Thursday, June 9, 2011

"At Cirque du Soleil no one is more depressed than the clowns."

[post 151]

Or so says the New York Times.  A mere five days after a lengthy profile of Cirque du Soleil co-founder and owner Guy Laliberté, which I wrote about in this post, the Times is back with a three-page preview of Cirque's upcoming debut at Radio City Music Hall, the stage show Zarkana.  And though their previews tend to be fluff pieces, the Times is again raising questions about the Cirque's artistic direction, comparing Zarkana to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and wondering out loud about the caliber of the theatre and clowning components.

Here are a few quotes:

In an effort to rebound from the rare failure of the intimate “Banana Shpeel” in New York last year, the one thing everyone agrees on is that this will be a very big show. There will be daredevil feats, bold images and high-flying acrobatic spectacle. As Mr. Girard put it: “No theater. No vaudeville. We want to be more Cirque than Cirque.”

Mr. Bazinet’s job is to help guide 15 performers of diverse backgrounds into a comic unit called the Movers. Less than a week earlier he had spoken to his friend David Shiner, the director of “Banana Shpeel,” who told him what he already knew: that clowning at a theater the size of Radio City is impossible. “The clowns are going to die,” Mr. Shiner says. “You need an intimate space for clowning, otherwise you have nothing.”

At Cirque du Soleil no one is more depressed than the clowns. That’s not just because the painted smiles hide a deep-seated sadness, although there is some truth to that stereotype. (“You can’t imagine the number of clowns I’ve seen cry in my life,” Mr. Laliberté says.) Rather, it is because developing a clown act requires more experimentation and spontaneity than the Machine allows time for. And Cirque was built on arty, sometimes twee clowning that can’t fill up a large space like Radio City.

[Okay, I admit it, I thought "twee" was a typo, but it turns out it means "excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental." —jt]

The story is, if anything, more impenetrable. When asked about it, Mr. Girard answers abruptly, Cirque “is not a good place to tell a story, period.”

You can read the whole article here.

And here's a video preview that'll give you some idea of the look of the show; there are more on YouTube.


David Lichtenstein said...

Rene Bazinet is the most talented clown I ever spent close time with, a truly brilliant performer. (And although he has a German side to him, he's basically Canadian from Winnipeg.) David Shiner is not exactly a slouch in the clown department. All power to them trying to keep some theatrical clown in Cirque de Soleil. Shiner's comment is odd, since he, Bazinet, Geoff Hoyle (who I saw in Cirque years ago) and the famous clowns of the past did make the big arena intimate.

I am envious of the New York worldview being able to underplay the influence of Cirque de Soleil. Out here in the provincial capitals (Portland, Oregon) Cirque de Soleil brings a show for 6 weeks every two years and outgrosses all Portland theaters by a mile. In the popular American conscious all live theater is small, but within that slice Cirque de Soleil is huge and dominant.

I recently saw the Cirque Beatles Show Love, after not seeing them for 18 years. 20 years ago when I saw Cirque shows in Quebec I used to tell non-circus people that Cirque was bringing the one-ring circus intimacy, the theatricality of circus back to America. Well no more. In Love, there was almost always 4-12 things going on at a time. I had a great time, there was so many interesting characters and costumes to check out but the artistic choices were terrible. Any focus on character, or Beatles themes (There's a lot in those songs after all.) was infantile and always abandoned within two measures of 8 in favor of the next splash of images. It seemed to me an end of live theater, it will be difficult for theater to reach even shorter attention spans with even fast crashing of big imagery. There are physical limits live.

The problem for the USA is that we never had the full small circus, physical theater boom that birthed Cirque de Soleil. Although the 1970's 1980's American juggler-street theater wave helped spark the European Street Theater wave, the much larger European Tsunami of Circus and physical theater never made it back here.

Rene Bazinet and Shiner come from an important generation. Rene studied intensively for years with Decroux and did 3 years at Lecoq with Lecoq and Guallier and other studies. They spread it out with brilliance to the world. Is there no room for theatrical clowning descendants in America? So many forces in America squeeze off small theater. Our Wanderlust Circus puts on original productions with live bands for $10,000 total production budgets and then there's Cirque de Soleil, where is the midsize physical theater?

The European Street Theater Festival Circuit is driving the European, Australian, and South American new circus/physical theater scenes. Out of the European Street Theater Festivals come the most theatrical new circus work like El Grito.

On the West Coast of the USA I think the leadership of the post-hippie generation (Oregon Country Fair, Moisture Festival) is perhaps past it’s peak. I think the new generation of leaders is developing at the second generation Burning Man type festivals that are proliferating. But perhaps their style will be too loud, fast, and rock and roll for the Rene Bazinet/David Shiner brilliant clowns that we love.

David Lichtenstein
Leapin’ Louie Comedy Shows

Noah Mickens said...

Hey Leapin'. Noah Mickens here, co-director/producer/ringmaster of The Wanderlust Circus (and Bogville, Queen of Knives, Societas Insomnia, et al.)

I only wish I had the resources available to these fortunate gentlemen who are producing the new Cirque du Soleil shows - what fun we could have. For that matter, I wish that I more frequently had access to the $10,000 mentioned in your comment here.

For better or for worse, the microbudget DIY conditions under which the independent theater troupe labors in the United States has necessitated a more inventive approach. How to do something great using only the limited resources available? "Availabism", as the peerless Kembra Pfahler used to call it in New York.

I've heard that, in most European countries, one is eligible for significant government grants without having to prove that one's artistic efforts are worthy of 501C3 status. The problem with the old 501C3 is that a given troupe simply does not qualify unless they can prove that their work has an educational or charitable component. So you get plenty of money for the Ballet, the Symphony, the Opera; and small troupes must split their time and energy between their actual shows and whatever classes and workshops they have to tack on in order to qualify for the big bucks. I look at current European krewes like Grand Royal and think how much I could do with their budgets too.

But for now, and likely for good, the US just doesn't run that way. To be an artist here, one must find ways of squeezing magic from the everyday. Maybe it's always been like that? And maybe it lends to the hardscrabble spirit of experimentation that brought jazz and vaudeville (and Burning Man) to the world in the first place?

Anyway, back to work. Thanks for drawing my attention to this article.

All you naysayers in the Big Apple listen up - Cirque du Soleil is an amazing organization, capable of inspiring levels of wonder and majesty that Broadway doesn't even comprehend right now. When you stop inflicting garbage like Mama Mia on the world, then you can judge the Cirque.

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