I've always been a big circus fan, but I have to admit that somewhere along the way I began to tire of the same old acts done the same old way. Tradition is fine and to be seriously respected, but watching performers — be it a hand balancer, a solo trapeze artist, or a clown — do what everyone else is doing, time after time, proved downright dispiriting. Did "classical circus" have to be devoid of creativity? And if a true believer like me often found himself bored at ringside, I suspect many a secular spectator was left with the feeling that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
And then along came nouveau cirque, with its rejection of animal acts and Barnum-esque hokum, championing instead an aesthetics derived from sources as varied as Chinese acrobatic troupes, post-modern dance, and visual theatre. We immediately think of Montreal's Cirque du Soleil, but it is in France — aided by generous government funding — that circus arts have been stretched the furthest. My annual visits hardly qualify me as an expert, but the shows I have seen have all been strikingly different from one another, each with its own unique vision and execution. In my last post, I wrote about seeing France's Compagnie XY in London. Just a few days later I was in Paris, where I caught Du Goudron et Des Plumes (Tar & Feathers) by Compagnie MPTA out at Parc de la Villette, home for many a nouveau cirque production.
While Compagnie XY presented traditional circus skills in a new way, Du Goudron et Des Plumes is more of a dance-theatre piece, weaving acrobatics into a theatrical narrative that, although abstract, was about something. Five performers (four men and a woman) cohabit the area on and around a suspended platform that rocks their world as it rises and lowers, tilts and sways; alternately a floor; a roof; a ship at sea, swept away by a perfect storm. To survive, they are forced to adapt to a topsy-turvy existence. Dynamics shift, relationships form and dissolve, cooperation gives way to competition, and chaos always looms. Sometimes life is as light as a feather; other times, it weighs them down like a heavy coat of tar.
As with Cirque Mechanics (see my earlier post), the platform and its extensions become a sort of constructivist jungle gym. Its parts are even miked so that we hear it breathe as it moves. And not only does the platform move, but its wooden planks can be reconfigured by humans to create new playing surfaces. As the reviewer for La Terrasse put it, the living confront a machine that binds them and yet inspires creativity, "a metaphor for our world in a state of constant displacement."
If you're thinking this is all very esoteric, maybe even intellectual, you are — I am happy to report — quite mistaken. Not only is the movement a joy to behold, but the show is full of original circus technique and physical comedy. My favorite was the pole act. Look at these two pictures: the one on the left of Chinese acrobats doing a traditional pole act; the one on the right showing two characters interacting on poles temporarily wedged into the platform.
The Chinese act is spectacular, and any attempt to duplicate it risks being a pale imitation. In Du Goudron et des Plumes, however, the poles were the setting for a two-person scene, with one character manipulating the other like a marionette, up, down and around the poles. The technical skill is certainly there, but the interplay between characters gives it a whole other life that you just don't get with straight presentation. If there were one segment that I could show you on video, this would be it.
[Total Aside: It's amazing where clicking on a web link can take you. Not being a frequenter of strip clubs (no, really...), I had no idea that strippers had gotten into serious acrobatic training to enhance their pole dancing acts till I stumbled upon this blog post. And did you know there's even a U.S. Pole Dance Federation? Stranger still, it turns out their 2009 championships were held all of four blocks from my NYC apartment building. Man, nobody tells me nuttin'!]
Also quite imaginative was an upside-down mirror scene. We've all seen mirror gags, and you've probably seen acts where the aerialist performs everyday acts suspended upside-down; there's been one featured in Circus Oz for like forever. Here, however, two performers mirror each other vertically, one standing on the platform, the other suspended by his feet from it so they are feet-to-feet. Quite nifty.
I haven't found even a promo video for the show, just this little slide show:
Here's a YouTube video of another piece by director Mathurin-Bolze, just to give you some idea of his style; unfortunately, the camera operator seems to have fallen asleep after the first minute and a half.
The program notes, like most French writing on culture, are full of metaphors and allusions that are either evocatively poetic or ridiculously pretentious — all depending on your point of view. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is listed as an inspiration, as are other texts, but they are ultimately irrelevant to the final product, which speaks for itself.
Compagnie MPTA's motto is Les Mains, les Pieds et la Tête Aussi. They have indeed succeeded admirably with their hands, their feet, and also with their head.
You can read a collection of reviews (in French) here.
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