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Cirque du so gay

Cirque du so gay

Zumanity

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

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 cafe 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 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 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 Celine 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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Steve Friess