Clothes, it seems, make the acrobat. In Cirque du Soleil's abundantly satisfying new extravaganza, "Varekai," the dazzle doesn't end with the contortions of a woman who bends like Gumby, or a pair of aerialists who perform synchronized swimming skills in midair. No, the thrills under the big top extend to the needle and thread of Eiko Ishioka, whose costumes for this Cirque installment precipitously raise the bar on wonder.
Cirque, in other words, has never looked more magical. Inside Cirque's main tent, pitched in the parking lot of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Ishioka's handiwork is no mere sideshow. Her wild creations, in explosive shades of green, red and blue, fill the stage with finned and feathered creatures with exaggerated appendages and torsos -- the menagerie of an evil genius. Some costumes put you in mind of Dali, others of Pokemon.
The costumes, far better than the stuff you see in circuses, ice shows or even on Broadway, are a reflection of Cirque's careful cultivation of an idea of spectacle that integrates to an astonishing degree story, movement, music and design. It's no longer a revolutionary style; after so much exposure and so many shows, Cirque feels, more than ever, like a formula. But the artistic elements and athletic feats are accomplished at such an elite level that thoughts of past Cirque programs can be put aside. Rarely does routine seem so out of the ordinary.
"Varekai" -- the word, meaning "wherever," is derived from the Gypsies' Romany language -- brings to Washington a new assortment of juggling, balancing, tumbling and flying acts from Mexico and Russia, Britain and China. The trademark conceit of Cirque, creating an ethereal narrative and setting it to pounding world music, is once again employed here. On this occasion, the recurring image is of a pair of wings, and just as several of the acts attempt to defy gravity, the production repeatedly touches on humans' fascination with flight, beginning with the story of Icarus and following through with evocations of hot-air balloons and projections of birds.
The notion is further refined in several of the acts, including the hypnotic work of Andrew and Kevin Atherton of Britain who, suspended by their wrists, soar like floating straphangers. In his solo aerial act, Anton Chelnokov of Russia wraps and unwraps himself precariously in a flimsy-looking bit of netting. The evening's most dramatic stunt is saved for the finale, when a team of Russian and Ukrainian gymnasts uses a pair of teeter-totter-style swings to catapult members into bolts of canvas or to vault onto one another's shoulders.
If the tumbling is made to seem effortless, the comedy of "Varekai" looks a lot harder. The clowning in Cirque's shows has never recovered from the loss of David Shiner, who once upon a time did a priceless mime act for the company, in which he recruited spectators to play roles in a frantic and hilarious silent movie. Shiner, who went on to collaborate with Bill Irwin in the successful "Fool Moon" on Broadway, set a standard that Cirque has never been able to match. That is apparent in "Varekai," whose first act includes a lame bit of audience participation, concerning a clown (Jordi Deambulants of Spain) who offers a fractured magic act. It falls flat, and someone should notify the prop people that the curtain Deambulants uses does not even close properly. (If that's part of the joke, it doesn't work, either.) He's on firmer footing in the second act when, playing a slicked-back French recording artist, he chases an errant spotlight around the tent. Two wackier clowns, bizarrely adorned and played by Sergiy Marchenko and Gordon White, are on hand to make younger ticket holders squeal.
A generation or two ago, any one of the acrobatic entries might have been booked on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Irina Naumenko of Russia, twisting her body into what looks to be examples of Chinese calligraphy while balancing on a metal stick, leaves you amazed; Octavio Alegria of Mexico is a superb juggler in the classic mold, sending pins and Ping-Pong balls and, most astonishingly, straw hats into the air. Director Dominic Champagne tosses in an intriguing curveball of his own in his choice for the closing of the first act: a gifted trio of twirling dancers from the Black Sea nation of Georgia. It smartly adds a dash of culture to the acrobatics.
Designer Stephane Roy contributes a striking set -- swaying, sky-high poles that might represent the forest in an abstract production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." With Ishioka dressing the characters who inhabit the stage, "Varekai" itself makes a case for dream status.
Varekai, written and directed by Dominic Champagne. Creative director, Andrew Watson; sets, Stephane Roy; costumes, Eiko Ishioka; composer, Violaine Corradi; choreography, Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon; lighting, Nol van Genuchten; sound, Francois Bergeron; projections, Francis Laporte. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Oct. 24 at RFK Stadium. Call 800-678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.