Cirque du Soleil Brings the Circus Back to Town This Holiday with “Quidam”

When it comes to fans of Cirque du Soleil, there’s no place like home. Canadians have never been shy about showing a little hometown pride for their cultural exports, and there’s no exception for the show that has turned the concept of circus on its head.

Cirque du Soleil, the brainchild of Montreal’s Guy Laliberte, has grown exponentially since its inception in 1984, spawning a huge international following as well as several fantastically themed shows featuring international acrobats, dancers, gymnasts, musicians, contortionists, and a host of other wonderful sights associated with the traditional circus. But with the added element of dramatic theatre, street entertainment styles, and semi-structured narratives,Cirque du Soleil is much more than just a circus experience. The shows are varied—Totem, Ovo, Alegria, andZumanity, among others—but they all share the common effect of recreating the magic and wonder of the childhood imagination as they tour throughout North America and all across the world.

This December, it will once again be Toronto’s turn to play host to the characters and creatures of Cirque du SoleilQuidam, one of Cirque’s famed arena shows, will be playing at the Ricoh Coliseum from December 20 to 30, 2011.

“I think Canada’s proud of this export to the rest of the world, so it’s nice to play in Canada,” says Quidam’s bandleader and keyboard player, Jim Bevan. “Just because we’re not playing for outsiders so much, there’s a real support; the audience is more a part of what we’re doing. It’s not so objective, you know.”

Bevan has been a part of the Quidam family for the past decade, initially signing after responding to an online ad for a keyboardist.

“I was looking for a keyboard player/conductor job, and I found this on the internet. So it wasn’t that I was drawn toCirque du Soleil—I didn’t even know what it was at the time. I didn’t know what I was getting into!” he admits with a laugh. “But I had to audition, and I passed the audition. They wanted me, and it seemed cool. And I’m still here ten years later because it’s fun.”

While Quidam retains many of the same imaginative elements of other Cirque shows, it is a little more grounded in reality, specifically the reality that many people are disconnected from each other and society in general. The meaning of quidam is defined in the show synopsis as “someone coming or going at the heart of our anonymous society. A member of the crowd, one of the silent majority. The one who cries out, sings and dreams within us all. This is the quidam whom this show allows to speak.

The principal character is Zoe, a little girl in a dysfunctional family whose parents are distant and too apathetic to pay attention to her needs. As a result, she withdraws into a world of her imagination in order to escape her parents’ apathy. Within herself she discovers a fantastical world, but one which subtly hints at the gritty, tough world outside that she is trying to escape. This world is played out in true Cirque fashion with 52 world-class performers including singers, musicians, acrobats, gymnasts, and contortionists.

Cadence had a chance to sit down with Jim Bevan, at the Lower Ossington Theatre when he and a few members of the travelling tour stopped by Toronto for a quick sneak preview of what is to come. As we spoke, four members of the skipping group were doing a short performance in front of a CBC camera recording them for a piece on the upcoming show.

Bevan has toured with the show since 2001, but one might say that his rich musical background studying classical piano and rock from a young age, working as a professional jazz musician in several bands over a number of years, as well as working as an orchestra conductor in Philadelphia prepared him for this role long before he got the job.

“The show goes between jazz, to rock, to you know, classical, to world, and I’ve done all that stuff, so it’s not like we were doing something I had to learn for the show. The show fit me, which I think they knew right from the audition,” Bevan says, remembering.

“I had a feeling ten minutes into the audition that the vibe was ‘okay, let’s show you how this works.’ Rather than [my] trying to impress them, it was like, ‘Okay, he fits. He’s the guy.’And there was a connection between me and the guy who actually was the original bandleader, who was running the audition. He and I just connected in like ten minutes, and like, ‘Okay, let’s just get to work.’ That was nice.”

Quidam is slightly different from any of the other Cirque shows because rather than taking on great fantastical themes and mind-boggling effects and costumes, Quidam is more focused on everyday people and common, everyday concerns.

“There’s a little girl the show sort of revolves around,” explains Bevan. “She sort of has a dysfunctional family. Her parents aren’t . . . well, you just feel they’re not connecting in the beginning. And then she just sort of retreats into this world. It’s a very ‘street’ feel to it. That’s why like, the [Quidam] logo, if you look at it, it’s actually spray paint, like graffiti. The other shows—I mean, I don’t want to diss the other shows, but they’re more fantastical and dreamy. And this is more reality; the costumes are simpler.”

This simplicity is not restricted to the themes, Bevan adds, noting that even the presentation and performing acts are a bit more toned down.

“The makeup is beautiful, but you can still see the person inside. It’s not a ridiculous thing. And the band is just wearing comfortable clothes, which is why I’m still here! Some shows, the band is wearing fake noses and stuff, and we’re just up there in suits, almost pyjamas, linen suits! And the acts are actually stuff you can see on the street, like I’m here today with skipping (for the CBC video clip being shot at the same time). Skipping is something you could see on the streets, so there’s just a feeling that it’s a much more [like] reality.”

The aspect of reality that Quidam looks at is the problem of societal disconnection. In the show, this is represented by the distant relationship between young Zoe and her parents, but it also extends to refer to the anonymity of our present society – the word quidam is Latin for “everyman” – and how despite the prevalence of social media, the disconnectedness only seems to be growing. Bevan says this show celebrates the individuality of people and attempts to draw attention to this need for people to focus more on living. It is probably no coincidence that the principal character’s name, Zoe, means “life” in Greek.

“In the end, what sort of happens is that people find themselves, find who they are,” Bevan says.

With such a universal theme, Bevan says that performing all over the world means that there is often no problem with audiences not understanding their message.

“It’s great because we travel all over the world, and it transcends. There’s not a language barrier. Everywhere we go everybody understands what we’re doing, so it just makes the world seem closer, especially because the group [represents] so many countries, it just makes the world . . . manageable!”

The show was conceived in 1996, and since then it has toured on five continents, from Japan to Australia to all across North America and many places in between. Despite having been around over 15 years, it stills strikes a relevant chord.

“I think it’s timely. I think things have changed from when the show was created. When they created it, it was little more than a general concept, sort of like 1984, George Orwell-like, pre-Y2k, you know? The world’s going to end because the century’s going to change. And now, it’s different, but it’s still disconnected. It’s a different kind of disconnection, but the show still works,” Bevan says.

“People still feel like nobody knows who they are, you know? They’re just ploughing through the world and trying to be themselves, and it’s not easy. I think all the connection, all the message is still there. They still get it; it still makes sense. I think you could play this show 200 years ago, and people would still be like, ‘Yeah, that’s right; nobody understands me.’”

However, Bevan admits there have been a few exceptions, where they perform and the disconnection that plays out in the show’s theme ends up surfacing in the audience.

“We’ve played in places, like Shanghai, where it just felt like they were like, ‘What the heck is this?’” And I don’t want to diss China, but Shanghai was one of the worst places because you had the feeling that they didn’t get that this was theatre,” Bevan says.

“It felt like they were watching a baseball game, because we do this one beautiful, quiet, very still act in the middle of the second half, and you would just see the cell phones go on, and people would start talking, and it just felt like they were attending a baseball game. The game was going on, but they weren’t supposed to [be paying attention to it]; they could do what they want.”

Despite this, Bevan says the travelling life is the one for him.

“Growing up, my favourite book was If I Ran the Circus by Dr Seuss,” he confesses and goes on to quote: “In all the whole town the most wonderful spot is behind Sneelock’s store, in the big vacant lot.”

“Well, there are still those days when I wish I ran the circus,” he laughs. “I’m only the bandleader!”

Watch out for Quidam when it opens on December 20 at the Ricoh Coliseum, and for tickets and more information, click here.

Hope to see you there!