‘It is 100% safe,’ says Jean Vinet, standing 12 metres above the ground on a reticulated net of this twisted silver wire that looks like it was graded for a sheep pen: thin, I mean. Very thin. I have a hand resting on a cylindrical matt-grey beam; and the beam is thick. This seems important. My hand rests lightly, casually, but I know that when the wires – inevitably – strain and snap I will be able to catch hold and pull myself to safety. Whatever happens here, I will survive.
The net is actually called a trampoline, and is designed expressly for easy rigging: it’s a floor that you can reach through, with the wires of the net/trampoline slack enough that you can muscle them to the side and create a hole big enough to get larger items down (again: 100% safe). A side-effect is that you can see all the way down to the distant floor of the building — in this case the floor of La Brèche, France’s only creation centre fully dedicated to circus arts — which is actually quite instructive if you can deal with the giddy sensation that you are previewing your own violent death. From above it’s possible to see what Jean (La Brèche’s director) had told us earlier in the day: that the centre was designed and built for maximum flexibility, and that the spaces and compartments which we had moved between at ground-level were really only ad hoc, mobile divisions of a giant single space.
Having never visited one, and with nothing to go on but testimonials warped by extreme admiration or jealousy, in my mind a French creation centre has always been about as real as a magic kingdom accessed through the arc of a rainbow: maybe it’s there; I’ve never been. Now that I have I can more or less confirm it all. I certainly wouldn’t want to accuse a man as pleasant and urbane as Jean Vinet of bragging, but his tour of the building was (or at first seemed to be) a comprehensive list of everything you could want in terms of facilities, administration and funding, the English contingent shocked but salivating at the idea of a venue that invites artists to rehearse and create, pays for their travel costs, pays for their accommodation, pays for their meals, and then actually pays them a wage as well. ‘We have to,’ says Jean. ‘It is the law.’ La Brèche’s budget for costs associated with the artists and their residencies is 1,000,000 Euros p/a, with the money drawn at all levels from national, regional and local sources. (Since we’re talking statistical measures of envy, one of the other memorable facts was English vs French RFO circus companies: 4 in England; too many in France for anyone to know off-hand, but probably something like 150.)
I was at La Brèche for Cross Spring, a week of British work organised and programmed by Crying Out Loud and hosted as part of the larger Spring festival taking place throughout Normandy — the event doubling as an opportunity to invite industry types from France and England to get together for a series of seminars/workshops and informal networking. I’d actually seen the whole UK programme before. At a night of shorts, Acrojou extracted two scenes from their work-in-progress Wake, which I’ve seen four times now in spite of the fact that there have been no formal showings, surely making me the company’s biggest fan (send £9.99 + p&p to receive the annual club fanzine); Upswing’s Loved Up moved from indoors after touring outdoor festivals last summer, and its lightness perhaps played a little less well in the more formal space — especially in respect of the final ten minutes, where audience members were pulled up on stage in order to get down despite their obvious reluctance to do so; and Genius Sweatshop showed a piece of their early-days project The man who wasn’t there, now quite a lot further down the line than it was at its Blue Elephant scratch in March or its JTC showing in Zagreb — with sharper dramaturgy it’s going to be an interesting show, approaching as it does object animation and puppetry with different sensibilities to your average circus production (the company combines four Wimbeldon College of Art graduates with two Circus Space students and a puppeteer who trained at LISPA) .
Showing full-length at Cross Spring were Layla Rosa’s speculative autobiography about her Saudi heritage, What If…, and the second part of Sugar Beast Circus‘ double-bill — originally The Sugar Beast Circus Show, renamed for France Beast Fair, in both incarnations a weird theatrical extrapolation of 19th Century circus’ links to Darwinism. (Sugar Beast are on at the moment as part of the Roundhouse’s CircusFest, and come recommended.) The very good, possibly old enough to be classic, Ockham’s Razor trilogy was on as well, but along with about a dozen others I blew it off to take a long, long minibus ride across Normandy to see Mignon Palace, a tented circus show directed by Gilles Defacque.
I liked everything before the show. Walking into the tent, smoky and large with high-rising ranks of wooden seats; cramming onto the rows while being directed by a man in a dress with both hands to cram more to fit everyone in; kids climbing over their parents to change places, then deciding to sit on the stairs in the aisle, then coming back for gross French sweets, kicking each other in high spirits. For the show itself I was disadvantaged by my position on the outer edge of the semi-circle (there was projection that I could see only as a flicker of light) and by my very weak French, which made it difficult to grasp more than the bare information that what we were seeing was set in a cinema. There was slapstick and clowning, traditional and very conservative aerial, not-so-interesting German Wheel and Roue Cyr. Other people thought it was risqué; I’m not so sure. There were brief naked breasts (man next to me: ’spectaculaire!’) and pantomimic tit-biting (in a girl-on-girl wrestling match) and so forth, but I don’t think it’s that unusual to find the average French audience more relaxed toward nudity and, at the same time, perhaps childishly, more titillated/amused by it. (I remember being quite young and on a family holiday in southern France when we went to some tiny outdoor festival on the beach of a seaside town. There was a freestanding rig with two ladders either side and two men who with great ceremony and importance were carrying buckets of sand up and depositing them into a metal trough at the top. A crowd gathered, the trough filled, and one of the porters pulled a lever to open sieves through which the sand poured in a continuous, hissing curtain. A giant naked man having a shower appeared there, projected, and washed his cock for three minutes; the crowd loved it. I was with my dad, and twelve, and mortified.) It was explained to me afterwards that Mignon Palace was, loosely, a work of autobiography, with the scenes corresponding to the various childhood memories of Defacque, and the unseen film actually archive footage of/from the cinema he grew up in — which all-in-all sounded quite a lot more interesting than the show I felt I saw.
Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mind for it. Given how little I know (and how much I’ve heard) about French circus, what I wanted most was to see work that was balanced precariously on the leading edge of the artform — something that felt different to UK work in more than the particulars of cultural attitudes towards the boundaries of mainstream taste. What made it worse was that one of the Cross Spring seminars fully revealed the breadth and richness of the French scene: critic Julien Rosemberg’s presentation on the aesthetics of contemporary circus. I haven’t had much contact with academic interpretations of circus (rather by choice to be honest), but Julien’s talk was actually very interesting. Showing some clips from his DVD Esthétiques du cirque contemporain, created in partnership with Jean-Michel Guy and Hors Les Murs, he identified six key trends in contemporary circus. Boiled down: 1) Even though audiences in France associate circus strongly with the tent (chapiteau), 80% of companies now tour without one (the tent adding 10-15% to the total cost of touring). 2) Circus shows used to be multidisciplinary – a single production would encompass the full range of skills – but it’s more common now for an artist or company to use a single skill or group of similar skills. 3) The borders between artforms are harder to discern and there is more cross-artform practice. 4) Circus artists are bringing more social, political, personal content into their shows, and are no longer, as they once were, simply tools of the producer. 5) There is diversification in the way that circus makes us laugh (it’s not just slapstick anymore), but the traditional circus still has a special social function of ‘permanence’: children laugh, adults laugh remembering how they experienced the circus as children themselves. 6) There is more ‘art for art’s sake’, meaning formalist artworks that present something without saying what it is. I don’t have a copy of the DVD, but I think the idea is that it excerpts scenes from about 400 contemporary circus productions in order to give a broad overview of the artform and to support Julien/Jean-Michel’s thesis. Apparently you can get it for free, though I’m not sure how, and if you’re interested there’s an English-language version of the text accompaniment here.
I absorbed more in the seminars which were about the aesthetic differences between French and English circus than the ones which covered the industry/production side, though I caught the gist: the English envious of the French infrastructure and the relative artistic status of circus (Rachel Clare, director of Crying Out Loud: ‘we’re about twenty years behind you’), and the French keen to communicate to the English that their country has problems of its own. Two separate people said that French circus ‘is not an El Dorado’ (although that’s exactly what you would say if you had an El Dorado), and apparently French organisations are being told to look to the ‘English model’, which they take to be an entrepreneurial system that meets shortfalls with private finance — in other words now that they have the infrastructure the (currently right wing) government wants them to do more to manage and fund it themselves. England meanwhile is being told to look to America as an ideal example, and who knows what model or distant shimmering mirage the US are in turn being urged to imitate.
Cross Spring was funded in part by Interreg, an EU programme that helps European countries/regions form partnerships to work on common projects. I’m not sure what the common project here might have been framed as — perhaps just contemporary circus — but the idea I think was to push people together and see what reactions might occur. And I think on the whole it worked. Ordinarily there’s something utterly wretched about networking (worst is the moment when the other person weighs up your usefulness and makes a decision about how long and with what level of interest to attend to you), but lengthening the process over a couple-three days drastically reduces your options for not talking to people. There’s really no escaping each other. It’s like the principle of trapping two people in a lift to force them to get along, but it’s actually closer to 50 people and it’s less a lift and more a beautiful port town in northern France on the three warmest days of the year. I hope they do it again.