It’s no secret that many forms of fine art are struggling to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Attendees of traditional ballets talk about their night out to “Swan Lake” as though they’re showing off a novel antique ring that will soon be returned to its dusty box in favor of more modern accessories. Directors fight to draw new crowds as the advent of television and film make the exclusivity of theater performances an inconvenience of the past. Most musicals older than “Les Misérables” feel as if they’ve been hermetically sealed in a time we can no longer relate to.

As people are drawn away from the artistic expressions that captured the imaginations of earlier decades and centuries, a critical question must be asked: Do the fine arts have the ability to evolve alongside the audiences that enjoy them? Or is the art community forever set in its ways?

Believe it or not, the answer comes in the form of a little Canadian entertainment company called Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque du Soleil, French for “circus of the sun,” is a collection of touring and stationary shows that are part circus, part opera and part narrative-in-motion. The company has been performing for just 28 years — infantile when compared to ballet’s 400-year-old pedigree — but something about its artistic formula has clicked with viewers. What else would have already drawn more than 100 million people worldwide to their shows?

While the more than 5,000 members of this troupe may call themselves a circus, their performances prove that the term is woefully inadequate in describing the vortex of color, sound and motion that characterizes their work. Actors are required to do much more than run through a series of spandex-covered acrobatic acts — each show is knit together by an overarching narrative or abstract allegory that is chosen specifically because of its universality and culture-bridging familiarity.

In this way, entire stories are woven without the aid of spoken language (their self-composed music almost always utilizes made-up words) using themes that connect to audiences on each of the six continents where the company performs. The passing of time, growing up, falling in love, dreams and reality, the circle of life — each of these themes have been infused into a stream of pantomimed emotion put to music.

These wonders of the human imagination are then ingeniously paired with the wonders of the human form. Feats of strength and power are synthesized into graceful acts of expression, allowing actors to become living, breathing, bending and flying works of performance art — in the truest sense of the phrase.

This synthesis is only one facet of the proof that fine art is a genre surprisingly capable of change — the venues used by Cirque du Soleil are technological and visual marvels in their own rights. The company has mastered the art of performing in integrated 3-D spaces that project outward into their audiences even as they draw viewers into the action. Stages of every shape and size spin, unfold, and catch fire as the shows burst out of the proscenium and take advantage of everything from tanks of water to wires in the air.

Cirque du Soleil has also bridged yet another gap that theater has yet to embrace — their performances have consistently proven to be some of the best examples of art translated onto film. More than 10 video-recorded versions of various shows have been produced, garnering three Gemini Awards and four Primetime Emmy Awards. With masterful editing and a keen sense of performance space, the movie versions of the shows are the next best thing to actually sitting beneath the human comets suspended above you.

Artistically, Cirque du Soleil tackles metaphors that can’t be put into words, creating a vibrant consciousness that builds on established forms without being weighed down by an unspoken dedication to them. There’s something electrifying about watching a dying firebird proudly preen its scraggly feathers in between staggering leaps to which the traditional self-aware poise of a ballerina doesn’t do justice. Limited only by the imaginations of their artistic directors, shows become more like living works of art than theatrical presentations.

Cirque du Soleil gives hope to the future of art that strives to evolve beyond the standard visual, audible and theatrical arts triad that has dominated for so long. By embodying the abstract without forgetting where it comes from, the company has managed to enchant children of all ages by dragging out our ids and giving them a physical form. With 21 different productions currently performing around the world, it seems as though Cirque du Soleil has found a niche within all of us.

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