Words: Kelly Apter
In an era when new circus troupes are springing up on a regular basis, finding a fresh and interesting framework to hang your acts on is increasingly important.
Right from its inception in 1993, Cirque Éloize have always looked outside the circus – to theatre, dance, film, music – to add flavour to the pot.
“For me, the way to re-invent the circus was to invite people from other artforms,” says Jeannot Painchaud, co-founder of Cirque Éloize, “and that’s still what I’m doing now. To work with theatre directors or choreographers is always fun and inspiring.”
That takes care of the style, but what about the content? With 10 original productions under its belt, toured extensively to more than 400 cities, Cirque Éloize are adept at presenting its acts in new ways.
“That is the biggest challenge,” says Painchaud, “because there are now so many people who do circus and copy each other. They see an act on YouTube and want to do the same thing – they just change the music.
“So in order to try and reinvent that every time, it’s always good to start with a clear idea or story and characters that you have in mind. After that, you can look for the acts or people who fit into that idea.”
When the monotony of the nine to five gets too much, we joke about running away to join the circus. Ironically, Cirque Éloize have done the opposite with Cirkopolis, which is co-directed by Painchaud, and which comes to The Marlowe Theatre in March.
The Quebec-based company (temporarily) set aside their joyful routine of acrobatics, juggling and dance, to enter a cold, grey world where happiness is but a fleeting memory.
Each day, our hero Ashley suppresses his individuality in order to fit in, drowning in a seemingly never-ending pile of paperwork. Behind him, towering images take us inside a powerful machine that crushes his spirit to raise productivity.
Happily for him (and us) a merry band of circus artistes is waiting in the wings to remind us all what life is about. With them comes a burst of colour and exuberance that lights up the stage – and Ashley’s world.
Painchaud turned to a number of sources to find inspiration for the show. He asked the video designers to look at German expressionism, and the futuristic world of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. While Painchaud himself was inspired by the 1985 Terry Gilliam film, Brazil and the writing of Franz Kafka.
“That was our starting point,” explains Painchaud, “And then it was about how you emerge from that kind of world and be yourself. To look at the beauty in your life and try as much as possible to be respectful to who you are.”
To bring Cirkopolis to life, Painchaud and the show’s co-director, Dave St Pierre assembled a talented cast of 12 circus artistes hailing from Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA.
Cirque Éloize might be known as a nouveau cirque (contemporary circus) but their heart is rooted in tradition. So although during casting, they looked for performers who can dance, act and feed into the creative process, technical ability was the number one requirement.
“We see a lot of people and choose very few,” says Painchaud. “And especially now, over the past 10 years with so many people doing circus – we need to search far sometimes to find a high level of technical skill. But when we take the time to do that, there are a lot of very good people out there, and we love to find those jewels.”
To make it into the Éloize family, performers have to be multi-disciplinary, with more than one string to their bow. So, during Cirkopolis you’ll notice that an artiste is juggling one minute, spinning inside a Cyr wheel the next – or switching between hand to hand acrobatics and the Chinese pole.
All of the company members have spent years at circus school perfecting their skill – usually focussing on one speciality, but accruing others as they learn. Knowing that their colleagues are at the same professional level as them, allows the performers to quickly build up the trust required to literally put their lives in each other’s hands.
Whether they’re fearlessly soaring through the air, climbing high above the ground or wheeling across the stage whilst attempting to catch a club, the element of risk is never far away. For Painchaud, that is a crucial component of what Cirque Éloize stand for.
The European artistic sensibility that defines much of contemporary circus is important to him, but so too is the highly-skilled acrobatics the Russians and Chinese are renowned for, along with what Painchaud calls the “show business timing” seen in America.
“If you speak to older people in the circus world, they’ll tell you that if you don’t have a ring, a traditional clown or a horse then you’re not a circus,” says Painchaud. “And OK, we don’t have those three things, but we do have amazing acrobatics – things that make people go ‘wow’.
“That’s what I’ve kept from the traditional circus – and I think if you don’t at least have that, then call yourselves a theatre or dance company instead. But if you call yourself a circus, you’ve got to have something relating to what circus used to mean. And for that reason, the acrobatics are still number one when I’m casting.”