Circuses coming to town at Bass Hall

FORT WORTH -- If you look at the Bass Hall schedule for November, you might think that the ballet, opera and symphony have been replaced as resident companies -- by circus performers.

Scheduled this month are two "cirque" shows: "Cirque de la Symphonie" with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, this weekend, and "Cirque Dreams: Illumination," beginning Nov. 30. In between is a one-night stand with the Golden Acrobats of China on Monday.

They might all seem similar -- mainly in that they all happen on a pre-existing stage, rather than erecting a tent, as some traveling big tops and the most famous of the cirques, Cirque du Soleil, do. But there are differences.

Perhaps the biggest break from what most people think of as a circus show onstage is Cirque de la Symphonie. Presented in the Fort Worth Symphony's Pops Series, this cirque is a little more than a decade old. Performer Alexander Streltsov and producer Bill Allen found a niche when they discovered they could work with symphony orchestras, and not only have live music to accompany the artists, but that the music could be classical masterpieces, performed by world-class musicians.

The orchestra appears onstage, as with its other concerts, and the jugglers, contortionists and acrobats perform in front of them and the conductor.

"It does add another dimension to the concert experience," Allen says. "The music is the element which truly fuses these two great art forms together. We're bringing the cirque artistry to a fine-arts level."

The music comes from the standard repertoire, and although cirque gives each orchestra a choice of selections, there are certain pieces that have to be played with specific acts. "We use [Ravel's] Bolero for the strong man, but if the symphony doesn't want to play that, we have other choices, such as Stravinsky's Firebird Suite," he says.

Unlike the other cirques, the Symphonie doesn't have a basic storyline to follow but focuses on each music composition and the performance that coincides.

Of this trio, the Golden Acrobats of China is the organization that has the most history, honoring a tradition that began about 2,700 years ago.

If you're looking for straight-forward but still extraordinary physical feats, such as contortionists who bend and balance objects, and acrobats who manage double-digit bodies riding on one bicycle, this is the act to catch. It still features colorful costumes and jaw-dropping performances, but without the pretense of some of the cirque shows.

And then there's Cirque Dreams, which is bringing its latest creation, "Illumination," to the Hall, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.

Creator Neil Goldberg who also founded Cirque Ingenieux, has been a mainstay in the American cirque circuit for 20 years. Cirque Dreams has other shows, such as "Jungle Fantasy," which have toured to performing halls all over the country (it came to Bass Hall several years back).

"Illumination" is a little different from "Jungle" and the other cirques, in that the characters are all real people with normal jobs, such as a news reporter, who step out of their boundaries and perform these feats.

"I really took a step back and conjured what audiences think when they hear the word 'cirque,'" Goldberg says. "With all the others out there, it's about bizarre costumes and makeup, surreal-styled performance artistry, and the human body doing extraordinary things in an extraordinary fashion. What we've done is very consistent with what people think they're going to see, but Illumination set out to be the prequel to the cirque style, what the whole genre was before producers like myself decided to stylize it in this very abstract fashion."

"I think audiences are really interested in unique expressions of imagination," Goldberg says.