by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & lowns stroll through the rows, warming up the audience. Next thing you know, they've got a volunteer up there with them doing acrobatic tricks. A couple of guys balance on the "rolla-bolla," a wobbly structure of rickety chairs. Contortionists pretzel their limbs while doing headstands on the backs of other contortionists. (They don't even grimace.) One guy flings a huge diamond-shaped contraption into the air like a baton twirler; another performer teeters in circles, caught inside an enormous hula hoop. Revolving high above the stage, huge swaths of fabric trail two lovers entangled romantically in the air. There are rope climbs and sudden falls; an amplified violinist saws at his instrument; men in huge costumes like Easter Island statues, vaguely intimidating, lumber among cavorting gymnasts. And the entire elaborate stage, complete with inflatable jungle trees, takes on an entirely different look after intermission -- all through the magic of theater.

The music and dance and spectacle of Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy certainly sounds impressive. Does it have any kind of plot or unifying theme?

"The different beasts take you on a jungle fantasy. Each show is very different," says Nicholas Mitsis, company manager of the touring show that stops at Northern Quest Casino from May 2-15. "You journey through the jungle through the different acts and routines. The plot is the journey. It's more of an experience."

OK, so no plot, then.

But the international cast -- the 23 acrobats, contortionists and dancers hail from the Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Mongolia, Canada and the United States -- go through a lot of preparation before putting on Cirque's stunts. "The contortionists actually go to a school of contortion," says Mitsis. "They learn how to stretch, how to maintain their health -- because, let's face it, this is a very unhealthy, difficult thing to do.

"And lots of the others have gone to a school of circus, especially the Russians and Mongolians. The Americans are mostly gymnasts -- some were cheerleaders," he says.

Cirque Dreams is definitely an all-ages show, Mitsis emphasizes. "When you see a grown man hold himself up with one hand while on top of another guy -- and the rest of his body is parallel to the ground -- whether you're 2 or you're 80, you're absolutely stunned by what you see," he says.

Glenn Rogers is one of the clowns who warms up the audience, and -- having been a gymnast since he was 3 -- he later appears in the show as an acrobat. He's been with Neil Goldberg's Cirque Productions for two years. "We get the audience clapping and screaming, hootin' and hollerin' at the start," he says. "If we started without that -- this show is so amazing, they might be intimidated by everything. Some of the stuff is just jaw-dropping -- we want to break the ice so the audience won't be so nervous."

Rogers spends an hour every day putting on full face makeup. "It's colorful and pretty goofy," he says. "And then we all have 10 to 12 costumes that we have to put on."

Soon it's time for Rogers to change clothes and join in a nine-man jump rope act that "will change your thoughts about jump rope," he says. "We turn it into a spectacle." Later on, Rogers climbs into power stilts ("they can shoot me up into the air") and into a huge metal wheel for a few dizzying revolutions.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he word "cirque" connotes a centuries-old European tradition of circuses without animals and with an emphasis on acrobatics and the visual arts: "Jules Verne had a circus like this," says Mitsis. Las Vegas tourists and viewers of the Bravo cable-TV network, however, associate the word with Cirque du Soleil, the $500 million company that was founded in Montreal in 1983 and which opened its first permanent Las Vegas show in 1993. Not coincidentally, that's the same year that Goldberg opened Cirque Productions for the purpose of touring European-style artsy circuses all over the States.

A four-year lawsuit in which Cirque du Soleil sued Goldberg's organization for trademark infringement was settled out of court; the judge basically agreed that "cirque" is a generic term, noting that that Cirque du Soleil didn't trademark its brand until 1995.

(Needless to say, the Cirque Dreams show is not officially affiliated with Cirque du Soleil.)

Company manager Mitsis, while not at liberty to comment on the lawsuit, differentiates the two shows. With Cirque Dreams, he says, "We're tapping into the broader musical theater audience. We're more of a middle-class, family affair than an aristocratic event." (By comparison, tickets for the Cirque du Soleil Delirium shows -- announced for the Spokane Arena on May 16-17 before Cirque Dreams scheduled its two-week stay at Northern Quest -- are in the $40-$100 range.)

The circus world -- full of flashing lights and death-defying feats -- turns out also to involve legal briefs and special pleadings. But don't try explaining that to the 5-year-old gaping at the giant tumbling frogs. He's caught in a world of dreams and fantasies.

Golden Harvest: Flour Sacks from the Permanent Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 15
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