At age nine, I had my first real ambition in life. It was to be a circus acrobat.
That was in 1992, after I watched a performance by The Great Moscow Circus at the Singapore Indoor Stadium and was mesmerised by the performers' grace as they soared through the air on a trapeze and performed flips and catches.
Never had I seen such beautiful creatures, so weightless and free, and I wanted to be just like them.
Evidently, that did not work out. But the circus - with all its mystery and enchantment - has always held a special allure for me.
Which is why on a recent trip to Las Vegas, I made it a point to catch three circus shows - The Beatles Love, O and Zumanity - all by renowned Canadian entertainment company Cirque du Soleil.
Considered the largest live entertainment provider in the world, Cirque du Soleil sets the gold standard for world-class circus-based shows. Five of them are performed as residency shows in Las Vegas and cater to different tastes.
BOOK IT / THE BEATLES LOVE
WHERE: The Mirage, 3400 S Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, United States
There is Mystere, a classic production that showcases powerful athleticism and high-energy acrobatics. Another show, Ka, features a heroic journey of love and conflict set within a dynamic theatrical landscape.
Among the productions I saw, the most delightful was The Beatles Love.
Combining music from the legendary English rock band with clowns, trapeze acts and aerial yoga moves, this show is a valentine to any fan of the Fab Four.
As the dreamy melody from Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds played during one act, a female acrobat floated almost weightlessly through the air, against a sea of sparkling stars.
During the Octopus's Garden number, the theatre transformed into an underwater paradise, with cast members in jellyfish costumes lowered from the ceiling, performing a slow-motion aquatic ballet.
Light on circus acts and heavy on dancing and whimsical imagery, this show is my recommendation for family-friendly fare.
If you are looking to be amazed in a jaw-dropping, life-changing way, then the water-themed O is for you.
Pronounced the same way as "eau", the French word for "water", this beautifully inventive show is performed in, on and above a 5.67- million-litre pool, which functions as the stage.
Resembling at times a puddle, at others a lagoon engulfing the stage, this pool not only showcased the elegance of water, but also the diving and synchronised swimming abilities of the show's cast members.
In one segment, they performed a dizzily surreal water dance in black-and-white costumes, swinging and balancing on a giant frame.
In another, acrobats on a ship, suspended over the water, flew and caught one another with incredible split-second timing.
I was enthralled and overwhelmed by this work of aquatic artistry.
And for those curious to see an edgier, more provocative circus performance, check out the adult- themed Zumanity, which blends playful innuendo with daring eroticism.
This show has both burlesque and cabaret elements, so expect naughty jokes interspersed between circus acts such as contortions, acrobatics and aerial stunts.
The contortionists, in particular, left a strong impression on me, as they performed gasp-inducing twists and folds using their bodies.
With its seductive performers coming in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, the production also seemed to present an inspiringly inclusive message - that anyone can feel confident and sexy.
In my book, the spirit of the circus has always celebrated individuality, talent and the boldness to push one's limits.
While my childhood dream to run away and join the circus is long dead, leaving the theatre, I have never felt more alive.
Circus acts to catch overseas
Phare, The Cambodian Circus
Based in Siem Reap, this four-year-old circus combines theatre, live music and circus art to tell stories inspired by the real-life experiences of its creators and performers.
Shows have dealt with themes such as war, discrimination, relationships, poverty, ghosts and Cambodian folklore.
The artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit school and vocational training centre in the Cambodian city of Battambang.
Shows are performed nightly under its big top, which can accommodate 330 people.
I watched one of its performances, Preu (Chills), in 2015 and was impressed by the balancing ability of the young performers, who could remain steady and upright even when standing on tall stacks of cylinders and chairs.
Where: Phare, The Cambodian Circus, Phare Circus Ring Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia
When: 8pm daily
Admission: US$18 (S$24.30) to US$38 for adults, US$10 to US$18 for children
This world-renowned troupe of Russian circus performers is known for its breathtaking stunts. For example, it once featured a high-wire act with two men standing on the wire, and a woman doing a spilt while balancing on their heads.
Its latest show is Gostinitsa - Hotel Of Curiosities, which blends circus art with 1930s Hollywood glitz.
This new show will have stunts involving Europe's only double Russian swings. Performers launch themselves into the air and somersault from one swing to another. A unicyclist shows off his incredible acts of balance on a single wheel and a seven-man strong group called the Bell Boys will perform a synchronised skipping act with a twist.
Where: Hampstead Heath, East Heath Road, London
When: Sept 27 to Oct 1, 5 and 7.30pm (Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays); 2, 5 and 7.30pm (Saturdays); 2 and 5pm (Sundays)
Admission: £12 (S$21.50) to £36 (adults), £8 to £32 (students, jobseekers, those under 16 or over 60)
Founded in 1969, this American travelling big-top circus is a family-run operation featuring several generations of artists and crew. Its past acts have featured acrobats on aerial straps spinning in the air, as well as motorcycles racing inside a spherical cage.
The latest show, Steam Cirque!, is a steampunk production whose storyline revolves around an eccentric group of adventure seekers who stumble upon a travelling circus in an imaginary Victorian city.
Where: Westfield Galleria at Roseville, 1151 Galleria Boulevard, Roseville, California, United States
When: Daily shows from Oct 5 to 15, various timings
Admission: US$22 (S$30) to US$72 (adults), US$17 to US$67 (children)
An exhibition opening next month at Science Centre Singapore will showcase the science behind circus acts.
Titled Circus! Science Under The Big Top, the show highlights how science has always had an important role in the circus and how performers rely on a balance of artistry and science to amaze and perplex audiences.
Visitors will be invited to scrutinise various circus acts and learn to tell illusion from reality and pseudo-science from science.
The more daring can attempt to walk across a high wire or perform tricks while hanging in mid-air with a safety harness.
Where: Science Centre Singapore, 15 Science Centre Road
When: Oct 28 to March 18 next year
Admission: $18 for adults, $15 for children, from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline 'Performing artistry'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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