Mayflower Theatre, Southampton; 11th March 2015
The brightly ornate greens and golds of the Mayflower Theatre seem at odds with the ominous sounds playing behind its red velvet curtains. Organic drips and thunder turn to rolling objects, clicking machinery, engines and clanging metal, and finally a rhythmic pulsing and electronic buzz. The house lights begin to flare and dim as if under fluctuating power.
This is Cirque Éloize, from the circus breeding grounds of Montréal, with their latest theatrical touring production Cirkopolis. While the company’s focus on poeticism and the drawing out of human emotions sets their work apart from their neighbours Cirque Du Soleil’s immense spectacle, there is still plenty of top-level acrobatic performance to marvel at, and some glorious imagery provided by the ensemble company against an evolving video animation of their fantasy industrial landscape that transforms the blank stage.
The theme of isolation and soullessness in a corporate world is no stranger to the contemporary theatre, but the way Cirkopolis presents a salvation in the form of connection and human contact is given extra weight because these are exactly the qualities a circus troupe need to survive in the real world, both physically and emotionally.
Cirque Éloize are touring the UK under the Dance Consortium umbrella, and the company pride themselves on a multidisciplinary approach to making work that sits uncertainly between dance, circus and theatre. The 13 performers spend more time combining scattered skills in a scene-setting choreography of technical moments, pedestrian movement and space-filling than in complete ‘acts’ – which then, when they occur, are excellent. Watching the show is a little like a game of Where’s Wally – the gems amidst the noise can be easily missed. The solo spots offer a welcome relief from the busy ensemble scenes, and time to reflect.
The opening introduces an industrial office aesthetic grounded in Futurism and German Expressionism, with performers dressed alike in grey trilbys and trench coats piling ever-increasing towers of paperwork onto central character Ashley Carr’s desk. Nicolas Jelmoni and Charlotte O’Sullivan – who join the cast tonight for their first performance – break away in a hand-to-hand routine whose choreography is still able to suggest moments of roboticism and, as the music picks up the pace and pressure of the business world, becomes gradually more human over three movements, each separated by marching rows of workers formed by the ensemble.
Out of the buzzing business pace emerges Léa Toran Jenner, whose dreamy Cyr wheel segment is one of the show’s highlights. The projection across the back of the stage shows faded red theatre curtains, set between two arrays of slowly turning cogs and, in this venue, the suggested reflection of ourselves is thought-provoking. Like a music-box doll, Jenner works a graceful variety of central postures as her Cyr spins again and again and again in a circle centre stage. Her lightness of movement and the floating of her red dress, grey gauzy underskirt, and brown bobbed hair soften the steely curve of her equipment, and give the impression that she is serenely riding the rotating wheel rather than masterfully controlling it.
Back in the world of work it’s payday, as juggling clubs are passed out, exchanged and tossed to a jaunty swing dance number from the sound system. A comic rivalry ensues between Carr and muscle-bound handstand artist Ugo Laffolay (who is also making his debut on the show today) as the four women of the company swoon. The old-fashioned strictures of a rigid working environment are matched by the old-fashioned gender roles presented in the first half of the show.
The projections move us into a high turbine hall for a six-man German wheel routine of synchronised masculinity, muscle vests and driving industrial rock. It’s a big wheel, as central artist Frédéric Lemieux-Cormier is a tall fellow, and perhaps this is why the usage feels limited among the six men. Lemieux-Cormier finishes with a spiral figure of eight that reverses from front to back and culminates in a hands free spiral, and I feel cheated of his talents by the incorporation of the other performers throughout the earlier part of the act.
Carr returns in a teasing hide and seek with the ladies that utilises the rotating panels of the stage backdrop. The apparent object of his affections is Maria Combarros, who slips free into a projected warehouse room that looks out onto the city through mauve gauze curtains, echoing the mauve of her frock. The picture of classical grace and elegance, Combarros steps and contorts across the heads and hands of a team of men. The stereotypical roles of masculinity and femininity disturb me as, for all her seeming power over them, Combarros is agentless while the men guide, catch and pave the way for her with their bodies, gazes never wavering for an instant.
As the work day ends and his colleagues collect their coats, Carr is left alone with a dress hanging solo on a wheeled clothes rail. The ingenuity and ‘acrobat internationale’ fantasy of his dance with this imaginary partner set the act apart from others of its type as they walk the ‘tightrope’ together and Carr displays some genuine and surprising acrobatic skill. The routine is relaxed and unhurried, the pressure is off, tying the circus fantasy and business reality of Carr’s character together. Both laugh-out-loud funny and touching when we see inside his intimate dream world, this is a great act to close the first half of the show.
The programme notes suggest that, for co-director Jeannot Painchaud, the essential element that Éloize take from their circus heritage is the acrobatic skill of their performers.
‘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. 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 have at least that, then call yourselves a theatre or dance company instead. But if you call yourself a circus, you’ve got to have something related to what circus used to mean. And for that reason, the acrobatics are still number one when I’m casting.’
Strange that he should think that they have no traditional clown. To me, Carr’s role as the bumbling, stumbling, fumbling office manager – who is a constant presence linking the acts and also presenting his own entrée – is one of the major elements that hearkens to a circus tradition.
Part two presents an ever more colourful and lively world. When the curtain opens we see Jenner as the embodied woman of Carr’s fantasy, and the cast begin to form couples. Olivier Poitras catches on a dance trapeze with Combarros, then Jenner, and finally with Carr. Stiffened roles and barriers are beginning to drop. The two girls present an attractive synchronised duo as the men look on but, before we notice, the dream is broken and Carr is left clutching his dress once more.
It’s back to work for another shift in the dark of pipes, tunnels and cogs. The performers, decked in glowing head torches and calling to each other in a made up patois of ‘workman’, remind me of the animated ‘minions’ of Despicable Me. Downstage, Mikaël Bruyère-L’Abbé is clowning around with a set of earphones. When he’s joined by Maude Arseneault, we watch a competitive flirtation develop between them that leads to their snappy and detailed chinese pole duet. They act their way flawlessly through a teasing one-upmanship, their own dynamic energy enhanced by the circling ensemble and urban funk soundtrack.
While others are forming romantic pairings, Joris de Jong is content with his three juggling clubs, and his exuberance and flow build as a fourth and then fifth club are presented as gifts from Jenner and Combarros.
Mood, music and visuals revert to the dark for Laffolay’s hand balance act. Beginning with strong shapes and sidebends on three balance poles, he goes on to build two of them into towers that triple their height, and we feel as though we are rising with him as the projections take us up vertiginous skyscrapers. A safety line and two further poles are added to Laffolay’s towering construction and the thin vertical supports wobble and sway as he maintains a straddled pose looking down on the city.
A stormy soundscape becomes triumphant as Jenner is joined in her Cyr by a male partner (I don’t catch who and the programme doesn’t note it). There is a sense of fight, fortitude and bonding in the face of all odds.
The office where our journey began has been transformed by a party atmosphere, enlivened by banquine tosses, teeterboard turns and easy laughter in a fiesta finale. The klezmer influence to the music and the retro-futuristic design of the ladies’ coloured leotards recall the traditions of circus – that redemptive circus that has pulled the Cirkopolis workers from their run-of-the-mill grind. We are left on a feel good high-note.
In the post show Q&A with Chinese pole duo Arseneault and Bruyère-L’Abbé, one audience member asks ‘What does a narrative add to circus performance?’ Bruyère-L’Abbé replies that it brings a human touch, a place for emotions. Whereas circus can sometimes be seen as about risk and tricks, Éloize try to evoke a feeling in their audience – ‘To make them dream.’
I know that a good circus can elicit emotion even without an overarching narrative, so my interpretation is that Éloize are trying to access the psyche, whereas other varieties of circus create a somatic response. I wonder if, by combining theatre, dance, and circus techniques, none are given the space to become fully affective. Nevertheless, the combination provides an entertaining show on its own genre-defying terms.