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Cirque du Soleil celebrates performer's 80th birthday

LAS VEGAS--Brian Dewhurst always knew he would be a circus act.

The English performer was born into a family of knife throwers, jugglers and animal trainers. He made his professional debut on the European circus circuit at 13, with a boyhood education comprised of lessons in juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking and dancing on a tightrope. As an adult, he started his own circus troupe and entertained his two children by trimming the hedges while on stilts.

For Dewhurst, the only unexpected thing about his life's devotion is that people are surprised he is still doing it. The celebrated acrobat and clown is the oldest performer employed by Cirque du Soleil, the upscale Canadian circus with 22 shows across the globe. Last week Dewhurst marked his 80th birthday as he would any other work day — by starring in two back-to-back performances of “Mystere,” a psychedelic exploration of the passage of time at the Treasure Island hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

“My father worked into his late 80s, so I don't think this is anything unusual,” Dewhurst told The Associated Press as he prepared for his first performance on his birthday. “It's just another day.”

Of course, it wasn't, and his cast mates and relatives were not about to let Dewhurst forget it.

He began the night by teasing out his fine, gray hair into the loony halo that has become the calling card of Brian Le Petit, the rude clown Dewhurst portrays in “Mystere.” He coated his bushy, white eyebrows with a black makeup pencil and lined his eyes to make them stand out on stage. He wore his customary costume of an oversized black suit and white shirt, with a red foam clown nose tucked away for later.

The birthday surprises began shortly after Dewhurst entered the theater.

As Le Petit, his job is to warm the crowd up by irritating them until they laugh. On his birthday, he threw popcorn at men, begged young women for kisses and pretended to pull a bra from beneath the shirt of a large middle-aged woman. As he always does, he posed as an usher and then led confused tourists across the theater, onto the stage and back to the entrance before ripping up their tickets and tossing the paper scraps into the air like confetti.

When the show starts, Le Petit mocks the puppeteer who advises theatergoers to turn off their phones and cameras.

“Hey,” Dewhurst yells. “We can see your lips moving.”

As Dewhurst stared at the stage last week, he realized he was yelling at his only son, Nicky Dewhurst, a fellow performer who had arranged to share the stage with his father for the special night. His regular gig is a clown/sex toy salesman at Cirque Du Soleil's “Zumanity” down the Strip at the New York-New York hotel-casino.

As the cast closed the performance with a bow, they led the audience in “Happy Birthday to You” as Dewhurst looked on.

Later dozens of cast mates and relatives, including his six grandchildren, surprised Dewhurst with a party in the empty theater.

It was a celebration Dewhurst had avoided for decades. He said he never did much to observe the usual milestone birthdays, not his 30th or his 40th or his 50th, either.

All he ever did, he said, was work.

“He lives for this,” said daughter Sally Dewhurst, 37.

With 10 performances each week, Dewhurst's craft is demanding. He said he stays fit with regular exercise and eating well. His body is trim and he looks younger than his 80 years.

Aging has forced him to slow down somewhat. He no longer walks the tightrope.

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Brian Dewhurst, center, gets a standing ovation after performing as Brian Le Petit in one of two nightly Cirque du Soleil shows of Mystere at the Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas, May 22. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP)

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