In 1996 two wire acrobats, Antoine Rigot and Agathe Olivier, bought their first chapiteau and founded the travelling circus company Les Colporteurs. The year 2000 brought a big challenge for the company – Antoine had a serious accident that prevented him from being able to perform as an acrobat. Les Colporteurs had to find a way to continue and Antoine had to find a new position in their work. Shortly after the accident he rejoined the company as an actor, musician and director. Since then, the themes of isolation, marginalisation, and physical disability have received more and more attention in their shows – not least in their most recent work, Le Bal des Intouchables (The Ball of the Untouchables).
In our work we are searching for ideas that resonate, ways to resist. I think, since the very beginning, we have always been unconsciously using the circus to speak of something else, even if sometimes the meaning has escaped us. Even when Agathe and I made our first show on wire people projected themselves onto it – many of them came to us and said that it made them think of experiences from their own relationships. The wire is very good for that, because it creates a certain fragility. And it is true that since the accident, and maybe as well with the age of maturity, the wire has become a political space for us; a space to express something. At some point you have to tell yourself that you shouldn’t only entertain people in order that they continue to function in a system you do not like. So, you have to be honest.
The truth is that the capitalist system destroys solidarity because it needs to do so in order to function. Everybody must be afraid of each other so that everyone will be driven to buy the same goods for security and convenience – the same things that you find everywhere, in every house. It is a terrible thing! The work of Les Colporteurs may not bring about a big change, but we do something. For me it is essential to address the problems we see in society; it is our duty to point them out, and, as well, to give reflection, hope, strength and meaning.
Le Bal des Intouchables is actually more or less a continuation of the work we’ve done before. It is about the human being, the human, and our desire to share moments of reflection with a younger generation. For this show we really wanted to work with Gilles Charles-Messance – who is the same age as Agathe and I, and with whom we started at circus school – but also with young artists who had recently graduated and who had passed through an education that, in fact, we did not have. It was important to talk to them, to see what they would be interested in expressing, to talk about freedom in the context of a system that shapes or formats them, and to talk, ultimately, about how we are unable to find equality and share wealth on a global level. Our society has such a perverse and individualistic side, so what is a human being in all this? What is wealth? Things like that.
It is true that for me these questions are driven by my own experiences, and by the accident, which put me in a very particular place – as a human and in society. Even in a physical sense, I was placed in a different position. It opened my eyes to lots of things. You realise how fast everything goes – that everything in the world moves us forward while preventing us from paying attention to others. That is the attitude that is imposed on us, even if we try to be careful and avoid it; it is the system in which we live.
My accident took me away from being an actor and more to the other side of the stage – to working as a director – but in the earliest version of Le Bal des Intouchables I appeared as the performer in the sequence shown here. The scene is linked to the looks my disability draws: in the wheelchair you're a sort of monster, a beast. I still have not digested this; it is not easy. It is okay when you are with someone, but when you are alone you feel the looks, especially if you are able to move a little, if you can get up a little from your wheelchair, it is weird. So there is this issue of the look – the need to confront the looks of others and to offer another perspective.
So we pushed the scene to that place: we made a circus number about taming a deformed being, and at the end we show the fantasy of revenge. We wanted to give a different perspective on disability and to mess with the audience a little. At the start there was the idea of the game of balance on the animal's podium, and then the character of the physiotherapist who understands nothing, who takes you for an idiot – and, even worse, behind her a society that says, ‘You do it like this, you do it like that, you do not walk.’ It was the idea of the rehabilitation centre, the nurse who pushes you in the chair, who speaks to you like a little dog, like a baby, or who talks in the third person never really seeking to connect with you. ‘We will get there; let’s make an effort.’ There is no relationship. The fantasy of killing her could really go through your mind; you can really have that delusion.
There are physiotherapists who do not want you to move – because they have judged that it is dangerous, that you cannot get up because then you will be at risk of falling down. You must stay where you are and do what you are told. There are lot of things like that in this scene. It is the kind of scene that can be further understood and developed over time; its dimensions can grow. In the end when the clown says ‘I do not walk’, he is not aware of reality – he has put himself in the place where he was told to be.
The scene is a very personal story. It is a good thing: it opens doors to other paths. But it is funny to see how people in the audience are amused, and that they start to hit him. We suggest they attack – and they do it. It shows clearly the way we are. I played this scene in the first series of shows, but it was very hard to establish a simple relationship to work both as a director and a performer. It didn’t feel good, and when I felt that it was complicated I leaned more on what I wanted to express with myself and Agathe, and suddenly it created a gap with the rest of the show. Eventually I removed myself from the role and put a clown in my place, Karl Heinz Lorenzen. The idea to use a clown as a replacement was to create a distance – to avoid being too realistic and to balance the whole.
So today I don’t perform the scene, and it’s different, but at the same time I think it still tells the story. The realistic side gives something else; it is emotionally stronger. We are trying to keep the structure, because it is always the same – the moment of the fall and the things that we want to talk about. Then, of course, the personalities, the situation and the characters are very different. Lorenzen was interested in picking up an established role – he had never done that before. It was interesting for him to do it in his own way, and it helped us to see where we could push things further. As for the wheelchair balancing, he picked up the technique right away. It is not very complicated when all your muscles work, compared to when you are actually disabled.
Aloïse Sauvage plays the role of the nurse – which was originally created in improvisations with Pauline Dau. I had spotted Aloïse in a show at her school. We can see she is very strong, but she must also learn to channel it, to choose, to leave gaps. She has really good reactions, imagination and improvisation skills, and her foundation is as an acrobatic dancer – she creates through hip-hop dance. For me she is an actress, a clown in a sense, though not a classical one; what she does here is a kind of burlesque.
Unlike Lorensen I almost did not speak during this scene; I spoke very little. The physical part has not changed – I mean the structure – except that I didn’t get up until the end, when she said to me ‘Rise and walk’. Then I finally got up, I walked very slowly over, and I choked her. We could see the effort that it took me; there was something very fragile and very controlled.
But there were some people who knew, and it hurt them. Then there were some people who knew me and who enjoyed it. There were also some people who had a hard time handling it, because when I fell there was no control. We could hear in the sound of my feet hitting the floor that I did not control them. In fact I never hurt myself, but it might have been tough to watch.
Le Bal des Intouchables premiered 11 September 2012 at Théâtre Vidy in Lausanne, France. The extract shown here is from a performance in the company’s own tent at Théâtre de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines on 29 January 2014. The video was directed and edited by Théophile Poncet especially for this project.
Māra Pāvula interviewed Antoine Rigot in his living room in Paris on the afternoon of 4 February 2014. Māra is a circus enthusiast from Latvia. After four years of research she is now working on her own project to create a platform to develop contemporary circus in the Baltic states.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.