in charge of Cirque's touring "Alegria," one of the Montreal-based troupe's oldest extravaganzas that has been seen by more than 10 million people since it premiered in 1994.

But while it is an acclaimed classic with faithful fans, "Alegria" is still open to reinvention and interpretation. And when Smith comes to Wichita with the show for six performances this week, he practically guarantees no two performances will be the same.

"Yes, it will look much the same and the structure will be the same," he says of the lavish costumes, original music and inventive takes on trapeze flying, strength balancing and juggling. "But the mandate for Cirque is to constantly reinvent new images and showcase new skills within that framework. That's what makes my work so exciting."

Smith says that after two decades on stage where "the director acts like Mom and Dad, telling you the plot, what to think and how to react," it's liberating to create a more open-ended, perhaps more open-minded entertainment.

"I looked around and realized I wasn't 20 anymore. I wanted to try directing to take me to the next stage of my career. After being on Broadway so long, only Cirque could match that same quality with people working at such a skill level," Smith says.

"Obviously, my background isn't in gymnastics or circus. I never flipped around 40 feet in the air. But after Broadway, I know what looks good with music."

He considers changes to "Alegria" on a daily basis, largely based on physical conditions of cast members at any particular moment but also on readiness of a new piece.

"These are athletes and artists. They know their limitations and if someone has an injury or a problem, I work around it. I go through the list every day to see if we need to tweak something or pull something," Smith says. "But I am also empowered to add something if it's ready. It happens frequently, probably every week. It's all about reinvention."

Unlike traditional American circuses, Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) features no animal acts. Instead, it showcases the artistry of athleticism. There is generally a loose story thread tying together cleverly staged circus acts. The look and feel are distinctly Old World with decidedly oddball characters. They aren't particularly scary, but they can be dark to evoke a range of emotions. Nonstop hilarity or giddiness would be too confining, he says.

"You and I could be sitting right beside each other during a performance and see the exact same thing but come away with different interpretations. That's the beauty of Cirque's design. It's nontraditional. It's broad. It's grand but avant-garde. It piques your curiosity and makes you think," he says. "Afterward, first-timers invariably say two things: 'I've never seen anything like that before' and 'Where did they find those people?' Everybody walks out with a 'wow' reaction. I just love that."

Cirque du Soleil began as a handful of street performers and stilt-walkers in Quebec in the early 1980s and was incorporated by Guy Laliberte in 1984 with the mission to "invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the motions of people around the world." It's since grown to 5,000 people in more than 100 occupations from designers to engineers to accountants, all supporting 1,200 performers from more than 50 countries.

From street performing to tent shows, Cirque has expanded to 10 permanent shows — seven in Las Vegas with names like "Mystere," "O" and "Zumanity. There are also nine touring shows worldwide with names like "Quidam," "Dralion," "Saltimbanco" and, of course, "Alegria." All told, Cirque has played to nearly 100 million people — including 15 million just in 2010.

Smith says that "Alegria," which means "joy" or "jubilation" in Spanish, has a story thread about older generations stepping aside and passing on the world to younger generations. On one side are the Nostalgic Old Birds, a sort of poignant and pitiable aristocracy in their fading finery. On the other are the Nymphs and Angels clad in sheer, sleek togs for freedom of movement.

Coming in and out during the 2 1/2-hour show are at least 10 acts, from synchronized trapeze to trampoline tumblers to mirror-image contortionists to aerial acrobats.

"We immerse ourselves in their world for a couple of hours," Smith says, "And we come out with new ways to look at things."

If you go

cirque du soleil's 'alegria'

What: Acrobatic and gymnastics artistry with lavish costumes and original music by the Montreal-based circus

Where: Intrust Bank Arena

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed. and Thu., 1 and 5 p.m. Fri. and Sun. No shows on Saturday.

How much: Tickets: $35-$94 adults, $28-$76 children under 12; discounts for military, seniors and students; available at Select-A-Seat at 316-755-7328 or www.selectaseat.com.