'Cirque Dreams Holidaze' at Kennedy Center: Classic acrobatics, seasonal spin

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:59 AM

It's not every week that the Kennedy Center Opera House features a strongman balancing himself with one hand atop another strong gent's head. But the marble memorial's plush red surroundings are indeed hosting traditional big-top acts - jugglers, acrobats, aerialists - through Sunday in "Cirque Dreams Holidaze," an overactive bauble about cookies, ornaments and the like coming alive and running amok.

Young kids will be tickled, no doubt. They will marvel not only at those two strongmen, for instance, but also at the weird moon-faced figures that walk by and gawk at the muscle-y feats. Parents, though - especially those familiar with the more polished Cirque du Soleil franchise - may wonder why Cirque Dreams creator-director Neil Goldberg keeps upstaging his featured acts and cramming the stage with so many moving parts you don't know where to look.

Goldberg has plenty of international talent on hand who know how to make entertainment out of hoisting, flipping and balancing. He just isn't framing them artfully. The set is colorful and densely decorated, with 30-foot-tall inflatable nutcrackers on either side, but it's not deluxe or alluring - just busy. The same goes for the music, which will take you to the Big Hair '80s with its power ballads and heavy thumping rock tunes. The aggressive design looks and sounds like a bad parade.

The acts, though, are quite winning, even if you have to consult the program to see exactly what these performers are supposed to be. Yonas Alemu and Tariku Degefa are Gingerbread Men; one lies on his back and uses his legs to flip the other like a pancake. Those strongmen, Qiang Xie and Jian Zhang, are Ice Men, and though their streaked tights don't make that identity clear, you really don't care. All that matters is how one man's neck bulges and quivers from the weight of the other guy maneuvering on his head.

Some of the simplest bits give "Holidaze" its greatest charm. There's a funny exchange, anchored by Peterson Jardim's wordless antics, about making music with rattling bells. (Fair warning if you go to the show: You might be recruited to participate. Hey, it's the circus.) And the quick costume changes of Jefferson Alexandre and Anastasiia Kriukova are probably easily explained, but Kriukova goes through so many spectacular dresses so fast that if you don't know the trick you will be deeply intrigued.

Those bicycle tricks you did as a kid, popping wheelies and spinning the front tire around as you rode no-hands? Five Chinese women do that here, only they add acrobatics, such as somersaulting from bike to moving bike. Slack wire routines, daredevil balancing - it's a familiar bill, though understandably not always to scale with the usual expansiveness of the big top (you certainly won't see much in the way of high-flying humanity via trampolines or trapezes). What "Holidaze" peddles is classic circus stuff, solidly done, even if inelegantly wrapped.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

"Cirque Dreams Holidaze," created and directed by Neil Goldberg. Music and lyrics, Jill Winters and David Scott. Costumes, Cirque Productions, Lenora Taylor, Santiago Rojo; scenic design, Jon Craine; production design, Betsy Herst; lights, Kate Johnston; act design, Neil Goldberg, Heather Hoffman, Iouri Klepatsky. About two hours. Through Dec. 12 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedycenter.org

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