An incredible journey

FirstWorks presents Cirque Éloize's dazzling 'Cirkopolis'
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  October 30, 2013

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HIGH-FLYING A scene from 'Cirkopolis.' [Photo by Nuevart/Valerie Remise]

With renewed appreciation of circus performers in the ’70s (Big Apple Circus) and the elevation of circus skills to artistic performance (Cirque du Soleil), many incarnations of circuses and cirques have followed, and Montreal’s National Circus School has prospered. Several of its graduates formed Cirque Éloize in 1993, and its most recent show, Cirkopolis, is a vibrant combination of theater, dance, music, and circus arts. Cirkopolis sets the FirstWorks season in motion at the Providence Performing Arts Center (November 1 and 2; first-works.org).

The name of the troupe comes from the Acadian French still used on the tiny Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where Cirque Éloize founder Jeannot Painchaud grew up. It refers to heat lightning, and Painchaud quips that he chose it because he wants “to warm the hearts of people around the world.”

In a phone conversation from Brussels, Painchaud explained what the islands meant to him: “I was lucky to be in a place where you can see the horizon, and I dreamed of taking a boat to the other side of it. When I was 18, I went to a big meeting of sailboats near my island, and I discovered the circus. So I decided to run away with the circus and now I go around the world with it!”

In its early years, Painchaud performed in Éloize — his specialities were juggling, unicycling, acrobatic cycling, and comedy. As artistic director and co-director of Cirkopolis, he has retained his adventurous spirit: “Risk is a good part of what we do, but it’s also a theatrical experience. We always want to mix different arts forms, and I wanted to reinvent the genre of circus.”

To that end, he and Cirkopolis co-director/choreographer Dave St.-Pierre set out to express the irrepressible individuality and creativity that exists in an urban world often dictated by mind-numbing routines and repressed by cold, industrial structures. With set designer Robert Massicotte, they envisioned a gray city, a la the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, with large gears, grids, tunnels, and bridges from which flowers (and colors) eventually emerge.

“It’s a quest for identity,” Painchaud explained. “Everyone wants to be themselves within this day-to-day world of workers.”

For the music, by Stéfan Boucher, Painchaud envisioned “a really, really strong sound environment to represent the mechanics of the city, but in another way, I needed poetry coming from individual unknown characters in the city.”

Painchaud is always looking for “complete artists, with strong discipline, who also have the sensitivity and natural presence to create a clan, a family, an energy on stage. For this show, we wanted to explore the limits of the acrobats in dance and theater.”

Using teeterboards to make people fly up onto the shoulders of a stack of performers and using “banquine” or platform pitching for complicated pyramids, these artists somersault through the air, climb each other like jungle gyms, and all but juggle each other’s bodies. The aerialists include a female artist on a long hanging rope, a “strong man” on a strap, two fellows going hand-to-hand in a balance number, and several artists swinging around and slithering up and down a floor-to-ceiling pole.

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