The quiet pulse of house music rises slowly as the audience settles in. In the center of the circus ring we see a large white parachute bubble, and underneath there are shadows cast by slowly moving bodies who seem to pick up the pace a bit just as the sound level rises. It happens over a matter of minutes, but soon the whole tent is filled with the thrum of bass and the small tent full of shadows before us is thrashing around as if at their own private dance club. That is how the show begins.
The last phase of the CNAC student experience is called professional integration and it consists in the creation and presentation of the graduation show which validates the student’s circus degree. It’s the ultimate hands on experience for graduates about to launch their professional career, and a bumper between the intimate world of circus school and the wider playing field of circus professionals. The show plays a short time on the home stage before moving to the La Villette location each year to reach a Paris audience, then finally going on a tour around France for a few months.
In this year’s fascinating graduate show of the CNAC students, directors Antoine Rigot (Les Colporteurs) and Canadian director Alice Ronfard made bold statements with their direction, but not in any predictable way. There is neutral costume palette among the 17 performers in F(r)ICTION. If they are out to rub us the wrong way as their title suggests, it is not by what they wear, essentially beige underwear. Among them there is even neutral gender as each performer wears a beige sports bra as well as beige bottoms, occasionally donning a beige dress for some scenes. The lighting too is low-key, making the ground acts appear almost hazy in the circus tent. All combine to focus the senses on what matters, the movement and the music which is anything but neutral.
The music, created by Gaspard Panfiloff, is the real partner to the performers, setting the mood in a striking way as it oscillates between modern and old, inspiring the artists themselves to ungulate between the charming but more formal gestures of ancient times and the more casual, flowing movements of today’s world. But time travel is not the only feat accomplished by the graduating class of CNAC, they also make a point to transcend and meld their disciplines by blurring the lines between ‘acts’. While the variations in music and dance styles jolt us awake and confront us with time, the ease with which the performers slip between circus genres (and even out of circus genres to add dance, guitar, singing) creates a lulling effect and a sense of deja vu at the same time as the audience perspective is asked to change over and over again with that of the performers.
Although it begins with a contemplative scene under a bubble tent that escalates to a dance party, it quickly moves on–a handbalancer (Lucille Chalopin) is supported by the group and collective acrobatics evolves from the congregation until the tall bearded performer (Hernan Elencwajg) puts on a beige tunic like the others and suddenly conveys some Jesus–like religious symbolism. Lili Parson navigates her cyr wheel deftly around the same helpful mob, who then effortlessly catch the acrobat with banquine style moves soon after. A roller skater (Hamza Benlabied) becomes airborne on straps and the fluidity and sudden weightlessness is gasp-inducing. Swinging trapeze artist Lea Lepetre does her stunts over the heads of each of her companions as they lay underneath her trapeze, waiting to catch her and absorb the impact should she miss a beat. It would seem to have no rhyme or reason, this flow, but it does have a rhythm and that rhythm is stirring, like watching a universe unfurl and create its own meaning as it goes. Each act unfolds from the preceding one and traces some ancient societal impulses. There is no jarring pause for applause between performances–this is a true ensemble, and the music takes you effortlessly in to the mood required for the next event.
Intriguingly, you are not alone. Each step of the way in the ring, a little further in than you, but still outside of the action, is a watcher just like you. She sits and views what is happening. Sometimes she is transfixed. Other times she is bored and upon occasion she is agitated. Her reactions might rarely match yours, but you don’t pay much attention to her because there is so much more happening in the ring. It’s just curious and a bit unsettling to be reminded that because she is part of the show, by extension, so are you.
Group trust and coherence is a vivid theme throughout the whole show as each discipline and apparatus is interacted with by the whole ensemble in some way. On tightrope, a playful moment arises between the tightrope walker (Poppy Plowman) and a hair hanger (Lili Parson) who leaps to the wire with the stealth of Peter Pan and is able to dodge away again just as gracefully. A white pole is erected and two Chinese pole acrobats (Leon Volete and Joad Caron) intermingle with the wire artist, matching beat and tempo, leaping from one apparatus to another. A rock band riffs defiantly while a Russian cradle is constructed and soon the larger half of the duo (Johannes Holm Veje) is throwing his smaller and sassier partner (Martin Richard) through the air in astonishing ways while the team hangs along the bars like true primates, egging him on. Even Korean plank is subject to this team work briefly when they all stand on the plank together and scramble to jump off before they get jettisoned away by fierce flips of Hernan Elenwajc and Tanguy Pelayo.
The only mix that isn’t truly achieved in F(r)ICTION, even in the attempts to be gender-balanced in the show, is the gender role evident in the choice of the disciplines themselves. What is it that attracts the women to trapeze and the men to Korean plank for example, while both men and women often can be seen on cyr wheel, as was the case in this show with Jules Sardoughi and Lili Parson? While these conventions are often toyed with in the professional world, in the school setting, the males tend to line up with the more high risk disciplines and the females to take on the artistic ones–with group acrobatics being the one playing field that requires all types.
At the end, the watcher becomes part of the group by rising from her chair where she has writhed in excitement and boredom up until now. She (Gwenn Buczkowski) ascends to the fixed trapeze where she is serenaded on guitar while she performs a stark and original act, at last conveying the worldly angst she has kept bottle up as the observer thus far. In the final scene, the team emerges in formal mode again, dancing a beautiful waltz in plastic white skirts around a low swinging trapeze. As they circle around Sandra Reichenberger on trapeze, she looks on in wonder but flies just above the action, as if observing a simpler time and finding inspiration. The observer observes this with us and for a moment she almost seems as transfixed as we are with the poetry of it all.
All photos courtesy of Christophe Raynaud de Lage
Alejandra Rojas Translator CANADA Born and raised in France by her Chilean parents, Alejandra now lives in Montreal with her British husband and two kids. After graduating with a Master’s degree in Communication, she spent a few years working in publishing and advertising where she was often tasked with translations. She moved to Montreal in 2012 and decided to follow her passion and pursue a career in translation. She is now working as a freelance translator while studying for a Certificate in Translation at the University of Montreal.