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Emotions behind 'Quidam' story run deep

Scene from Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam." Amsoil Arena will host four shows Friday through Sunday. (Photo by Matt Beard)

What can come from attending circus school: Consider the case of J.P. Viens, a man with a martial arts background who found that he had a knack for the circus arts.

Half a decade after attending the school where a student can focus on juggling, aerial tricks, German Wheel and more, the entertainer has found his niche as Boum Boum, one of the principal characters in Cirque du Soleil's production of "Quidam."

"He's a bit different from everyone," Viens said of his skeleton-faced character with pale skin, dark eyes and emphasized cheek bones. He's bald and wears boxing gloves. "He wants to be accepted, but he doesn't know how."

The long-running production that combines a dark story line and mysterious body-based feats makes its first stop in Duluth with four shows this weekend starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Amsoil Arena.

"Quidam," which debuted in 1996, is the story of a young girl named Zoe whose parents are distant, ambivalent authority figures. Zoe tries to find meaning in her life and in the process enters the world of Quidam, where she meets some interesting characters who pique her imagination.

Viens is a lifelong athlete who swims and competes in triathlons. When he was 20, he started attending circus school one night a week. He was a natural performing as an aerialist. He majored in the skill that now has him dangling 36 feet in the air during shows.

Viens worked independently and was recruited by a scout for Cirque du Soleil. He's been with the company for a year and a half -- long enough to have thoroughly considered what is in the soul of the character he plays.

"When he sees a big group he gets angry, he gets emotional," Viens said. "He wants to get close to people but he doesn't know how. I want people to remember a person who is full of emotions who doesn't always know how to handle them. As long as the (audience) is feeling something, I have achieved my goal."

When he is not on stage in character, he plays one of the nameless and faceless acrobats twisting and dropping and performing the Cirque-style tricks.

There will be five vertical ropes hanging from an arch over the stage. The aerialist performers wrap themselves in the silks and drop and sometimes perform duet-style choreography.

"I love this act," said Viens, who is also part of a rope-skipping act.

The performers have regular practices and Viens, 26, said he does his own workouts on the side including weightlifting and cross training on a stationary bike.

In addition to specializing in ropes, he's practicing with a Cyr Wheel -- a body-sized hoop an artist stands inside while rolling.

Viens said he wasn't really one of those people who plotted out his future in pen.

"I was a person who had a different plan every five minutes," he said. "I just started circus as a hobby and that led to it."

The cast and crew pulls in today with its 17 semitrailers filled with gear. Set-up takes a day, according to assistant artistic director Georgia Stephenson.

The tour has been in Green Bay and stops in Duluth before heading to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. There are 100 people between the cast and crew, some who have taken circus backgrounds in different directions.

Stephenson, who is seventh-generation circus, has taken a more managerial role. She passes along critiques of performances.

"I make sure that what happens on stage every night is true to the concept of the directors who formed the show 16 years ago," she said.

Stephenson describes "Quidam" as the most emotional of the traveling Cirque du Soleil shows.

"I have to think to myself that I actually work here and get to see it every night," she said. "For me, it's because of the emotion they embody on stage. You can come out with stunning technique and death-defying aerial work, but when the artists are executing that technique with emotion and purpose, it adds a dimension. It's like singing or watercolor or doing Shakespeare. It's just a powerful method to tell the story."

Go see it

What: Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam"

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Amsoil Arena

Tickets: Start at $32; available at Ticketmaster outlets including ticketmaster.com and the DECC box office

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