Cirque du Soleil's Brian Dewhurst ran away—with his parents—to join the circus. He's never looked back.
Brian Dewhurst was raised in a happy, well-adjusted English household where he and his sister learned to balance on wires and his father threw knives at his mom for fun. This was not the norm in drab, industrial Manchester in the 1930s, but his family's habits seemed as natural to Dewhurst as those of a Border collie who could count to seven—which, for the record, the Dewhursts' collie could.
Like his father before him, Dewhurst's dad made his living as a traveling performer in circuses and roving variety shows. He was nimble on stilts and a dexterous juggler. He rarely missed the target when tossing wood-handled daggers, though his wife, the knife thrower's assistant, had nicks on her arms from when he did.
By age 13, Brian Dewhurst already felt the pull to perform and joined his parents on the road. He swapped his school clothes for the shoes and baggy jacket of a clown's assistant and soon worked up a clever mix of circus talents. Greatest among them: wire walking.
Dewhurst's wizardry on the wire would eventually earn him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and several stints as a television and movie stuntman. But the course of his career would be less a tightrope walk than a tumbling run. It would send him somersaulting across dozens of countries in countless productions and into the forefront of the "alternative" circus—innovative, nonanimal shows that revolutionized the industry.
More than 50 years after his first performance, at an age when many of his peers were collecting pensions, Dewhurst landed feetfirst on the most prestigious circus stage of all—as a leading figure in Cirque du Soleil.
Today Dewhurst is known to thousands of Las Vegas visitors as Brian Le Petit, the mischievous clown in the permanent engagement of Cirque's Mystère at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino. (Cirque's other permanent Vegas show, O, currently plays at the Bellagio.) Five nights a week, two shows a night, Le Petit takes center stage—needling the audience and exasperating the show's ringmaster, a pink-clad puppeteer who, in keeping with family tradition, also happens to be Dewhurst's son.
"To have the kind of career Brian has had is unusual," says Stewart McGill, a theater director in Warwickshire, England, who covers the circus industry for a number of entertainment magazines, including Dance Expression and Spectacle. "To have done it for as long as Brian has, and to still be doing it at the highest level at his age, is pretty much unheard of."
Fifteen minutes before Mystère begins, Brian Le Petit appears in the aisles, his face whitened with makeup, his hair whipped up in an electric frizz. He snatches tickets from befuddled show-goers and leads them on a long and comically futile search for their seats. He tears up tickets. He spills popcorn on patrons. When he comes across a man with his arm around a wife or girlfriend, he sternly pulls the man's arm away.
Then the theater goes dark and Nicky Dewhurst appears on stage as ringmaster, a long, snaking puppet around his neck. He speaks in gibberish, ventriloquist style, and Brian Le Petit taunts him. "We can see your lips moving!" the elder clown calls from the audience, before vanishing.
As Mystère unfolds, a collage of trapeze and trampoline and superhuman hand-balancing acts amaze and beguile the crowd, but it's Le Petit who makes them laugh. He steals Nicky's puppet. He dances briefly to disco. He drags a man onstage, locks him in a box, then retreats to the audience for some candlelit romance with the man's date.
Some of Cirque's most gifted acrobats are barely out of their teens, already skilled spinners of aerial confection. But the performer who gives the show a wry, human face is the 70-year-old clown, the veteran whose career began long before the Strip ever glittered, before anyone under the big top ever imagined a production as gleaming and dreamy as Cirque du Soleil.
Even by the standards of the circus world—a culture famously abundant in family acts—Brian Dewhurst's pedigree is unusually rich. Starting with his grandfather, his family tree branches into so many juggling uncles and stilt-walking aunts that Dewhurst can't recall all their names.
He and his sister mastered wire walking by sprinting back and forth 200 times a day across a length of wire stretched a few feet above the ground. Gradually he embellished the basic maneuvers, adding juggling, skipping, and somersaults. On January 9, 1949, London's Sunday Mail gushed with the announcement: "Young Boy Staggers Tight Wire Experts, Achieving the Impossible." An accompanying photo showed the 16-year-old Dewhurst executing what was thought to be the first-ever back handspring on a tightrope.
After a brief stint in the army (where his official duties included clowning for the troops and climbing high to repair aerial antennae), the gifted wire walker had to scrape around for work in the 1950s, traveling "anywhere for anything," he says, "as long as it paid." Circus work was scarce, and being an entertainer meant being versatile, Dewhurst told himself. "Always keep more than one ball in the air." This jugglers' instruction became his motto.
In London, he met a young pianist and singer named Julie Dey, whom he teamed with in a variety show. The two married in Copenhagen in 1959 and had two children—son Nicky and daughter Sally—thereby doubling the number of entertainers in the home.
Following family tradition, the Dewhursts slung a tightrope across their backyard in London. Soon the kids were practicing wire walking, too, their heads poking above the hedges. "I guess I realized it was a little weird," Sally says, "when I noticed that my dad was the only one in the neighborhood who trimmed the hedges on stilts."
At the time, the English idea of circus was still trapped in tradition, constrained by tired images of elephants and unicycles. Although Chinese circuses had long performed without animals, all-human shows were rare in the West. But television, which had already killed variety shows and vaudeville, was threatening to do away with the circus. The industry was in sore need of fresh turns.
In 1979, Dewhurst helped found a London show called Circus Senso, a nonanimal production that combined dance, music, and the eclectic skills of street performers, including the wire act that Dewhurst had developed with his kids. The innovative production caught the eye of two Canadian travelers named Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix, who, back in Quebec, had been busy raising money from the Canadian government and others to assemble their own band of street performers into a grand troupe they called Cirque du Soleil.
"Gilles and Guy saw Circus Senso and it inspired them," says Stewart McGill. "In some ways Senso can be seen as a smaller model of what they went on to do with Cirque."
Circus observers say it's hard to overestimate Cirque du Soleil's impact throughout the industry. McGill simply says it "helped save the circus." Certainly, it expanded audience expectations, clearing away the sawdust and seediness while preserving the sense of spectacle that traditional circus conveys. It also broke from the "here today, gone tomorrow" carnival image, allowing performers who have families a more nested life, thanks to permanent shows in Las Vegas and at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Cirque's entrenchment on the Strip (the company also plans to open new shows at New York-New York and the MGM Grand within the next two years) has gone hand in hand with the broader evolution of Las Vegas. Just as the Rat Pack represented the old Las Vegas, the city of lounge lizards, mob bosses, and greasy-palmed mâitre d's, Cirque has come to symbolize the new, sophisticated Vegas—a place where you can still get married by Elvis but also see masterpieces by Monet.
"There was a lot of talk about Las Vegas becoming more family friendly, but that was smoke and mirrors," says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, a local consumer guide. "The city has really been trying to become more sexy and sophisticated and cool. Cirque is part of that. Everyone equates it with posh elegance."
If Mystère has the luster of spectacle, the atmosphere backstage is even more surreal. Amid the narrow rows of dressing rooms and workout stations equipped with Pilates machines, a costumed trapeze artist surfs the Internet. Teams of performers train on a teeterboard, bouncing up and down, somersaulting through the air, and landing in a human tower on the shoulders of a strongman. Russian acrobats, faces already painted, play dominoes.
The backstage lounge is set up like a high-end fraternity house. There are Ping-Pong, pool, and foosball tables that give rise to playful rivalries—the Chinese against the Russians, the English against the Poles.
Most nights before shows, Nicky plays Ping-Pong. Brian reclines on a couch or reels off 100 sit-ups while watching TV. The elder Dewhurst stands a shade under six feet and has an athletic build. Aside from his knees, which are banged up and bulbous from years of wear on the wire, he shows little sign of physical decline—a fact he punctuates by doing a back handspring once a year. "Each time, it does get a little bit harder," he admits.
Less than an hour before the stage lights go on, Dewhurst slips away to put on his makeup and an oversize suit. He ambles down the hallways in this getup, rolling his head side to side like a boxer. He leaps up to do a set of chin-ups and watches the news. He chats with stagehands. But when his cue comes up, the change is instantaneous. With a wicked grin, Brian Dewhurst is suddenly Brian Le Petit.
It was Cirque's first Las Vegas show—Nouvelle Expérience at the Mirage—that brought Dewhurst and his family wire act to Las Vegas in 1992. He spent about two years with the show, then went on to tour with Cirque before returning to the Strip as artistic coordinator, first for Mystère and later for O, the spectacle at the Bellagio that unfolds over a watery stage.
But Dewhurst missed performing. In 1999, he was asked to step in for Wayne Hronek, who was retiring from his role as Benny Le Grand, the original disruptive clown in Mystère. In a half-joking reference to the size of the shoes he was filling, Dewhurst dubbed himself Brian Le Petit. "I told them I'd try, and see if I still had it in me," he says. "Of course I wanted to do it. I'm still a ham."
Away from the stage, there is very little ham in Brian Dewhurst, and no clown. He is not a man given to horns or hand buzzers or to showy accounts of his career.
"Oh, right," he says while thumbing through an old photo album, "that was the year I spent traveling on a train, doing a show in South Africa." Or, "Ah, that's from the summer I performed on a raft in the middle of a municipal swimming pool."
He has two places in Las Vegas, one a nondescript condominium near the Strip, the other a cabin on Mount Charleston. It is the cabin that Dewhurst regards as home. Old stilts hang on a wall near the entrance and a cluster of his father's old throwing knives are stuck in a board on the back deck.
Brian's grandkids are all talented gymnasts, and at least one is a natural showman. Not that Dewhurst is pushing a stage career. "There is," he notes, "something to be said for having a proper job."
Whether or not Brian Dewhurst will still be performing in Mystère at age 75 is an open question. He has no plans to retire, but show business is uncertain. A man has to keep his options open. And lately he's been thinking about his dog Alfa, a well-trained golden retriever. He's been thinking about teaching her to count to seven. "You know," he says, "it never hurts to have another act."
The best shows in Town
There's a lot more to Vegas than guys in shaggy sideburns crooning like the King. Sure, you can still find Elvis impersonators on the Strip. But sophisticated productions now set the standard, from Paris-style revues to Cirque
du Soleil. Like a trip to the felt tables, tickets to top shows can come steep, and hotel discount coupons rarely apply. Cheesy Elvis sightings, on the other hand, remain très cheap.
Even if you don't know ABBA backward and forward, you'll find yourself smiling and swaying at Mamma Mia, which turns the songs of the Swedish supergroup into a musical comedy. Abba cofounder Björn Ulvaeus calls Mamma Mia "the musical we never knew we'd written." The producers accept no blame if, after the show, you can't stop humming "Dancing Queen." Mandalay Bay, $65-$85. (877) 632-7400, www.mandalaybay.com . Dark Tuesdays.
Water is the universal element, especially in this balletic show. Cirque du Soleil's most elegant blend of story and acrobatics unfolds on an operatic stage that morphs into a swimming pool. Bellagio, $93.50-$121. (888) 488-7111, www.cirquedusoleil.com . Dark Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Siegfried & Roy
Let's get this straight: Siegfried is the blond one. And so are the lions and tigers. Critics may dismiss the shtick as kitsch, but there's something compelling about two magicians who pull off almost every known illusion in 90 minutes. Mirage, $105.50. (800) 963-9634 www.mirage.com . Dark Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Mac King Magic Hour
Even old tricks feel fresh in the hands of Mac King, a self-described bumpkin from Kentucky who's got more than an extra ace up his sleeve. During the course of his one-hour, interactive show, King pulls off eye-popping rope tricks, plies gross-out worm gags, and catches a fish out of thin air. Harrah's, $16.95. (800) 427-7247, www.harrahs.com . Dark Sundays and Mondays.
Penn & Teller
The bad boys of magic bring an unusually intelligent edge to evening entertainment as they play with the norms of their craft. Rio, $65. (888) 746-7784,www.pennandteller.com/rio . Dark Tuesdays.
Blue Man Group
Unusual. Unpredictable. Unbelievable. This critically acclaimed production draws heavily on multimedia and inventive musical instruments (imagine a drum set that looks something like a tuba fashioned out of plumbing supplies). The three bald blue dudes are pretty much uneverything, and they put on a show that's unlike any you've ever seen. Luxor, $69.50-$79.50. (800) 557-7428, www.blueman.com . Performances run every day.
Cirque du Soleil's most energetic and lighthearted Las Vegas show infuses clown antics and high-flying gymnastics with a childlike sense of wonder. Treasure Island, $80. (800) 392-1999, www.cirquedusoleil.com . Dark Mondays and Tuesdays.
Photography by Terrence McCarthy
This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.