Cirque du Soleil continues to do what Cirque du Soleil got rich doing: thrilling, high-caliber varieté acts from all over the globe, underscored by a live world-pop band and loosely threaded with a narrative of idealistic hope about the moral and aesthetic beauty of innocence and wonder and the rediscovery of our inner child. The vehicle for this narrative in Kooza is a sweetly childish clown with striped pajamas and a luminous kite. Wisely, he's relegated to the margins throughout the show, as we didn't come to watch an oversize child whose most serious life problem is getting a kite aloft. We came to see highly trained adults perform improbable stunts at great heights. We came to feel a little nervous.

Turns out, we felt a lot nervous. Circus acts have a long tradition of freaking out their crowds for maximum thrills: The performer of a high-wire routine, for example, typically wobbles theatrically across the tightrope at the onset to make his subsequent tricks (bicycling across the wire while dodging a urinating monkey or whatever) seem more spectacular. But the performers of Kooza had a few near misses that looked genuinely out of control: A high-wire performer lost his balance while jumping rope and took a spill that seemed to draw looks of consternation from the other three performers (he caught himself on the rope, took a beat to collect himself, and hoisted himself back up). A woman was nearly dropped during an act involving some performers jumping on giant fulcrums to launch others into the air to perform dramatic flips. One of the guys on what is called "the Wheel of Death"—a 1,600-pound spinning contraption with two hamster wheels on either end that performers do stunts within and atop—seemed to scramble for his balance at potentially fatal heights. (According to Wikipedia, the last person to die performing on the Wheel of Death was Claude Pinkellmann in 1982.) Even the relatively tame Hula-hoop act seemed underprepared, as the performer let one hoop fly into the audience and a few fall to her feet.

Some of the acts were masterful: an Asian chair-balancer (dubbed "Chairman Mao" by a spectator sitting next to me) seemed perfectly controlled while maintaining long handstands on nearly a dozen chairs stacked in the air, sending some of the ladies in the audience into a swoon with his suave demeanor and compact, muscular chest. A romantic unicycle act, with a man carrying a woman on his head while circling the stage, was elegant and beautiful. And most of the clowning—excepting a Euro-sleaze character who performed a slightly sneering, slightly malicious pickpocket routine on an audience member—was comically exquisite in the dirty (armpit farts, leg humping), anarchic, and magical way of all quality clowning. That's as it should be, since Kooza was written and directed by international master-clown David Shiner. But with the number of slips, stumbles, and drops by the stunt performers, it was difficult not to wonder whether Kooza erected its big top too early.

Performers pushed themselves past comfort zones in an entirely different way at On the Boards last weekend. The annual Northwest New Works Festival brought several familiar faces to the stage—rocker Spencer Moody, dancer and choreographer Amy O'Neal, drag-dance gender-jammers Cherdonna Shinatra and Lou Henry Hoover, Mike Pham of performance-art duo Helsinki Syndrome—and all of them were charging into new territory. Moody composed a heavy score to a stark and emotional dance by Marissa Rae Niederhauser. The music and the choreographer seemed inspired by Steve Albini in a foul mood: Five dancers, two guitarists, and a drummer gave thundering but stark performances with slamming chords and tense, contorted bodies, with breasts bound in what looked like oversize Ace bandages.

O'Neal, whose dance company locust is nationally renowned for melding high-energy pop dance, serious modern technique, and accessible themes—zombies, romance, BMX bikes—performed a wrenchingly emotional solo set to music by GZA, 2Pac, Animal Collective, and others. She entered the stage in a black bodysuit and blindfold, mouth smeared with blood, and did some violent, krump-style street dancing that left her sobbing. She then washed her hair and face in an illuminated bowl of water, gleefully stripped to a Wonder Woman costume, then stripped down to pasties and her underwear while a crew of folks illuminated her with flashlights, then triumphantly swung around a pink katana lowered from the ceiling. The piece, called Into the Fray, was far outside O'Neal's traditional range, more like French dancer and performer Christian Rizzo—who will open the next On the Boards season—in its highly personal, emotionally alchemic, and mysterious symbolism. (Pham's piece, which involved figure skating, body bags, and a pixilated video portrait of his face that disintegrated like Dorian Gray's, also seemed highly charged and personal.) It was a heavy topic of conversation at the bar during intermission.

But longtime choreographer Mark Haim may have won the prize for audience favorite with his This Land Is Your Land, a deceptively minimal and humorous piece for 12 dancers—including local favorites Beth Graczyk, Jürg Koch, and Jim Kent—against a horizontally striped banner of different colors, set to country music from Hank Williams to Billy Ray Cyrus. Dancers simply walked downstage, pivoted on the balls of their feet, and walked back upstage at a slight diagonal, allowing one to exit behind the banner and another to enter on the other side with each rotation. Every time a dancer entered the stage, he or she had a slightly different look: carrying coffee cups, texting on cell phones, wearing high heels, or wearing nothing but a smile. The repetitive movement encouraged the audience to watch for small details, and each subtle and not-so-subtle variation provoked squeals of laughter. But the conclusion—the soundtrack dropping out for the final variation, dancers dressed in black and carrying guns, the only sound the rhythm of their marching—was a haunting punch line: a fitting conclusion to a weekend of surprises.

This weekend's festival will star a whole new slate of acts, from the Satori Group doing something about youthful sexuality to dancer Corrie Befort experimenting with music. If it's anything like last weekend, it should be fantastic. recommended