Lawrence Toppman

Cirque du ... Carowinds?

You can’t quite tell from this shot, but the set consists of levels. At one point, a guy “climbs” them on a bike by bouncing upward on his back tire.
You can’t quite tell from this shot, but the set consists of levels. At one point, a guy “climbs” them on a bike by bouncing upward on his back tire. Courtesy of Carowinds

If there are places hotter than the uncovered walkways at Carowinds on a July day, they’re guarded by creatures with pitchforks and cloven feet. But that wasn’t the only reason visitors packed Carowinds Theater almost to capacity at 3 p.m. one Wednesday afternoon. The venue was the coolest spot at the park, both literally and artistically.

“Cirque Imagine” has settled in this year as a new attraction. It gives 30 minutes of continuous, uncomplicated pleasure – uncomplicated for viewers, anyway, as the human gyroscopes onstage twist themselves every which way.

The show starts simply, with a quartet bouncing through tumbling and balancing routines on a multi-tiered set that appears to be a cave with its mouth at the center. Unnamed actors come and go there, sometimes concealed by fog and haze.

The pace steps up when a fifth character appears on a bicycle, bouncing among and over the others on his rear wheel as if riding a rubberized kangaroo. We see aerialists working on silk and what looks like elastic, a pas de deux dependent mostly on a man’s strength and a woman’s agility, a nimble guy rolling around inside a great hoop, and a choreographed finale in which most of the cast bounces on and off a trampoline from a 9-foot platform while pretzeling themselves in interesting patterns.

As with any Cirque-style show, performers wear white face makeup decorated with black lines resembling runny mascara or raccoon eyes. This depersonalizes them, as does the removal of dialogue: Characters “communicate” through comic screeches and squawks, though most stand silent while watching their companions. You can’t easily tell whether the second aerialist is the first one in a different costume. (She isn’t.)

Obviously, folks won’t pay Carowinds prices just to see a free half-hour show. At the same time, I can’t imagine going to the park this summer without making room for “Cirque Imagine,” which runs daily (except Tuesdays) through Sept. 5. If you go, here are some tips:

1) On a weekend, expect the the 675-seat hall to fill up. Doors open 20 minutes before showtime, but you’ll want to be there at least half an hour ahead. Where you sit doesn’t matter much, though Carowinds is one of the few venues where disabled folks get the best views: Dead center, halfway back.

2) A recorded voice warns you a strobe light will be used. It doesn’t tell you to expect synthesized music with bass notes so deep your teeth vibrate. Luckily, this dentist’s-drill effect occurred only twice, briefly. But earplugs would not be amiss, if you’re sensitive.

3) Acrobats make their initial entrances by coming down the aisles from the back. So be wary of letting kids get loose before the performance begins.

4) You can bring drinks into Carowinds Theater, as long as they have fitted lids. That’s a good idea: Watching these 10 performers risk their necks, even I worked up a sweat.

Toppman: 704-358-5232