Oct. 13 2010 12:00 AM

Cirque de la Symphonie serves up flying bodies and soaring music


Cirque de la Symphonie calls itself a marriage of aerial artistry and symphonic music, but there’s reason to believe it’s really a concentration test for local musicians.

Christine Van Loo, an award-winning aerial gymnast, is among the Cirque’s most effective distractions.

“The musicians often come backstage and tell us it was really hard to concentrate because they want to watch us,” Van Loo said. “A lot of them memorize the music so they don’t have to read it while they watch us.”

While hosting the itinerant festival of flying bodies for the first time Friday, the Lansing Symphony crew had better watch it — meaning they’d better not.

Cirque director and founder Bill Allen loves to talk about the allure of his star aerialists, Van Loo and Vladimir Streltsov, when they’re “up in the air, intertwined like butterflies.”

“I’ve seen the first violin hold up his bow like an inexperienced whitewater canoeist who forgot to paddle and started going down the rapids,” Allen said. “I’ve seen conductors conduct over their shoulders.”

Of course, audience members face no such quandary. Their only job is to watch, listen, and be swept away by a closely synchronized mix of music and moves.

John Varineau, associate conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony, will guest conduct a show that plugs two art forms into one outlet.

On one hand, the acrobats of Cirque get a great showcase — and a more uplifting musical backdrop for their aerial choreography than synth pop or circus oom-pah-pahs.

Orchestras, for their part, use the novelty of the combination to entice new audiences and give older audiences a fresh kick. Nothing underscores a crescendo like a lady in tights flying your way.

Besides Van Loo and Strelstov, the production features the talents of juggler and mime Vladimir Tsarkov and the “Lady in White,” Elena Tsarkova, whose talents include contortionism.

It sounds like a three-ring circus, but Allen stressed that the show doesn’t call for more than two artists to be on stage at a time. “They’re not there to be a distraction from the orchestra, but to enhance the whole concert experience,” Allen said.

“It’s very classy,” Van Loo said. “The choreography and music together is a beautiful, graceful, and dynamic thing.”

Cirque de la Symphonie goes back to 1998, when Allen started experimenting with putting cirque artists on stage with a live symphony orchestra.

One day, while traveling in Russia in the 1990s, Allen was watching circus artists warm up backstage when one of them turned on a boombox and started blasting Tchaikovsky.

He was treated to the play of rippling muscles, flying bodies, soaring strings, and throbbing brass.

“I thought, this is the music this artform was meant to be matched with,” Allen said.

In 1998, Allen was representing Streltsov. After a performance in the United States, Allen saw a man who identified himself as a conductor having an animated conversation with Streltsov backstage.

It was symphonic spy stuff. A rep from the Cincinnati Symphony called Allen the next day, asking if a co-production pairing cirque artists and the symphony would be possible.

With the help of riggers imported from Moscow, Streltsov flew out over the crowd, live symphonic music billowing behind him, for the first time.

2005, the show was a staple of the orchestral pops circuit, staying
fresh by frequently changing up the music and choreography. Friday’s
Lansing gig features favorites from Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Bizet, Chabrier
and, for the younger set, John Williams’ score to “Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer’s Stone.”

highlight is Van Loo’s aerial duet with Streltsov, the only aerialist
who has performed with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, to the music of “Swan

“I love my
job,” Van Loo said. “There’s nothing better than performing with a live
symphony orchestra beneath you. It’s such an adrenaline rush.”

artists aren’t lifted by motors, but by pulleys and cables operated
manually from the wings, so the moves can be as closely timed to the
music as possible.

Allen said every orchestra that has worked with Cirque has asked them back.

hard-core symphonic purists ever grumble? Allen pointed to a recent
summer concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The unspoken rule
against applauding during the music fell by the wayside early in the

“We found out that the more sophisticated they are, the harder they fall,” Allen said.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra:

Cirque de la Symphonie 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $12-40 (517) 487-5001 www.lansingsymphony.org