In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates argues that “devot[ion] to beautiful bodies” sets us on the path to “true virtue.” If Socrates is to be believed, then the would-be virtuous should head for the South Street Seaport—past the tourists, past the ice-cream carts, past the shopping mall, and into Désir. This circus-cum-cabaret, housed in the Spiegeltent, features a bevy of exquisite physiques. Acrobats, strongmen, aerialists, and dancers—all lovely of face and supple of limb—cavort for the audience’s pleasure. Leggy ladies abound, as do young men sufficiently strapping to please any ancient Greek.
Created by producer Ross Mollison, director Wayne Harrison, and choreographer John O’Connell, Désir apes the cabaret acts popular in early Belle Époque French venues such as the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge. The performers—several recycled from previous years of Absinthe, the naughtier variety show that also plays the Spiegeltent—portray famous Folies figures like Josephine Baker, Mistinguett, and La Belle Otero. The show was announced as a physical-theater version of La Ronde, but the prearranged, between-scene flirtations don’t really echo the depth or decadence of Schnitzler. Désir merely offers a series of enjoyable, atmospheric, sequin-heavy circus acts.
Here, as for Socrates, the beautiful nearly always equals the good—but it doesn’t equal the erotic. The performers, many of them graduates of circus schools in Canada and Eastern Europe, demonstrate superb training—as does the fluffy Persian cat that walks the tightrope. The cast members complete their routines rather austerely, even clinically, cooling any heat the acts might otherwise generate. Even when whipped cream is deployed, plastic sheeting ensures that it won’t make a mess. (Marawa Ibrahim, as a banana-skirted Josephine Baker, gives a warmer turn. She rolls her eyes and puffs her cheeks while sending scores of hula hoops atwirl, but not even she has seduction on her mind—merely an easeful bit of comedy.)
Still, if the performances don’t make you hot, they will also not make you bothered. The lights, the costumes, the contortions, and the cat are infinitely more amusing than any other introduction to philosophy.