The Cirque de Demain press office is minimally operative even during the weeks running up to the festival; afterward it is a cryofrozen mockery of real active life and no response may be obtained to e.g. repeated requests for images to accompany the article into which you are about to pour hours and hours of your limited time. A flick of the mouse wheel or scroll pad will therefore launch you from this preface and send you flying low over an unending reel of barren text—however! do not allow yourself to hesitate. The following is not just the most comprehensive, but in truth the only full English-language account of the 30eme Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Nowhere else may you experience secondhand the lush splendour of its Cirque Phenix setting, the hush and roar of its 2000-strong crowd, the candescent victories and intense disappointments of its brave performers. (Except YouTube.)
It is also necessary before beginning to disclaim that a small corner of this full article appeared in Total Theatre Magazine, Volume 21, Issue 02, and that Total Theatre Magazine is purchasable through the University of Winchester, and comes highly recommended.
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I might as well be at the Eurovision Song Contest. Awful brassy music is playing as lights sweep across the tent and stage and performers march on from either wing, waving national flags. Topless men; women in spangly leotards; obvious clowns. A troupe of girls in white appear to continue Chinese circus’ gleeful indiscriminate sacking of western popular culture by wearing ten identical Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction wigs. As the lights swing out to rake the front audiences the compere welcomes us to the 30eme Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, held here in the enormous 2000-seat Cirque Phenix in an outlying park in south-eastern Paris. He is actually welcoming me for the fifth time.
It is now, for me, Day Four at Cirque de Demain, and I have seen everything I want to see. One of the giddy fantasies that the absence of official CdD-issued information allowed me to entertain, pre-festival, was that Demain would be some sort of chaotic and incredibly rich 24/7 whirl of circus with multiple phenomenal performances happening simultaneously. The reality has been more like Groundhog Day but with a recurrent juggler dressed as a sailor, an extraordinarily florid and unlikeable diabolist, and Ghetto Banquine. I could have come for one day and seen all the acts, but am kept from escaping by a slight and probably imaginary sense of journalistic responsibility—that I have to see the whole thing or I never truly saw it at all.
Dima Shine is exactly the performer who I came here hoping to see: an honest real circus freak with unique, borderline repulsive physical abilities. He’s actually here as a guest—being a gold medal winner from a previous year—and I’ve seen his pedestal handbalancing act before on YouTube, but it’s still good to see it in the flesh, and to marvel once more at his brilliantly grotesque backbend: a complete fold plus a 90 degree twist of the pelvis that leaves him sitting not so much on his head as just below his right shoulder. The act is tacky as hell and dramatically extravagant (Dima reaches forward to clutch at empty air a couple times, in anguish) but has enough meat in the extreme difficulty of the tricks and the consistently executed undulant movement style to overcome its weaknesses. The little choreographic flourishes—Dima lightly tapping his leg with a free hand to send it drifting off into position, flexing his feet as he presses to handstand—again are part of what compensate for the gaudiness of the surface presentation, but I’m left with the very clear feeling that this is their purpose: that they’re a theatrical balance rather than resonant expressions of character.
I approached Cirque de Demain with a guilty desire: to see extremely technical acts at unmatchably high skill levels. The mystique generated (I’m sure unintentionally) by the windblown nothingness of the festival website and the non-communication and indifference of the press department1 (plus, on arriving, the borderline hostility of the thin bitchy usurious horrible usher girls haunting the main tent’s canopied entrance like cursed ghouls or revenants) allowed me to picture an insiders’ festival that showcased, to a select audience, the limits of athletic possibility. OK, so in a way I’m bored by v. technical acts, but then the part of me that trains circus is overcome by what I think of as The Hunger. Can I be the only one who experiences this? If you want to write books you can learn a lot by actively trying to write them, but a critical second path is the passive absorption of literary styles and technique that you get from reading other people’s books. The problem here is of course that while there are more—freely available—novels than you could possibly ever read, your only sources of circus are live performances (which can be expensive to frequently attend) and YouTube. And when you’re looking for niche videos, YouTube is exhaustible. I’ve watched every corde lisse routine on there and now feel only The Hunger, clawing at me from inside.
So I am disappointed by BK. Representing America, BK performs a very accomplished straps act that is like every other accomplished straps act. It’s mostly done in a static vocabulary that’s close to gymnastic rings (I mean static regarding his own body movement; the straps themselves are swinging/spinning a lot of the time), and the only things that are new to me are a continuous forward rolling motion which I guess needs super-flexible shoulders (and looks great) and a flick action between front lever and back (which possibly I haven’t seen before because it looks awful). Two more acts in a similar vein—showy swinging trapeze from the weirdly glazed-looking Ekaterina Rubtsova, and a disjointed sequence of tricks on bambou aérien from the Russian Duo Markov—sees my appetite for circus that has been scoured clean of theatrical content fully recede.2 I am therefore in precisely the right mood for Justine et Phillipe’s spiky, messy hand to hand routine, performed to the artful caterwauling of the Tiger Lillies. It has a semi-narrative, or movement at least, within the changing state of the relationship between base and flyer, going the fairly well-trodden route of encoding fights and resolutions into a physical vocabulary. Like a lot of the best acrobalance it is set apart by its smaller touches, and though the audience responds to the big tricks, you can, too, feel their attention crowding in when Justine rolls and turns sinuously in the space that appears and disappears between Philippe’s footfalls.
Like Justine et Philippe, club juggler Florent Lestage is an École Nationale de Cirque graduate. He presents a beautiful act that finds new combinations through the use of a walking cane—the crook of which is the right size and shape to catch clubs. It’s a character piece, of a kind: Florent is a hunched and crow-like old man who, at the beginning, is fastidiously traversing the stage floor by laying down sheets of newspaper. The character movement-style isn’t maintained constantly throughout the piece (elderly men don’t backflip) but rather is strongly laid down and then alluded back to and occasionally refreshed. It works. It’s not incredibly explicit—and I don’t think even intended as a story—but there is a quiet emotional uplift that comes from the contrast between that initial restricted and overcautious newspaper crossing, and the subsequent easy flow and grace of Florent’s manipulation. When he exits the stage, using his cane to guide a single club back and forth like a fish before him, it’s a sweet and genuinely touching moment.
Day One wraps up with a confusing mass-acrobalance routine by Troupe de Xi Yu (the Thurman posse). It gets quite a long intro from the compere/ringmaster which utterly destroys my French, so I don’t know why there’s a wintery theme (sounds of wind, plus the stage is entirely covered by a sheet of white fabric), and I especially don’t know why the palms of the performers are coloured red—they cluster round (an imaginary fire?) and open and close their hands in unison. The circus element is essentially human pyramids—in some unusual and quite attractive combinations—but there’s something inauthentic about it all: that feeling that the performers are completely externally directed. The necessary, literal rigidity of balance-work seems to make this feeling sharper.
There is something very appealing, I think, about extreme specialisation in circus, but forced training kills the life of it. So Troupe de Chemin de Fer are jawdropping in a completely standard way—two Chinese boys who are much, much younger than me (an automatic universal measure that seems to be becoming increasingly important) doing near-impossible things on rola-bola. It makes my heart beat faster, but it’s the sort of act where all the drama and theatricality comes from the blistering difficulty of the tricks (for the finale the base is on three levels of rola-bola then is holding up a platform on which there are another three levels of rola-bola on which the flyer does a handstand; then the base does something tricky with his feet and they gradually wobble through 360 degrees to face every rank of audience seating; huge applause). It’s not exactly that the two balancers are bored or indifferent; just creatively disengaged. Part of the interest of watching a person exercise an extraordinary skill is having some sense of the choices they must have made to attain it—but for the members of most Chinese troupes the choices are never theirs.
The Columbian Bankina act is certainly stamped (aggressively, over and over) with the character of its performers. They’ve an energetic fun take on banquine (acrobatics where a flyer is tossed between groups of catchers) with a street style that ultimately doesn’t quite fit. I don’t think that all the stuff that gets rounded up as urban dance (hip-hop, krumping, clowning etcetera) is out of place in circus; I’d like to see more of it. But it seems strange to pursue that style and then choose a discipline where slack posture or deviation from correct technique will destroy your back and end your career: a shirtless man crosses his arms over his vertiginously deep chest, hitting an iconic urban pose, then as the flyer approaches snaps suddenly into straight-backed perfect posture, arms overhead. Rather than being pervasive and intrinsic, the aesthetic of the piece ends up being divided, parcelled.
Dramaturgically much tighter, Etienne Saglio’s ‘new magic’ act starts a moody rainy sort of a piece with some very nicely fashioned music / spoken word playing as Etienne slowly works a length of stiff wire into a ball, which he then performs sleight of hand with. I have no idea what the French voice is saying, but am nonetheless arrested. In time the ball disappears and Etienne lifts a mechanical bird from a cage, runs, and hurls it into the air. It comes to life and circles the tent, more birds swooping in from the ceiling to join it; our magician stands in the middle of them, guides them, hypnotises them, and eventually catches them one-by-one in his net. It’s original, but also in its way quite old fashioned—the sort of thing you might imagine being presented at court four centuries ago. I like the inscrutability of it,3 plus the mildly gothic fairytale aesthetic of Etienne’s costume and magician’s manner.
In a totally different style, but having a similar cohesion and confidence in its tonal quality, Guillaume Martinet presents a juggling act split in two. For the first half he is a kind of small, nervous, hyper animal, leaping on and off stage and squealing as he compulsively throws and gathers balls. It’s got nice flurries of technical activity, on beat with the quick complex rhythms of the music; the adults seem to enjoy it and the children laugh aloud. The second half of Guillaume’s act is sort of the interrogation of a juggling ball. It carries over some of the features of the first piece—principally the nervous compulsion—but now Guillaume is sitting at a table, in a pool of overhead light, with one large juggling ball and a number of smaller ones. He sets the large ball rolling and then very rapidly and precisely rearranges the smaller ones, stopping the large one just before it falls from the table edge. It’s extremely well performed and possibly also a first: tabletop juggling.
Lights are down, they wheel it on: The Trebuchet. This piece of new circus machinery operates just the same as the medieval siege engine: a large counterweight drives a long arm that slings a missile with great force. In this case both counterweight and missile are human. Half a dozen people climb onto the base of the arm and the flyer/bombardier lies on the floor holding the end of a sling; when everyone has called that they’re ready the arm is released and the flyer is dragged violently over the floor, up around the back of the machine, and flung through the air in a high arc. It takes several minutes to set-up between firings and each flight lasts a few seconds—so there’s about 30 times as much set-up as performance. And it all seems so industrious: apart from the counterweights and the missile there’s someone to work the release and people to prepare the landing-mat and riggers for the machine itself (which is at the centre of a radiating web of cables). They have time for three goes, in all, and the flyer does a very high straight jump, a single somersault, and a double layout—all tricks a good gymnast can do rebounding off a sprung floor. I don’t understand—my bad French doesn’t allow me to understand. I know that all circus carries, in some measure, a pointlessness or superfluity that can eclipse the years of unbelievable hard work and sustained focus that must exist to realise it at its highest level, but the Trebuchet seems almost perfectly pointless. Is it a competing act? What is it hoping to win? Most of all it feels like an intermission and student presentation, perhaps pitched at whichever promoters or directors in the audience are planning—or at least open to the idea of—a high-budget medieval circus spectacle, new for the Hotel Wynn, Las Vegas.4
An opportunity to see everything again, Day Three, and I find I’m more or less ready to go home.5 The glamour of being an international journalist—dimming a little each time I eat Top Budget vinaigrette cous cous from the packet on the steps of a major monument—has almost entirely fled, and as we hit the weekend the audience begins to fill with families, meaning the Cirque Phenix is peppered by kids with rotating strobing multi-directional light toys (technology has come on a little since glo-sticks). But there are two acts, at least, which I am glad to see again.
Antoine et Aurore, a hand to hand duo, perform to Monteverdi. They’re an interesting comparison against Justine et Philippe: their style is much more classically graceful and serene, and where J/P’s piece played out large changes in their relationship to one another, Antoine et Aurore measure much subtler shifts. It’s probably indescribable: good hand to hand work is constructed not from a vocabulary of tricks (although tricks will be in there) but from a physical language that is privately negotiated between the performers. Antoine et Aurore find much of their material, and some of their emotional punch in the enormous size discrepancy between base and flyer, and saying that I liked their piece is perhaps just saying that I liked the way they spoke to each other.
Representing Tunisia, Saifeddine Jelassi, Maharane Hannachi and Yamen Abidi perform a great Chinese pole piece. My French is woeful and the compere (florid and somehow slightly undead and by this time in my notes referred to as The Count) talks fast; it might be based on a Flaubert short story about jealousy. Regardless, the three perpetually antagonise, engage and break off, caught in a flux of masculine enmity. The pole style is very acrobatic and more about big dramatic tricks than sequences; most of the choreography is ground-level, as the men (each dressed in a different colour suit) restlessly take their coats off, put them back on, turn them inside out. It’s my favourite piece in the festival, destined to be heaped with prizes on the last day—but then so is pretty much everyone.
Day Four, Gala day. My actually fairly baseless and unreasonable hatred of the usher girls has become so oppressive that I earlier stalked the ring of the tent seeking secret or unauthorised entrances. The tent is packed, and hot. Kids in the aisles are doing cartwheels with atrocious poor technique while two riggers, separated by the wide high stage, run competitive warm-ups, then pretend to be dolphins. As the band strikes up and the lights come down my heart sort of dips and soars: Again? But for the last time.
So for the last time—the fifth time—I see the festival’s opening performance, delivered by current students of Montreal’s École Nationale de Cirque. I still like it. It’s a big frantic coordinated mess, twenty or so people performing skills at once, separately—so there’s someone over there doing acro, doubles trapeze on that side, a girl climbing silks at the back, etc. Despite resolving to watch someone different this time, again I focus entirely on the swinging trapeze guy, who’s great, having a gentlemanly sprightliness and fleetness of gesture that I find incredibly appealing. The big tricks have been getting a little more ragged each time though, and Gala Day in fact showcases a line-up of performers who are nearly all tired or perhaps hungover (being told you’re performing in the gala guarantees you’ve won a prize). I watch the drops and falls sympathetically, feeling like a benevolent grandfather. Pretty soon it’s all over and they move on to the prizes.
Cirque de Demain has a simply incredible number of prizes: special prizes, special jury prizes, medals, audience choice, the ceremony goes on and on. The awards themselves wildly differ in material and grandeur: metal statuettes, abstract trophy-swirls, framed certificates. The magic bird svengali gets a book and returns to his place to stand for the rest of the ceremony looking like he’s going to poison someone for this. The pole trio receive more awards than they have hands and have to pass them down the line trying to organise themselves. One of their prizes is the Prix Al Jazeera Children. People keep trying to go back to their place in the line and are stopped by The Count—he can’t speak everyone’s language, just gestures: there are more prizes. It’s like a school sports day where everyone wins—except it’s not quite everyone. Acts that go away without a prize include: a doubles cradle act (which might have been a guest performance) which brilliantly executed the overused robotic doll movement style, the two women chalking up between tricks like ladies in a powder room, also delivering a familiar but powerful thrill by missing their big trick twice then nailing it on the third go;6 juggler Timur Kaibjanov, who looked like he had a nice routine but unfortunately destroyed it with too many drops; and choppy triples acrobalance from Rialcris (I didn’t like them; they whipped the woman behind me though into a fierce ecstatic frenzy: ‘[screaming] formidable! [screaming] magnifique! [screaming]’). Most of the audience leave before the end and never see the final, and most prestigious, awards.
Silver medals go to Antoine et Aurore, Florent Lestage (whose act more or less disintegrated in its final performance—the audience who’ve stuck around have no idea why he’s getting a medal), and the Uma Thurman troupe (who, having heard the Count’s intro a few times, I’m fairly sure were elemental ice people dramatising Marco Polo’s visit to their province). A young Ukrainian juggler, Alexandre Koblykov, gets a gold medal and I am very glad. His was a simple act, the drunken sailor, but he had a charm and lightness that felt untutored, and with the exception of clown Peter Shub (who was a past winner and not a competing act) was the only performer who seemed genuinely relaxed on stage (plus he juggled ten balls; that’s a lot, right?). The other golds (there are three golds, three silvers, and four bronzes, of course, meaning that roughly half the competitors medal) go to the Chinese rola-bola duo and Emma Henshall, who did a swinging trapeze act which I decided in my notes wouldn’t have done so well if she hadn’t been very pretty and wearing a short red dress.7 She also benefited hugely from environment: when you watch swinging trapeze in a big tent with 2000 other people excitement is a thing that’s alive and moving through the room.
Afterward I count them—the ratio acts: prizes is 22: 30. Cirque de Demain is an insider festival—there are no open applications—and it’s hard not to feel that these accolades are, in a way, self-awarded. It’s not that the festival is a sham, but it’s not the Circus of Tomorrow either. Most of the acts arrive at the Cirque Phenix by route of large established producers/agents, and until there’s a procedure by which people can just walk in the door it will always be the same: déjà vu.
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1 My total determination to speak French—however bad, regardless of whether or not my interlocutor spoke perfect English—took an early knock when the press office had no record of my name, the scenario rapidly outdistancing the resources of my rehearsed vocabulary. ‘Je suis… c’est une… ecrit!’ &c &c. A Finger (from the 7 Fingers) happened to be there, and translated, but I still ended up with a photographer’s press pass that attributed me to the wrong organisation.
2 OK, so in a way I’m bored by v. technical acts, but then the part of me that trains circus is overcome by what I think of as The Hunger. Can I be the only one who experiences this? If you want to write books you can learn a lot by actively trying to write them, but a critical second path is the passive absorption of literary styles and technique that you get from reading other people’s books. The problem here is of course that while there are more—freely available—novels than you could possibly ever read, your only sources of circus are live performances (which can be expensive to frequently attend) and YouTube. And when you’re looking for niche videos, YouTube is exhaustible. I’ve watched every corde lisse routine on there and now feel only The Hunger, clawing at me from inside.
3 Though from repeated viewings it was obvious that its mechanisms weren’t so slick as to be invisible, and on the last day my Paris host—renowned filmmaker Benjamin Busnel—sat close enough to get some insight: it’s all done with wires, dontyouknow.
4 I think that the powerful people were around for the festival, possibly including Dragone or Dragone representatives: the lobby exhibition was mostly an advertisement for Le Rêve with costumed mannequins, very cool concept drawings, and a large elevated flatscreen that played looped trailers. (From videos, at least 40% of Le Rêve is performed slow-motion. Everyone is also constantly wet.) Gala Day had a lot of families and casual spectators, but the rest of the festival, and especially the first two days, had a definite industry feel.
5 As a sidenote here, seeing an act/show more than once is often a special pleasure—though not necessarily and exclusively in those instances where the first viewing left a positive impression. It’s more the opportunity to discover a new facet in something that is ostensibly, physically the same, and one of the frustrations of CdD was that I never seemed to see anything new. It might be the tastes of the festival or the time restriction on the acts, but the majority of them didn’t have much ‘depth’—a word that I use here as a stand-in for whatever emotional or tonal axis lies perpendicular to visual content/effect. Also none appeared to have an improvisatory element. Still, there would have been surprises and re-evaluations if I could have seen things from different angles and hadn’t been situated always at the extreme rear by the—vile, hateful, really very bad—ushers.
6 The Rule of Three that has mystical fate-like power in the world of Planescape works for circus too: going for their big trick the cradle duo failed the first two attempts and, as so often, made the third, driving the audience into a frenzy of applause. It’s odd, but it seems like audiences only really accept failure in two quantities: you can fail once and move on, or fail twice and succeed the third time, but there’s always a really weird reaction on those rare occasions when a performer misses a trick twice and then moves on without a final attempt. It’s sort of like the audience knows the structure of these things, the Rule of Three, and that if the performer gives up early then they’ve somehow refused destiny or broken the story.
7 I suppose this needs some expansion. It’s difficult because the physical showmanship of circus is naturally bound up very closely with attractiveness/sexuality—but I think the major divide is between (a) work where the attention garnered from that attractiveness is diverted into the material of the piece (whether that is technical ingenuity or a strong character or an outlined narrative), and (b) work where performers have nothing beyond themselves to exhibit. Needless to say there is a vast grey waste between these two poles, and Emma Henshall for me falls somewhere in the intermediary. Her trapeze act wasn’t bad; just seemed to have not enough behind it—especially when compared with the outstanding performance qualities of the Montreal trapeze artist, which cf the main text. I think she deserved to win something (especially given what you have to do at CdD to not win a prize), but felt a little mystified when she scooped the biggest accolades. One possibility is that Emma’s piece contained new technical material I don’t know enough about trapeze to recognise (in an interview with Radio France Internationale CdD artistic director Pascal Jacob certainly seems to think she’s a league apart); another possibility is that Emma’s ultimate success is one more visible surface of the conservative/traditional tastes that hold majority in the CdD jury and dictate the festival line-up—the straight extroversion of physical beauty and ability being pure Big Top circus.
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30eme Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain Medals and Prizes and Trophies in Full
Emma Henshall (Australia), Swinging Trapeze
Prix du Président de la République
Prix Franco Dragone Entertainment Group
Prix du Moulin Rouge
Troupe du Chemin de Fer (China), Rola-bola
Prix Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey
Prix Big Apple Circus
Prix du Musee du Cirque et de l’illusion
Alexandre Koblykov (Ukraine), Juggling
Prix de la Ville de Paris
Trophée Victor Kee
Trophée du Grand Cirque d’etat de Saint Petersbourg
Florent Lestage (France), Juggler (artist website)
Prix Spécial Telmondis
Prix du Public
Prix Bretagne Circus
Antoine et Aurore (France), Hand to Hand
Prix Federation Francaise des Ecoles de Cirque
Trophée Studios Grimailo
Troupe de Xi Yu (China), Equilibrists
Prix Europeenne de Spectacles
Justine et Philippe (Canada), Hand to Hand (artist website)
Prix Cirque Phenix
Etienne Saglio (France), New Magic
Prix du Club du Cirque
Bankina (Columbia), Banquine
Trophée Cirque Kobzov
Saifeddine Jelassi, Maharane Hannachi and Yamen Abidi (Tunisia), Chinese Pole
Prix C&K Show Produktion
Prix Al Jazeera Children
Trophée Cie Les 7 Doigts de la Main
I Baccala (Italy, Switzerland) Clowning (artist website)
Prix du Cirque du Soleil
Jouni Ihalainen (Finland), Diablo
Trophée Festival du Cirque de Budapest
Equipe du Cirque Phenix
Coup de Coeur du Festival
Prix Speciaux du Jury
Guillaume Martinet (France), Juggling
Benno et Johannes (Germany), Diablo
Le Diable au Corps (France), Hand to Hand; Duo Markov (Russia), Bambou Aérien; Timur Kaibjanov (Russia), Juggling; BK (USA), straps; Le Trebuchet (France), Trebuchet; Polinde (France/Holland), Cradle; Artyr Bezkorinniy (Ukraine), Handbalancing; Ekaterina Rubtsova (Russia), Swinging Trapeze; Rialcris (Mexico), acrobalance.
Dima Shine; Morgan; Peter Shub; Mikis et Anne.