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CIRQUE AND SEX EROTICA OF `ZUMANITY' SMOLDERS AT VEGAS' NEW YORK-NEW YORK.

Byline: Rob Lowman Entertainment Editor

LAS VEGAS - Beyond the clowns and the acrobats, aside from the imaginative costumes, sets and artistic aspirations, there has always been a slightly naughty undercurrent to Cirque du Soleil.

Oh, parents might ooh and aah along with their children at some gravity-defying feat, but for some adults, watching a beautifully graceful physical specimen - male or female - contort into some impossible position has undoubtedly triggered an erotic image or two. The customers may have quickly banished it from their minds - or at least hidden it away - but it was there nevertheless.

Guy Lalibete, Cirque's founder, was well aware that sex and his surrealistic circus weren't mutually exclusive. ``We're adults, too,'' said the 43-year-old onetime fire-eater who began the French-Canadian troupe in 1984.

So sex was already lurking somewhere in the collective minds of the Cirque creative team even before the New York-New York Hotel & Casino came looking for its own Cirque show. (There were already two Cirques playing on the Vegas Strip - the watery ``O,'' which opened at the Bellagio in 1998, and the 10-year-old ``Mystere'' at Treasure Island. A fourth Cirque show is scheduled to open next year at the MGM Grand.)

Considering Cirque's track record of family-style entertainment, the casino didn't expect to hear Lyn Heward, president of the circus' creative content division, pitch a sexually oriented, adults-only extravaganza. After a few seconds of shock, New York-New York officials - along with those of its parent company, MGM Mirage - were delighted, especially in light of the adult-oriented accent that is part of Vegas's latest redefinition.

What Cirque delivered - at a cost of some $50 million to $67 million - is ``Zumanity,'' which, true to its pun-spinning name, is more a carnivale of carnality than a titillating tease.

Unlike other Cirque shows, ``Zumanity'' boasts both strong cabaret, burlesque and even sideshow elements. Its multicultural, multiracial, international cast is led by a master/mistress of ceremonies (Joey Arias, the ``zoo keeper''?) - a leather-clad drag queen who croons the line ``sex is beautiful'' and welcomes us to a ``hedonistic paradise.''

What ``Zumanity'' offers is a circus of sexuality, from ribald to homoerotic to racy to kinky, abounding throughout in g-strings, hard-core fetish wear and ample nudity.

``Zumanity'' is housed in a sensuous, 1,259-seat theater, with a stage that juts out suggestively into the audience. The plush seats are a dark red, and, yes, those are scenes of naked people in the carpet.

``We hope that what this show leaves you with, ultimately, is the desire to leave the theater ... rent a hotel room and make love,'' said Heward.

A nice plug for New York-New York, but after taking in some of ``Zumanity's'' 14 acts, I felt there should be a sign at the theater exit that reads, ``What you have seen was performed by trained professionals; do not attempt this in your hotel room.'' Besides, you'd need a suite just to get in all the equipment and outfits.

In a curved, clear fish bowl, two lithe, topless women (Zorigtkhuyag Bolormaa and Gyulnara Karaeva) cavort, slither past each other in the water and sensually caress each other.

But - and it's a big qualification - the pair then also perform some absolutely stunning feats of balance and daring, as spectacular as anything in Cirque. This is what takes ``Zumanity'' beyond a Vegas showgirls performance. When one of the acrobats does a back dive into the bowl - which is perhaps 3 feet deep at its lowest spot in the curve - you have to hold your breath.

In another act, a woman (Olga Vershinina) in a white flowing outfit soars above the stage doing flips and such as she performs on looped, ribboned cloth. Part way through the performance, a very buff, blond midget (Alan Jones Silva) joins her, and at one point she holds onto him with one hand as they swirl perilously high in the air.

Then there is the ``Bondage'' number, in which a seemingly nude woman (Laurence Jardin, cleverly costumed) performs balletic feats above the stage using four black ropes. As the performance goes on, she grows more and more aroused, eventually tying one of the ropes around her neck (the ultimate sex-equals-death metaphor). Her gasps of pleasure/choking finally give way to silence, and her still body is raised to the lights (heaven?).

While ``Bondage'' may be very un-Cirque, the troupe did not abandon what's at its core. Over the years, it has taken some old-fashioned circus entertainment and dressed it in new outfits and presented it in a new context.

Some of those balancing and tumbling acts vary little from what we saw as kids on the ``The Ed Sullivan Show,'' except that the choreography and presentation are so much more exciting.

In ``Zumanity,'' there is also a variation on the rubber man act. Moukhtar Gusengadzhiev from Russia (Cirque scours the globe for acts) comes out dressed in a conservative business suit but is soon stripped down to his boxer shorts, black socks with garters and black shoes. He then proceeds to twist in ways a pretzel wouldn't.

To top off the act, while standing, Gusengadzhiev flips one of his legs behind his neck in a spit second. It was so stunning, I didn't even notice which leg he used.

There are also burlesque aspects to the show. It opens with Puritan clowns urging the audience to leave. As the evening progresses, however, they eventually succumb to their own lust, revealing their hypocrisy.

And there is a clever number that is sure to resonate with some wives and girlfriends: A woman performs a striptease on top of and around a large TV while seven men seated on lighted chairs stare impassively at the screen, which is showing a football game.

The woman is then joined by seven other women who proceed to have fun without the men. (Is there a lesson here?)

Woman patrons might also appreciate a sculptured Alex Castro from Cuba, who strips down to essentially a shiny silver cup.

There are other erotically charged moments, too, including a pas de deux between a topless ballerina and a barely clad male dancer. At another interval, two shirtless men in tights begin wrestling with each but end in a lip-lock that makes Madonna and Britney look chaste.

The penultimate act is ``Gentle Orgy - Breathing Chants,'' in which the 50 or so cast members come on stage and pair up or triple up, then mime sexual actions while being urged to breathe rhythmically by the mistress of ceremonies.

On opening night, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner sat in the front row, flanked by six statuesque blondes, three on each side. As the breathing grew heavier, audience members were invited on stage, including two of Hef's companions.

``How do you feel?'' the mistress asked one of them after a few moments of heavy inhaling and exhaling.

``It feels like home,'' the woman replied. Of course it did.

There may be - as has been suggested - something in ``Zumanity'' to offend everyone. A better way to characterize it might be to say there is something in ``Zumanity'' to turn nearly everybody off - whether it's male or female homosexuality or autoerotic asphyxia.

Still, if you expect the show to provide an evening of seduction, it might well succeed - as long as you're open to the wide range of sexual indulgences it parades in front of you.

``Zumanity'' is more than just a three-ring circus ... or even a menage a trois.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: ``Zumanity,'' Cirque du Soleil's adults-only show is staged at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino, 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

HOURS, COSTS: Showtimes are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Tickets are $55 to $95.

INFORMATION: (866) 606-7111; www.zumanity.com, www.nynyhotelcasino.com.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) The elaborate costumes and choreography of ``Zumanity,'' top, a Cirque du Soleil show at Las Vegas' New York-New York casino, contribute to overtly sexual themes. Above, the show is presided over by a leather-clad drag queen who serves as master of (mistress?) of ceremonies.

(3) Cirque du Soleil aims for a decidedly adult audience with ``Zumanity,'' at New York-New York casino.

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 2, 2003
Words:1367
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