The company of an anonymous stranger

James Porteous

Hearing the interior of the SECC described as anything other than a monstrous collection of ironwork is a fairly uncommon event. Yet the man sitting beside me, Sean McKeown, Artistic Coordinator of Quidam, has just been overwhelmingly complementary about the place. Bizarre, considering the reputation for beauty and spectacle that Cirque du Soleil carries, but what’s even more peculiar is that looking at what’s in front of me, I agree with him entirely.

This revelation came as we sat watching the technical staff of the production working on the stage to be used throughout Quidam’s seven show run at Glasgow’s SECC. Using the word stage hardly does it justice – the forty square metre platform conceals all manner of trapdoors and revolving sections, and sits beneath the magnificent ‘Telepherique,’ a massive 37.6m rail structure that sits snugly between the eaves of the exhibition hall.  At its peak, it’s the height of three double-decker buses off the floor – Cirque du Soleil say that it took them over three years to figure out how to transfer the show from the big top to an arena, and it’s easy to see why.

Following on from performances at the likes of Dublin’s Point Theatre, and London’s Royal Albert Hall, the current tour represents the first time Quidam (meaning “anonymous passerby” in Latin) has ventured out of the traditional circus big top and into the wildly different surroundings of arenas and concert halls. Rather than traditional shows at these big venues, the custom stage means the audience surround the performers, offering a much more involved view.

The show itself is the second time Cirque du Soleil has been in Scotland, as McKeown confirms: ” We did come here once before with a show called Delirium. Actually, I saw Delirium in this same space, but it’s a very different format show – it’s very much a montage of different acts from different shows, whereas what we’re presenting now is a full Cirque du Soleil show for the first time.”

Quidam, like every show the French-Canadian group has created, has a rich narrative that serves to enhance the individual acts themselves – rather than a collection of acrobatics, the show tells the audience a story, albeit in a visually abstract manner. In essence, it can be more directly compared to an opera or ballet than a traditional circus performance with a ringmaster, and all the other associated accoutrements.

“The theme … people always ask me that!” laughs McKeown when quizzed on the current show. “The great thing about our shows is that people can come and make up their own theme.

“There is a story – of course there is one – and the story of this show is about anonymity and about people re-connecting, and recognizing all of our similarities and all of our differences.”

The Quidam veteran’s response seems purposefully enticing in its ambiguity, and gives nothing away about what to expect from the show itself. Even the official Cirque du Soleil description of the performance is delightfully mysterious, leaving as much as possible to the imagination of those coming to the shows.

This mystery makes an invitation to the warm-up for the first of the Glasgow shows all the more appealing. As the technicians continue work, and another of the show’s acrobatic performers practices high above the arena floor, flipping and swinging on a rope that dangles beneath the vast metal Telepherique, McKeown talks about the show’s relation to conventional circus. “It’s tough, there’s always room for tradition. This show has toured the world, we’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of traditional theatre and shows along the way, and there’s still a really nice place for traditional circuses.“

With a cast of 52 performers, Quidam certainly rivals the size of a regular circus, albeit without the element that has led other circus groups to controversy in the past – the use of animals in shows.

For Cirque du Soleil, the attraction lies in the abilities of their human performers, as McKeown confirms: “What we did, was create something different. We set out to re-invent the circus, in a way and that’s why we’ve just stuck to having people.

“We were originally just a group of eight street performers, who set out to do amazing things as people. So we continue to focus on what we could do with people, and how far we can push the physical boundaries.”

In the cast, the show certainly makes the most of the best the world has to offer, with representatives from 14 countries filling the various roles in the complex performance. Of these, only one is British – Julie Cameron, who is in fact from the West of Scotland. The young sports acrobat became involved in the show after sending a recording of her performance to producers in Canada, and being picked up for a position in Quidam.

Her role as an Albino (above picture) sees her dressed entirely in white, with her starring moment coming as part of the Banquine phase of the show – Cameron and the other members of the act work through a routine of staggering acrobatic agility, launching into the air and across the stage like bottle rockets.

In talking about the show, Cameron does not come across as someone who performs to pay the bills. There is a dreamy enthusiasm to her answers when asked about her opinion of the show – references to magic, and comparisons to the feeling of reading a captivating novel for the first time give the impression of someone who is as much caught up in the enchantment of the show as you’d expect from an audience member. It’s an aura that surrounds everyone that’s involved in the production, be they performer or publicist, and it’s infectious.

Come the evening, and the show itself, there is a feeling that the time spent in conversation with the Cirque du Soleil team has only heightened anticipation over what to expect from the performers. With clowns toying with members of the audience as they try to pick their way to the seats, the show begins immediately upon entering the arena, and continues onwards relentlessly until the house lights come up.

Simply put, Quidam is utterly captivating. The various extraordinary performances within each of the multitude of physical feats are complemented with sublime musical backing, and playfully interspersed with audience interaction and physical humour. The pacing is perfect, with each section building to its own finale in such seamless succession that the length of the show becomes imperceptible; it is an astounding, beautiful piece of performance art.

With the show having now finished its run in Europe, and heading off to South America for a year, the performers and crew have the chance to take five weeks off. “Not long, but enough … We’ll be ready,” muses McKeown. “You don’t want to rest too long, or you lose shape,” he chuckles. From the time spent watching over the day, a loss of form does not seem an issue that’s likely to arise for Quidam.


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