“Hello” and “good bye” to Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco, now the best-selling show in Civic Center history

The Dreamer and The Ringmaster from Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco. (Photo by Olivier Samson Arcand / Cirque du Soleil Inc.)

Tonight’s premiere performance of the traveling Saltimbanco at the Cumberland County Civic Center represented the first chance a Maine audience has had to take in a Cirque du Soleil show.

The Chinese Poles Act as part of Cirque du Soleil’s traveling Saltimbanco show. Costumes in this promotional image were developed by Dominique Lemieux. (Photo credit: Olivier Samson Arcand / Cirque du Soleil Inc.)

So, in that sense, it’s a big “hello” to a new group of fans for Cirque, which over the past two decades has used Saltimbanco as its worldwide icebreaker, if you will.

Just like for Portland during this run, which includes seven more performances through Sunday, Saltimbanco has opened up more than 160 new markets for Cirque du Soleil as the larger troupe dipped its proverbial toes in fresh waters all over the globe.

Here in Portland 22,000 people have bought ducats for Saltimbanco, making it the top-selling show in Cumberland County Civic Center history, according to show organizers.

Why has Saltimbanco been chosen out of 21 different Cirque shows — many of which, admittedly, aren’t traveling shows — to serve as the organization’s international ambassador?

Portland fans were treated to an answer in the local premiere tonight.

Saltimbanco is a universal performance, with the power to resonate equally with residents of this seaside Maine city as with those in Amman, Jordan (another site where the show opened Cirque doors for the first time this year).

Language barriers are thrown out the window as singing and dialogue in the show were easily understandable gibberish.

While few Portlanders may be able to imagine themselves flipping 40 feet into the air off of a Russian swing, most everybody knows someone like The Dreamer (played by Daniel Buckland) who is both a playful idealist and mentor figure to the hilariously mischievous young clown Eddie (Martin Pons).

Or the regal and intimidating Baron (Gerard Theoret), or The Ringmaster (R.J. Owens), who wants so badly to be regal and intimidating, but always ends up clumsy and skittish instead.

These are people who can be found in any city, and their personal and social evolutions through two-plus hours on stage in the fictional berg of Saltimbanco reflect easily back on us.

Only the artists of Cirque du Soleil can dress in wildly colored, surreal costumes while bounding across a baroque stage and still exude such ecumenical humanity that audience members instantly see themselves in the show.

Themselves, and yet also something bigger and more explosive than themselves. While part of the appeal is the universality, part is still the awe. The silky smooth and rich-like-chocolate voice of singer Nicola Dawn was worth the ticket price alone, and guitarist Adrian Andres channeled Eric Johnson and Carlos Santana with equal ease, highlighting a crisp and diverse soundtrack that floated the comedic and athletic feats before them.

Attendees coming because of Cirque du Soleil’s reputation for sky-high acrobatics weren’t disappointed, either.

Trapeze artist Sarah Haven Heffner did a swinging routine 30 to 50 feet over everyone’s head, which I was sure nobody could possibly survive until she safely came down from there.

And that is why Saltimbanco — which roughly means “jump on a bench” in Italian, as a tip of the cap to the myriad urban street performers whose acts are amplified in the show — is tapped to welcome so many new markets into the Cirque family.

It’s a little of what makes Cirque du Soleil special, and a little of what makes each hosting city special, all blended up into one special performance.

That said, it’s time to say a big “good bye” to Saltimbanco. At the end of this year, Cirque du Soleil is shutting down the traveling show.

Saltimbanco Artistic Director Neelanthi Vadivel told the BDN the show, which opened in 1992, has grown its own culture and legend over the years. It became a type of cult classic, recognized as being a catalyst behind Cirque’s explosion from one show in the late 1980s to 21 shows in nearly 300 cities today.

A “Masked Worm” from Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco. (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil Inc.)

But, as Maxime Charbonneau, the show’s publicity director acknowledged this week, it is nonetheless a 20-year-old show. There aren’t many new markets Cirque organizers foresee Saltimbanco being needed to break into, and while it floors crowds who have never seen a “Circus of the Sun” performance before, newer shows employ newer technology and more innovative acts.

The disappearance of Saltimbanco into the sunset after this year represents a sad, but triumphant finale for a show many audiences worldwide consider synonymous with Cirque du Soleil.

For Portland crowds this week, taking in Saltimbanco is truly a chance to say “hello” and “good bye” to one of the modern circus’ most enduring shows. That chance should not be missed.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.