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

BY Steve Friess

October 17 2003 11:00 PM ET

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 dark briefs that blend
with his velvet skin. They tiptoe in cautious circles,
eyeing each other as suspiciously as wrestlers about
to pounce. 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 the men pull apart, their
faces instinctively crush together yet again for a
moment before they slink together off the stage.

Were this
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. Even more remarkably, it
comes as a key scene of Cirque du Soleil’s
salacious $15 million cabaret show, Zumanity, which
opened in August at the New York New York Hotel and
Casino. With a budget like that, it’s clear this
isn’t 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 legally
united in Sweden six years ago—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 a gay dance,” Patrick insists during
a middle-of-the-night interview at a Vegas café
as he and Johan devour a postshow platter of lamb
chops. (Their diets are simple: no junk food. Anything
else can be worked off in their daily four-hour rehearsals.)
Adds Johan: “To us, it’s just a relationship.
It’s 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 the dance to be a highlight. “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
& Grace
, where Will 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. That began in a Stockholm bar
in 1989 when Patrick King, 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 landed at the Royal Swedish Ballet
School. Patrick was already a fixture of European
theater as a dancer and choreographer for the prestigious
Sweden-based Cullberg Ballet, performing at royal functions
around the continent and creating dance pieces for
family events of such pals as the designer Fendi.

Both 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 entertainment legends
including James Brown and 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 to
see 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
in Finland and then Israel and globetrotting much as Patrick
had years earlier. During this period, the
couple’s 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 breakup and one major
makeup—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 with a legal union ceremony in
Sweden. Their first purpose was practical—they were
moving to Rome and wanted to be recognized as a legal
family on relocating within the European
Union—but the experience proved more profound than
that. 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; the Kings wanted the event to be small. But both
clans support them. Johan was openly gay as a teen and had
no trouble; Patrick met mild resistance after bringing
Johan to the family home on St. Croix in the U.S.
Virgin Islands a few times. Patrick’s father wrote
his son to ask him if he could “make an adjustment in
your lifestyle,” to which Patrick responded,
“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
following Patrick’s direction. It wasn’t
intended for mass audiences, but word spread among
friends, and the couple went on to do a 45-minute version at
Rome’s World Pride celebration in 2000. That same
year, they auditioned for Cirque du Soleil recruiters.

The Kings heard
nothing until August 2002, when Cirque—with
Zumanity in mind—invited them to perform a
12-minute version of the dance in Saint-Tropez, France, at a
private party thrown by Cirque founder Guy
Laliberté. “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 to join the variety show, which
also includes a dwarf seeking affection from a tall
blond 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 wear the briefs in
Zumanity.)

“We wanted
to show the many facets of sexuality and love, and we
recognize gay love as being very valid,” says Lynn
Heward, Cirque’s president and chief operating
officer. “We said from the beginning we wanted
to provoke. This isn’t a safe, gentle show.”

In fact, the
Kings add grace and heart to what could be a schlocky
program. Without them, the show’s sole approach to
homosexuality would be topless women frolicking in a
giant fishbowl. “Patrick and Johan bring
balance and so much class,” says emcee Joey Arias.
“You see two males going for it, and
it’s real.”

The couple,
signed with Cirque until 2005, are easing into their new
roles as pop entertainers in Vegas. Despite never expecting
to be performing down the block from Céline or
Wayne Newton, thus far they have only gratitude for
their gig. “I love when we come to the kiss,”
Patrick says. “It’s a wonderful way
after a long day to say ‘I love you’ to my
husband and to share it with the rest of the world.”

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