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Nov. 11, 2003
`Cirque du so Gay’

In Cirque du Soleil’s erotic Las Vegas spectacle Zumanity, two outrageously beautiful men proclaim their real-life love for each other

[Click here to see accompanying sidebar on host Joey Arias]

[Click here to read Washington Blade criticism of this piece.]

By Steve Friess

Their lanky, perfectly sculpted and nearly naked 6-foot-2 frames instantly command attention -- and an anxious, curious silence. Johan, the Swedish blond in nothing but jockeys as white as he is, stands tall across from Patrick, the sultry West Indian in black briefs that blend with his velvet skin. The dancers tiptoe in cautious circles, beholding one another as suspiciously as tigers before the pounce, and then engage. Then, for five minutes, before a riveted audience, the pair lock arms, shove one another away, embrace, attack, cuddle, pull apart.

And then there's that kiss. A ferocious, lusty, lingering kiss, the explosive culmination and combination of all the varied emotions expressed in the movements that come before. In some performances, as they pull apart, their faces instinctively mash back together yet again for a moment before they slink together off the stage.

Were this stretch of modern ballet occurring in some small hall off Broadway or in a worldly Parisian theater, the kiss might be just a kiss. But real-life lovers Johan Silverhult King, 31, and Patrick King, 42, are instead performing twice nightly on the Las Vegas Strip, the very antithesis of the safe confines of the high-art world. It comes, even more remarkably, as a key scene of Cirque du Soleil's salacious, $50 million cabaret show Zumanity, which opened in late August at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. With a budget like that, it's clear this is meant as mainstream entertainment, not niche programming. The target is Middle America itself, the folks who typically flock to Vegas for heterosexist, not gay, debauchery.

That the Kings really are a couple -- together for 14 years and united in Sweden for six - further elevates the moment. Middle America isn't watching any two guys tango and tangle; they're observing an elegant reconstruction of the true, albeit vastly abridged, story of this couple's struggles and triumphs.

"We never thought of it as being a gay dance," Patrick insists during a middle-of-the-night interview at a Vegas cafe as he and Johan devour a post-show platter of lamb chops. (Their diets are simple: No junk food. Anything else can be worked off in their four-hour daily rehearsals.) Adds Johan: "To us, it's just a relationship. It has always been a human story, whether it's men or women or a man and a woman."

Yet it's more than that, certainly to queer audiences. When Johan fell ill in Zumanity's second week and took two nights off, disappointed buzz spread instantly in gay Vegas circles that Cirque or New York-New York's parent corporation, MGM Mirage, had dumped the segment. The rumor resurfaced in late September when Johan skipped a week because of a shoulder injury. But hotel president Felix Rappaport insists he personally believes it to be a highlight. "To me, the fact that Patrick and Johan kiss is the exclamation point. It's necessary," Rappaport says. "Without that, it would be a little bit like 'Will and Grace' where here is Will, who is supposed to be gay but who is never shown kissing a guy or having much of a relationship.That's really kind of phony, huh?"

* * *

Phony is not a word to describe either the Zumanity dance or the love affair it depicts, which began in a Stockholm bar back in 1989 when Patrick, then 28, spotted 17-year-old Johan and thought, That spells trouble. Johan, sporting long, flowing blond locks that captivated Patrick, was equally intrigued, playfully grabbing Patrick's thighs despite being there with a boyfriend.

Coincidentally, the two were both professional dancers or, rather, Johan aspired to be one and was in town to audition for the slot he went on to land at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. For his part, Patrick was already a well-established fixture of European theater as a dancer and choreographer for the prestigious Sweden-based Cullberg Ballet Company, performing regularly at royal functions around the continent and creating dance pieces special for family events of such luminary pals as the designer Fendi.

Both man had frequent doubts as they commenced a tumultuous relationship. Patrick, who spent his adolescence at the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York mingling with black entertainment legends from James Brown to Ruby Dee, sensed that Johan was too young for mature romance and had much yet to do to establish his credentials. Johan, for his part, feared that Patrick's immense success -- he'd performed in the 1980 film Fame long before Johan even considered a life in dance -- could invite suspicion that Johan was riding his partner's coattails. He forbade Patrick from seeing him dance for several years, which suited Patrick fine. "If he wasn't any good," Patrick says, "it would have been a real problem for our relationship."

Johan turned out to be quite good, earning positions in top dance troupes based in Finland and then Israel and globetrotting much as Patrick had done years earlier. During this period, the couple's fiery relationship was especially strained. "We would break up and break up and break up," Patrick says. "But when he was about to go off to Israel, we had one last break-up and one major make-up -- and we realized we couldn't really break up. I knew I didn't want to live without him."

In 1997, the pair cemented their bond by marrying in Sweden. The wedding's original purpose was practical - they were about to move to Rome and wanted to be recognized as a legal family upon relocating within the European Union -- but the experience proved far more profound than either expected. In a candlelit room at the 16th century City Hall, a magistrate reminded them, "This is a very special thing in the eyes of the community, your family and the rest of the world."

Neither family attended because the Kings wanted the event to be small, but both clans enthusiastically support the couple. Johan had been openly gay as a teen and encountered no trouble; Patrick met mild resistance after bringing Johan to the family home on St. Croix a few times. King's father wrote to ask if Patrick could "make an adjustment in your lifestyle," to which Patrick responded forcefully: "Dad, you're my hero, but if I have to make a choice, it would be a choice you may not like because Johan is essential in my life." The next time the couple visited, Patrick offered to stay in a hotel. His parents would have none of that.

* * *

The dance that led the Kings to Vegas started after the move to Italy as a way to create something together after years of Johan merely following Patrick's direction. It wasn't intended for mass audiences, but word spread among friends and the couple went on to perform a 45-minute version at Rome's World Pride celebration in 2000. That same year, they auditioned for Cirque du Soleil recruiters scouting in Italy.

The Kings heard nothing until August 2002, when Cirque -- with Zumanity in mind -- invited them to perform a 12-minute version of the dance on a yacht off St. Tropez for an elaborate private party thrown by Cirque founder Guy Laliberte. "They asked for something sensual, provocative and athletic, so by the end we were naked," Patrick recalls. "We had Ivana Trump with her jaw hanging to the floor." That being precisely the effect Cirque hoped for from Zumanity, the couple were signed within weeks to become a part a slice of the variety show, which also includes a dwarf seeking affection from a tall blonde and a 71-year-old man who swings his 64-year-old wife about like a sack of potatoes. (Nevada prohibits frontal male nudity, so the Kings don't strip in the Zumanity rendition.)

"Our approach to Zumanity has always been that we wanted to be able to show the many facets of sexuality and love, and we recognize gay love and gay sexuality as being a very valid form of sexuality," says Lynn Heward, Cirque's executive vice president for creative content. "We said from the beginning we wanted to provoke.This is not supposed to be a safe, gentle show."

Indeed, the Kings' sequence is far from that. Much of Zumanity is schlocky, though, so the highly skilled Kings add grace and heart. Plus, without them, says Zumanity emcee Joey Arias, the show's sole approach to homosexuality would be two topless women who frolick and grope in a giant fishbowl. "Patrick and Johan bring balance and so much class," says Arias, an openly gay Greenwich Village cabaret legend. "You see two males going for it, and it's real."

The couple, signed with Cirque until 2005, are easing into their new, unaccustomed roles as pop entertainers in Vegas. And despite the fact that they never expected to be performing down the block from Sigfried and Roy, they thus far have only gratitude for their unlikely gig. "I love when we come to the kiss," Patrick says. "It's a wonderful way after a long day of hard work to say, 'I love you' to my husband and to share it with the rest of the world."


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