‘Demain’/’Colibri’, by L’École Nationale de Cirque

la TOHU, Montréal; 31st May/1st June 2016 – The Circus Diaries Goes TransAtlantic

encThe final graduate shows from the National Circus School of Canada are theatrically directed ensemble pieces. Earlier in the season, the students have presented their exam work – the seven minute acts that show off their specialist discipline and personal artistic flair. Demain and Colibri, on the other hand, exist to showcase the students’ ability to work together in a professionally led performance environment.

Both shows feature breakout moments for each member of the graduating class to demonstrate their own discipline, but some sections are given more weight than others, as the focus here is on the overall presentation rather than a vehicle to best frame the individuals involved. Many of the students already have contracts lined up, with local companies and as far afield as Australia.

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‘Demain’ – L’Ècole Nationale de Cirque graduate show at la TOHU, 2016 IMAGE: Alexandre Galliez

The first show I see is Demain, cannily themed around the itinerant life of street performers. Marie-Josée Gauthier, a regular teacher at the school as well as an actress and theatre director, has directed her coterie in a vibrant and accessible production that reveals the poignant edges between freedom and loneliness. The sixteen soon-to-be graduates are supported by a chorus of second year students who bulk up the dance and acrobatic choreographies, creating a European-feeling environment not a million miles away from Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The technical skills of the students sit naturally within this milieu, and some shine out from within the bigger picture. Jérémi Lévesque and Vincent Jutras first present a combination of skateboard and hoop diving which, though executed with less than perfect precision, shows the pair’s novel potential in a creative evolution of the discipline. When they perform on the Korean plank their edgy urban movement style and high level skill give us an exciting show with a very contemporary feel.

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Jérémi Lévesque and Vincent Jutras in ‘Demain’ IMAGE: Alexandre Galliez

Timothy Fyffe and Seppe van Looveren have a superb rapport as a hand-to-hand (or, at times, head-to-head) duo, which allows them to smoothly deliver manouevres that include a single hand balance upon the head of a partner moving from sitting to standing position. It’s refreshing to see a shared choreography that shows off the skill of base and flyer equally.

Natasha Patterson and Louis-Philippe Jodoin present very different juggling numbers, both showing skills with 3-5 objects from atop raised platforms. Patterson manipulates unusually large red balls with a sultry abandon, surprising us suddenly as the pattern changes to bounce off her head. Jodoin tosses and twirls clubs, managing to grip our attention with his front-man cool despite a chorus of marching dancers and two masked ‘mimes’ populating the stage.

Jérôme Simard‘s ingenue look and sophisticated choreography on dance trapeze combine to create an eloquent number, and is one of only two aerial routines (along with Mélanie Dupois and Alexander Taylor’s doubles trapeze), which marks a difference from graduate shows I’ve seen in the UK.

The wary character of a street sleeper adds deeper dimension to the vagabond theme, and Noah Nielsen’s dour portrayal through most of the show emphasises the airy grace of his later diabolo performance, sticks and strings flying as readily as the spinning axle.

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‘Colibri’ L’Ècole Nationale de Cirque graduate show at la TOHU, 2016 IMAGE: Rolande Lorente

The second show, Colibri, has a much less human approach. Award-winning choreographer Edgar Zendejas has directed a subterranean swarm of bodies lit in serene crystaline colours, creating a world reminiscent of Cirkus Cirkör’s Knitting Peace, but whose inhabitants seem as purposeless as moths. There is a strong contemporary dance influence, and repeating ensemble images of intertwining limbs inhaling and exhaling often dominate the stage while individual artists break free to present samples of their specialist physical disciplines.

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Shena Tschofen in ‘Colibri’ at La TOHU IMAGE: Alexandre Galliez

The visual design team of Michel Otis (scenography), Stéphane Ménigot (lighting), Michael Slack (costume) and Pierre Lafontaine (hair-styling) show their versatility between the two shows, and are joined in Colibri by make-up artist Véronique St-Germain, who creates the impression of light beams piercing the shadows in streaks of white across the students’ skin.

Among the constructed homogeneity, the clean-lined hand-balancer Sopha Nem and his partner Vladimir Lissouba present an impressive hand-to-hand routine that also incorporates a variety of Risley somersaults as Nem flips from the feet of Lissouba to land back on them once more. Dina Sok performs a brave routine that brings the isolations and angular movements of his breakdancing up from the ground onto a tightwire, his performance is one of the few never once eclipsed by the ensemble, who twist here among a growth of dangling ropes at the back of the stage. The programme notes that Sok’s performance will alternate between his wire routine, and another of Chinese hoop diving.

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Nikolas Pulka on aerial straps in ‘Colibri’ IMAGE: Alexandre Galliez

The sedate pace is eventually broken by a playful ensemble clown sequence where the six men involved seem to revel in absurd movement discoveries, and have the opportunity to connect with each other and us in direct recognition. Nicolas Provot is afforded space to show his comic presence in a way that we only caught flashes of around his earlier balance ladder work (including 360° rolls over the uppermost rung). As the comedic focus moves from one performer to another, a short-statured second year student stands out, before focus moves to Nikolas Pulka who then takes to the aerial straps.

Arata Urawa, a champion diabolist before attending the school, whirls and turns his props about his body as they spin and skip themselves in a swift routine that includes three diabolos juggled from the string. Urawa, uniquely, apparently has a student of his own performing in the show, as part of his time at the school has included mentoring (the programme notes are rather confusing in this, but that is what I gathered from conversations after the show).

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Both graduate shows were preceded by ‘animations’ – pre-show ensemble walkabout  entertainment from first year students in the foyer exhibition space of la TOHU

The final number of the show is Kyle Cragle, contorting around and on top of a set of head-height hand-balance canes. He employs a fascinating physical language of flexing grotesquery and limpness, and yes, can touch his head with his own bottom.

Neither show has the flexibility within its structure to allow for repeated attempts at tricks that don’t succeed first time, and I would have liked to have seen some of the students given an extra chance to pull off choreography that has clearly gone wrong (either that, or have better performative strategies incorporated for dealing with failure). That said, the production values and resources available for these graduating shows are very impressive, and the opportunity for the students to perform at la TOHU for two weeks before they’ve even finished school is one more reason why places at L’Ècole Nationale de Cirque are so highly prized.

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