In circus lore, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" is the Disaster March, played as a signal and a distraction, and only when an act has gone horribly, life-threateningly awry. Which would seem to make Cirque de la Symphonie a strange fit for an orchestra for whom the song is its signature closer. And yet, Friday night saw the Boston Pops playing host to contortionists, aerialists, and their compatriots in wonderment, and when Sousa's march finally came, there was no panic or fear, only a triumphant taking of bows.
They were well-earned. Symphony Hall might not be the venue most conducive to circus acts, but it did just fine in a pinch. The only preparation necessary was a single cable suspended from the light rigging, from which could be attached a rope, a hoop, or silks as necessary. Well, that and maybe also a wider berth between the Pops and the performers in front of them; one violinist seemed to be halfway keeping an eye out for wayward rings as loose-limbed harlequin Vladimir Tsarkov juggled to "Devil's Dance" from "The Witches of Eastwick."
That tension was precisely the thrill, at least for Tsarkov and aerialists Christine Van Loo and Aloysia Gavre. All three played with the illusion of inviting calamity while maintaining complete control at all times. With her legs wrapped around a rope, Van Loo slid facedown 20 feet before stopping about 2 feet above the stage, while Gavre made wide circles above the audience while dangling from a hoop using just the crooks between her feet and her shins.
Not every act threatened collapse. The hand-balancing of Andrey Moraru was all about smooth control. That went double for Duo Design, two gilded, nearly nude bald men contorting and balancing upon one another so astonishingly that Keith Lockhart turned to watch as he conducted. And Elena Tsarkova twisted in impossible ways and undulated like a flame before returning for a brain-tickling quick-change routine.
The uncharacteristic spectacle placed the Pops into an invisible (albeit vital) role in their own home. Only a handful of songs scattered through the program — the introductory clown march of Fucík's "Entrance of the Gladiators," the inescapable "Let It Go," the urban busyness and sarcastic horns of Bernstein's carefree and swinging "Times Square: 1944," Smetana's lighthearted and flittering "March of the Comedians" — were presented as standalone music, rather than theatrical underscore generating suspense or conveying mystery. It may have been just as well. It would have been hard to fully appreciate Saint-Saëns's "Danse Macabre" or the agitated, off-kilter slide of Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" anyway, not when they were interrupted every minute or so by an audience applauding at yet another gasp-inducing feat of strength or dexterity.