Cirque Alfonse: A Neo-Traditional Family Circus Keeps it Real - CircusTalk

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Cirque Alfonse: A Neo-Traditional Family Circus Keeps it Real

A young company built on a traditional family circus model embraces untraditional artistry using surprising materials and seeking honesty above all.
Many circuses employ performers from all over the world, but one small troupe celebrates a different form of inclusive diversity: the most recent Cirque Alfonse show, Timber, includes cast members from three different generations of the same family. Of course, until the 20th century advent of circus training schools, most circus skills were passed on within families, and shows often included cast members from multiple generations. But one look at Cirque Alfonse makes clear that nothing quite so traditional is happening here!

Cirque Alfonse was founded in 2005 in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec by a close-knit family and a few friends—some acrobats, some musicians, a dancer, and a skiier—who drew inspiration for their first show not just from the local music and folklore but even more narrowly from their own family experience. After attending the National Circus School of Montreal, Antoine Carabinier Lépine worked for Cirque Eloize, Cirque du Soleil, and Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkor. While there, his sister, Julie Carabinier Lépine, a ballerina; his parents, and National Circus School graduate Geneviève Gauthier came to visit. Antoine and Julie’s father, Alain Carabinier, had always dreamed of being on stage, but he’d never had a chance, and the two performer siblings hatched a plan to create a show for his 60th birthday that included him in a feature role.

In 2005, the whole family, along with a few friends, returned to the family home outside of the village of Saint Alphonse-Rodriguez and began creating a show that eventually became La Brunante (“Dusk”). All the performers were locals, except for Alain, who was born in Switzerland, and they named the fledgling company after the closest town. La Brunante showcased contemporary circus skills in a traditional storyline about the local custom of musical house parties. The show was a party, and they all thought it would be a one-time thing. In the summer of 2006, La Brunante ran for six performances at the local Vaudreuil-Dorion Circus Festival. The next winter, though, the Germanville Old Village invited them to perform, and Cirque Alfonse opened for business. They rented sound and lighting equipment as well as a two-mast, 550-seat tent that was Cirque du Soleil’s original chapiteau, and they performed for a month. The company was born.

Although the show was successful, the artists had already committed to other contracts they needed to honor. Antoine, Julie, and her partner Jonathan Casaubon, another National Circus School alumnus who had performed in Cirque du Soleil’s Love, went to Switzerland to join Salto Natale. When the contract ended after eight months, Antoine took a spot in Berlin’s Chamäleon variety theater and then reunited with his sister in the cast of Made in Quebec in Montreal and Taiwan. Antoine and Casaubon then toured with the 7 Fingers of the Hand show Traces for two years.

At the end of the contract, they decided to return to Quebec to create a new show. The entire collective of 12 artists moved into the Carabinier’s 200-year-old house and transformed the big barn/garage into a creation studio. The parent Carabiniers wanted to re-mount La Brunante, but the next generation determined to start fresh, and the main similarity between La Brunante and the new show, Timber, is that the music draws heavily on traditional Quebecois folk tunes. The company worked 12 hours a day together for six weeks. Julie was pregnant; their mother cooked “big lumberjack meals” for the entire company.

The group didn’t just create Timber in the home; they created it of the home, using materials they found around the property, adjusting the rigging to fit in the barn, and designing the aesthetic to reflect the area’s lumberjack culture. Although none of the performers grew up in the timber industry, it was never far. “Dad cuts his own wood for winter,” says Antoine, “we grew up in that culture in a way.” In fact, they woke up in the morning and cut wood to warm up before rehearsing. The property grounds were full of old axes, saws, carriage wheels, and other objects that accumulated in and around the barn. Cirque Alfonse put them to use, trying to make the show, as much as possible, with materials they found on their property. Circus scholar Louis Patrick Leroux says, “as so often happens, these tangible limitations inspired creativity: wood became a design element and an aesthetic as well as a source material for equipment and apparatuses.”

The effect is comprehensive throughout the show. Different acts uses a tree branch as a Russian bar and a teeterboard hewn from a tree trunk. Cast members balance, roll, and jump between sections of tree trunks in an act that draws not only from circus rola bola routines but also from lumberjack log-rolling competitions. Antoine uses a wagon wheel he found under the barn (with its spokes still on) in movements that draw on the disciplines of German wheel, object manipulation, and his specialty, Cyr wheel. Performers juggle axes (and dinner ingredients). In the most terrifying act of the show, performers take turns holding a two-man cross cut saw from both handles for the other acrobats to dive through like a hoop and swinging it from one end for them to jump over and squat under. Julie performs on a wooden swing suspended by rough ropes and then removes the swing for a duo act using the coarse, heavy rope in the manner of aerial straps. The rigging is set to the height prescribed by the family barn. Leroux says the guiding principle of the show is “keep it real.” The cast seeks authentication in every action. Antoine agrees: “We try to be as honest as possible. None of the equipment we use was made for the show. It was all transformed. We don’t cheat. People don’t believe it. They think the logs are fake. They don’t even think our beards are real.”

Speaking of beards, Cirque Alfonse now also offers another show, Barbu, which celebrates the company’s hirsute he-men. In Barbu, the core company is joined by performers from France and Finland as well as others from Quebec. While Timber plays theaters, and includes a homey wooden set, Barbu performs in nightclubs and non-traditional venues and incorporates video projections as backdrop. Both shows celebrate inclusion and break expectations. For example, one highlight of Barbuwas a four-man hand-balancing act, in which three of the four men, at some point in the number, based the other three men (and the fourth man wasn’t that small either!).

The commitment to keeping it real is as much a commitment to circus as it is to Quebec’s lumberjack culture. “In circus,” Antoine explains, “if you do a salto, you do a salto, you don’t do a fake salto.” In both arenas, the truth is dangerous: “Even if you do a salto every day, you can injure yourself.” And if you jump through a saw every day, you can cut yourself, as Casaubon did, badly, during one performance. The performers recognize that in an age of YouTube videos, the risk is part of their audience appeal, and they count on their circus training and professionalism to keep them, mostly, safe.

They also count on each other. Working with close family members makes it easier to harder to take life-threatening risks but easier to trust one’s partners. Julie’s young sons, Arthur and Jules, love being on stage as does their grandfather Alain, who had wanted to join a circus since seeing Circus Knie as a child in Geneva. Leroux says, Cirque Alfonse “combines extraordinary feats of strength and ability with demonstrations of the connectedness among family members. Every member of the family is expected to help each other ‘keep in touch’ literally—not on email or text messages—but by physically supporting each other, from the two-year-old boy to his grandfather. While remembering where they’re from, they project an ideal future family togetherness.”

Special thanks to the circus expert, Louis Patrick Leroux, who helped with this article. Louis Patrick Leroux is a playwright, director, and scholar. He is a professor of playwriting and Québec drama and culture in both the English and French Studies departments at Concordia University in Montreal. He has recently been visiting scholar at Duke University and Charles University in Prague. He was a scholar-in-residence at Montreal’s National Circus School for two years and is an ongoing collaborator with the school’s and 7 Fingers of the Hand’s focused exploration into circus, technology, and narrative. He is currently teaching history, aesthetics, and creative process at Canada’s National Circus School and is director of the Montreal Working Group on Circus Research. He is also an artist in residence at matralab and is affiliated with the Hexagram Institute for research-creation in media arts and technology.

Viveca Gardiner
Performer, Producer, Teacher, Writer -United States
Viveca is president of Playful Productions, director of youth programs for Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and a coach at Circus of the Kids. She edits CircusNYC and JuggleNYC. She has also been a director at the Big Apple Circus and a contributing editor of JUGGLE magazine. She performs as a juggler, ringmistress, unicyclist, and stilt walker, and she has published two commissioned study guides on the history and artistry of circus arts. She might have sawdust in her veins.
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Viveca Gardiner

Viveca is president of Playful Productions, director of youth programs for Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and a coach at Circus of the Kids. She edits CircusNYC and JuggleNYC. She has also been a director at the Big Apple Circus and a contributing editor of JUGGLE magazine. She performs as a juggler, ringmistress, unicyclist, and stilt walker, and she has published two commissioned study guides on the history and artistry of circus arts. She might have sawdust in her veins.