Muenster, Germany; 29th June 2017
A white circus tent with strings of fairy lights and goblin-sculpture guardians sits under the trees in the University of Muenster’s campus grounds. During the day it has been home to an international conference of circademics, but evening brings a decided air of fantasy.
Cirque Bouffon are Germany’s leading troupe of circus storytellers, aptly labelling their creations ‘Cirque Nouveau’. Lunatique, the company’s seventh show, follows the model that garnered such success for Cirque Du Soleil, whilst retaining a charming intimacy under their little 4-pole top.
The imposing singing figure of Anja Krips, dressed like one of Disney’s evil queens, controls a retinue of female sprites who care for eponymous sleepwalker Sasha Koblikov on his journey through dreams back to a waking world. Four musicians exist, bridge-like, between their universe, ours, and that of clown Gregor Wollny who plays in his own fictional dimension, sending up classical circus acts in wordlessly satirical transitions between the aerial and equilibristic numbers.
The conference has been considering the relationship between circus and space, and it is impossible to view this show without a newly focused attention stemming from the talks and theories of the last two days. Parallel universes are easily visible in the physical space of this circus ring: Wollny’s appearances are disconnected from the main story-world, except for sharing a performance location, until he joins in with the musical parade of a finale. And yet, this is enough to bind them together, though we may not understand how or why.
A fairy folk-tale aesthetic of tattered glamour provides visual comfort-food, inextraordinary yet satisfyingly tasty in its familiarity. The wooden panelled ring and central curtains of thin, elegant cord fronds are supplemented by a slew of reappearing gramophone horns, costumes in grey, cream, russet and rouge, and a warm, wondrous lighting scheme.
When we begin by leaving the foyer tent and cafe-bar to take a seats on the padded benches inside the circus proper, and are met with a rope-wrapped pedestal at the centre of the ring, upholding a glittering goldfish in a bowl that subverts our notions of circus animals and of the circular space we’re entering.
The fish appears to be the special charge of Chris Pettersen, a modern ring boy dressed in theatre blacks who surprises us later with special powers of balance and bounce. His slack line routine is impressive even before a lower bounding rope is added, which crosses the original at right angles and launches one of the show’s technical highlights.
Another is the multicord balancing of Charlotte de le Bretèque. In a ritual of sweet acappella harmonies, the dangling cage of cords becomes porous, allowing passage between the states of dream and wakefulness. The four female acrobats (De Le Bretèque, plus Margo Darbois, Emma Laule & Mara Aline Zoe) climb and waft the ropes, smiling and confident of their special role within this as-yet unexplained world, presenting a synchronised, symmetrical picture that tells us these women are all the same. As her sisters descend to the floor, De Le Bretèque performs handstands in the air, gripping bundles of the cords in either hand or just the one. There has been much talk about the importance of verticality and circularity at our conference, and here the circular ring is stretched upwards into a 3-dimensional, vertical version which De Le Bretèque navigates in an anticlockwise fashion, finally surging through its core to reemerge facing us.
It’s Paul Bouissac, the first keynote speaker of the conference, who regularly pursues the concept of circus as ritual in his research, but today even I cannot escape the folk symbolism of rebirth and rites of spring as the white-clad women dance a Maypole with their ropes as ribbons.
Wollny, following, has a segmented cane that flops and falls into images from our collective conventions of ‘culture’ – a trapeze, an oversized neck-tie, the Mona Lisa, and a giraffe that lives and dies before us at Wollny’s whim, before giving us a birth of its own.
Anja Krips speaks sonorously in German as the next scene is set. She is one of the co-founders of Cirque Bouffon, alongside partner Frédérik Zipperlin who also directed Lunatique, and she lends her soft-toned alto to much of the show’s music. I don’t recognise enough German to know if she is also singing in her native language, but I ask a couple of German speakers about the spoken text during the interval and am told that it’s rather cheesy, non-rhyming poetry spoken with faux-Goethe gravitas about waves in the depths of someone’s eyes. I’m glad that I received the meaningless version as a foreigner to the language, which conveyed instead something more mysterious, seemingly more in line with what the creative team intended.
Topped and tailed by Krips’ speech, Darbois performs a sleeping beauty story on a curlicued iron chair, where hand balance canes grow from its vine-like architecture. She has a delicate grace, twisting and swaying into inverted poses as she drowsily freezes time, waiting for an awakening to life and agency whilst a plucked banjo ticks and tocks over a bowed bass (interestingly, my notes mention ‘limbs like waves’, despite having no knowledge of the text’s content at that point).
Clarinet player Ewa Timingeriu crawls with an accordion strapped to her back like a snail’s home, her own instruments becoming searching antennae. She responds to touch, too, as a snail would, softening inside herself until sensing safety in the arms of musician Sergey Lukashov who plays her back while she pipes a melancholic fantasy, slowly spun en pointe and then eased off stage. It’s an absurd moment, but beautiful realised.
Wollny returns to ply his subversive treatment to a familiar canon of illusionist’s tricks. He reminds me of Lee Evans, if Lee Evans were gawkily thin. The clown’s material is all very cleverly constructed – and funny – although his ‘reactions’ sometimes come over a little too rehearsed. Zipperlin could also do well to consider that less is sometimes more, and we don’t need to see Wollny’s entire arsenal before the show finishes.
A circular mat is rolled in while a single vertical rope is set inside the frame of fringed drapes. My mind is still making fairytale connections and, as musical director Sergej Sweschinski moves his hand from the double bass to touch that of Emma Laule, I think of Rapunzel in her tower and all that hair to be climbed. An attempt to spin the tail of the rope provokes some clumsy looking collisions with the side cords, but we’re quickly back on track with dynamic and expansive swinging kicks into holds. The musician below has backed away, and Laule descends, stepping as if on a spiral stair, controlled, alone.
Another topic of discussion over the conference has been the performance and perception of risk. The moment in Lunatique when my nerves tense has nothing to do with the safety of any performer, but instead comes from seeing Adam Tomaszewski’s Hang drum passed around the feet of the prone female acrobats. Have you seen how precious those things are?!
Pettersen’s funambulist closes the first half of the show, and the interval is a chance to talk about another of the conference themes: the portrayal of gender roles in circus. Whilst this show has an equal complement of male and female performers who can and do perform independently of each other, the main narrative thread fails the Mako Mori test by putting all the female characters into the service of the sleepwalking male, helping him navigate the space and introducing him to the juggling balls that he will later use to break out of his daze. Even the singing wizard woman is there for Koblikov, and the musicians and clown (all male) have more power than she. There is no overt misogyny or deliberate oppression presented, but it is this subtle and culturally inherited insinuation of accepted masculine supremacy that 21st Century feminism seeks to illuminate and, through doing so, challenge.
The second part of the show moves the fantasy gradually from the poetic towards the ridiculous, although it begins in the same dreamy way with a Newton’s cradle of reflective metal orbs set into motion over the ring. I’m baffled by the decision to stop them manually before inertia finally returns the spheres to stillness, especially after seeing, in Wings In My Heart, what a powerful impact those visually incarnated physics can have.
Characters are temporarily suspended while the construction is inelegantly de-rigged, save for Wollny who offers free popcorn to the crowds, one more in a long line of carpet clowns around the world. I’m especially fond of his duckrobatics routine, and then pleased to see Koblikov move at last from his awkward teenage ploddings across the space into the world class juggling he is known for. The wavy nature of his manipulations fits the poetry of his somnambular state much better, even as he picks up the pace and height into a ten-ball display. I am delighted by a six-ball cascade during which his arms move in the way a poi-spinners’s would.
A broom balance sequence between Wollny and accordionist Lukashov is another cunning homage to the dramaturgy of traditional circus acts, increasing its presented danger through the use of blindfolds and other ‘handicapping’ devices. Within Bouissac’s frame of circus performance as death ritual, these parodic interpretations of classical routines could be seen as ritually preventing the death of circus’ own rituals. Very meta.
A vertical rope duo between Laule and De Le Bretèque in striped bathing suits is excellent in every way, except for its seeming displacement from the aesthetic world we’ve known so far. It’s a lot of fun, and highly skilled, using gravity and Laule’s weight to increase the stability of the vertical line above and allowing De Le Bretèque to perform tricks more often seen on a rigid pole.
A revolving ladder is spun round and round above the ring with Russian Swing-style propulsion by Pettersen, partnered by Zoe. They take turns to move in and out of the rungs, performing some holds through the bars. The music is dramatic, but there is no reciprocated drama in the choreographic trajectory.
The curtain of sleep is returned to the centre of the wooden ring, and Koblikov is led through back to the waking world, climbing the now-weighted ladder to freedom from his dream. Lunatique is a very well produced show, carefully put together, and featuring some superbly skilled performers (I haven’t even mentioned what an incredible clown face percussionist Tomaszewski has). It hasn’t moved me, or impressed me with any great innovation but, despite its sometimes tweeness, it’s rich in subliminal codes that my current intellectual mindset has enjoyed unpicking.