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When the cirque comes to town ...
Cirque Dreams Illumination re-imagines the greatest European show on earth

The European circus tradition has infected the rest of the world. Founded in 1993, Florida-based Cirque Productions was the first American company to import, adapt and present shows combining amazing aerial antics, stunning feats of balance, contortion and strength, comedy and clowning with Broadway-style theatrics. Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy cleaned up on Broadway, and on a cross-country tour.

The latest production, Cirque Dreams Illumination, opened last week in North Carolina before hitting the big road. Like all the Cirque Dreams shows, it was conceived and produced by the company's founder and president Neil Goldberg, a native New Yorker who began his career producing spectacles for corporate events and private functions. From conception to start date, Goldberg spent $3 million on the new extravaganza.

Cirque Dreams Illumination arrives at the Savannah Civic Center Saturday.

Goldberg, 50, took a few minutes the morning after the Illumination opening in Raleigh to talk about his new baby which, like all Cirque Dreams shows, is a combination of old-world cirque theatrics and spectacular feats (with performers from all corners of the globe), music and special effects.

So how did the opening go?

Neil Goldberg: It was spectacular - a 2,700-seat performing arts center, and there were 2,800 people there. Standing room only. It's great to see vision and imagination come alive onstage and entertain so many people, and evoke so many emotions. It's a good feeling. In live theater, there's this last-minute adrenalin rush that overtakes the last-minute nerves.

You've been a producer for a long time. Where did the fascination with cirque come from?

Neil Goldberg: I got bit by the Broadway theater bug when I was 6 years old, and so my entire life has been around live entertainment and spectacle, and the stage. In the late 1980s, I was traveling through Europe for a project I was working on, and that's when I first became exposed to this genre of circus throughout some of the European countries.

In Germany, they're cabaret stages. In France, they're single-ring things where the seats are raked and you're looking down. You got dressed up; it was the equivalent of going to Broadway theater in New York City. I realized a new kind of appreciation for the balancers, the jugglers and the pantomimes, the contortionists and the aerialists that hadn't really been perceived that way in America. Combine it with the old-fashioned style of silent film, vaudeville and physical comedy, and being able to tell a story without really having the spoken word, through the use of the body

In America, people thought of the circus as popcorn, whistles, and flashing lights. As a child, my parents would take myself and siblings to the circus I think just to keep us busy. I can't imagine that they were doing it because they wanted to entertain themselves. It was primarily because they wanted to keep their kids occupied.

How did you know it would play in Peoria, that American audiences would take to it?

Neil Goldberg: I never knew it would work, and I still don't do this assuming it's going to work. What I do know is that I have a lot more confidence in my own creative ability today than I did 16 or 20 years ago, by the result of the success of the Cirque Dreams brand. I've never done anything because I thought it was going to be successful; I've done it because I'm passionate about what I do.

What can people expect to see in this show?

Neil Goldberg: Cirque Dreams Illumination is set in a city environment. It's conceived as a kind of cirque prequel - audiences will be able to relate to these artists as they existed before what everyone thinks of: The crazy makeup and bizarre costumes, and doing these amazing things. The city environment is populated by school kids and construction workers and professionals and housewives. So it's ordinary people taking ordinary objects and doing extraordinary things.

Give me an example.

Neil Goldberg: Two sailors are on leave, and they're strolling through the city. One sits down and gets his shoes shined. He has this idea to start balancing on top of the shoeshine stand, and then putting more shoeshine chairs on top of it until he's 20 feet in the air.

And there's this street performer, literally from the streets of L.A., who has this genre called popping and locking. I actually found this kid on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance.

I combined him with four contortionists from the State School of Contortion in Mongolia. He simulates driving a car through this city, and uses the contortionists as the tires of the car.

One more thing: Can you stand on your hands?

Neil Goldberg: No. Not any more!

Cirque Dreams Illumination

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26

Tickets: $28-$48 ($5 off for children 14 and under) through

Artists' Web site: