• Le Nuancier du Cirque

    OK, first and foremost: as a catalogue and celebration of the absolute superiority and crushing might of French contemporary circus, Le Nuancier du Cirque is inspiring and exciting, richly cross-connective, LONG (nearly 6 hours), curiously structured, and very, very frustrating. Or frustrating at least for someone who lives outside of France and has little prospect of seeing much of the work so attractively trailed in the 178 short clips—clips of exceptional intrigue which include: a four-armed man smoking twenty cigarettes (Tide Company, Grunsvägen 7); virtuoso mouth-to-mouth ping pong ball juggling (Compagnie Galapiat, Risque ZérO); a matchmaking clown called Proserpine whose work is she goes to villages and talks to the inhabitants about their lives and relationships and dreams, writes it all down in a tiny notebook, then gathers the community together to make the connections between them they never knew existed (L’Apprentie Compagnie, La Fabrique de Liens); a woman who was once a man drawing a spiral through a circle of ice chips (Compagnie Non Nova, P.P.P.); trick cycle ballet (Compagnie 3.6/3.4, Trois-quatre petites pieces pour vélo); a man skateboarding on a large metal parabola which swings back and forth semi-obscuring the live portraiture being created behind him (Compagnie Mauvais Esprits, Léonard…Malagomie);  an aerialist tangled in a web of hundreds of strands, to harp music (Compagnie Lunatic, Ariane(s)); a burly naked man bounding on all-fours through the woods, through leaves, over burning logs (Compagnie du Singe Debout, Le Course en Forêt); a man juggling sheets of paper and sonically propelling ping-pong balls from speaker cones (Compagnie Les Singuliers, Hodja); a game of snooker played out along the contours of the human body (Compagnie Les Argonautes, Pas Perdus (which is in Edinburgh, btw)); a man flying stage right and left astride an airborne double bass (Cirque Plume, Mélanges (opéra plume)); a cat climbing a rope then performing a perilous doubles trapeze routine with its human handler (Cirque Romanès, Romanès, Cirque Tsigane (WHY IS THIS NOT ON YOUTUBE?!?!?!!!)); a twisting dance piece, or performance of ‘body juggling’, inside a 10ft columnar tank of water, plus a ferociously complex and thorough investigation of horizontal and multi-planar juggling using long bronze chimes suspended on wires (both from artist Jörg Müller: c/o & Les Tubes);  corde lisse in a pig mask (Volodia Lesluin, The Pink Room); lute playing and juggling finally combined (Compagnie Chant de Balles, Le Chant des Balles); a man balancing on the necks of bottles in steel curled shoes, plus a weird grooved hedgeball rolling independently around the stage of an empty auditorium (Johann Le Guillerm / Cirque Ici: Secret & La Motte – prototype IV (incidentally, Johann Le Guillerm, bodily: the Iggy Pop of circus)); a flying trapeze show about a legendary monkey (possibly; my translation: La Troupe Circus Baobab, La Légende du Singe Tambourinaire); and an outdoor juggling interpretation of Stravinsky’s entire Rite of Spring to an audience of approx 25 (François Chat, Le sacre du printemps des rues).

    To name a few.

    The content of the double-DVD has been compiled by academic-critic-author-researchers Jean-Michel Guy and Julien Rosemberg, with the two discs titled and divided as The Circus Spectrum, which identifies and traces back some of the long-term developments in contemporary circus, such as fewer productions in the chapiteau and the preponderance of mono- rather than poly-disciplinary shows, and Aesthetics, which takes a stab at categorising some of the different performance styles to have arisen in the last few decades. There are divisions and sub-divisions and sometimes sub-sub-divisions, with short introductions for the major sections to explain a little of the reasoning behind the title and selection. These are neither didactic nor particularly argumentative, and it feels as though the larger project is not to divide, but to outline the shape of circus while pushing gently at its limits—there’s some BMXing and some beautifully fast and sharp choreographed capoeira (this), placed within a section titled Blurring the Boundaries.

    One of the richest sections is the circus for camera category (’A Screen of Possibilities’), but it does also expose one of the big problems of the DVDs (doubly acute for someone who doesn’t understand a lot of French), which is that in placing work within the plan of the project it isolates that work from standard context: to know about the company, the show, you have to stop the DVD and open a browser and see what you can find (and sometimes there’s nothing). Watching the clips in Screen of Possibilities I realised there was no way to know if they were clips, or whether they were complete films: Damien Manivel’s Viril felt as though it could have been entire, a kind of arthouse circus interpretation of the tropes of a gangster flick: young bald men in suits, lockers, blood on the wall, the suppression and emergence of violence; Pierre Kudlak’s Tempus Fugit might have been a short (and delightful) film, or a scene from something larger; I wasn’t sure about Adrien Mondot’s reTime until I found a longer version online.

    It should be noted though that NDC isn’t really meant to be eaten whole, or treated like the MTV of contemporary circus. It’s framed as a teaching aid—a function amply demonstrated in the three-part, nine-hour mega-lecture given by J.M. Guy himself as part of the Circostrada seminar in Helsinki in May, which used the clips as base material for a wider discussion on circus aesthetics—and the plan of Hors Les Murs (and co-publishers Centre National des Arts du Cirque and Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique) is eventually to make the DVD footage available online, which seems to me the better form for the specifically or slightly interested. As it is now, Le Nuancier du Cirque is best as a presentational aid; as a research resource it’s disadvantaged by the fact that there’s no list of which companies/artists are included and where they’ve been placed. Even if you know what’s on there, the nested structure of the DVDs and the porousness of the category borders make it difficult to refind what you half-remember.

    Still, it’s rich and frustrating and LONG. I can see how it would be useful to festival promoters and programmers, and I hope some of them pick it up. Even a brief look over the companies included proves how valuable LIMF is as a festival that has an eye turned toward this sort of work (a fair few of the DVD’s productions have been seen there, including, this past January, Pan-Pot, Ieto, and Eloge du Poil), but also how rare it is to see it in other contexts (Compagnie XY at the CircusFest excepted). At the end of the day, watching it on DVD only makes you want to see it live.

    If you want to, you can purchase Le Nuancier du Cirque here.

    John Ellingsworth