A Ridiculously Long and Insanely Detailed Review of the Special Edition of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain at Tohu


This one took a little bit longer to do than I initially thought it would. Apologies.

Talking about the Special Edition of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, Tohu, Calixte De Nigremont, Ba Jianguo on the Diabolo, Bert & Fred on the Washington Trapeze, Chris & Iris doing Hand to Hand, Le Boustrophédon doing Marionettes & Balancing, Lisa Rinne on the Trapeze, Morgan Cosquer doing Juggling, Nathalie Enterline doing Baton Twirling, Robert & Abillahi doing Contortion and Starbugs doing Rhythmic Comedy. With students from the École nationale de cirque.

And as mentioned in the ridiculously long and insanely detailed review this is Francis Brunn’s obituary from the New York Times and I think this is my favorite video of him

Then if you would like to read along to the review (I’ve been told I speak very quickly…) here is the script I used:

So last week I was invited to go see a special edition of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. It’s playing at Tohu until March 3rd, 2013

Apologies for not getting this up quicker, but as you can see doing video is not as quick and easy as just plain writing. Initially I was going to post a fairly straightforward compilation of clips from the show, talk over them as I gave my opinions.

But then when I went back to watch what I had shot, I realized that it might not actually be the best thing. Mostly due to my lack of skills at filming stuff. So I then had the absolutely brilliant idea of starting with the end. This was the reaction of the audience on Tuesday the 21st of February.

As you can see and hear pretty much everybody had a grand old time. In a nutshell, I did as well. Ten separate acts, split up in two parts. All masterfully held together by Calixte De Nigremont who acted as the Master of Ceremonies. As I was trying to manipulate a still camera and a video camera while writing notes in the dark, I didn’t quite catch everything he said but I was informed afterwards that he was quite humorous in a Parisian sort of way. Probably best that I didn’t catch everything.

I’m going to go through the performers one by one in alphabetical order. From some cursory research it looks like the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain is a big thing in Paris. They’ve been doing it since 1977, and it appears that they take some of the acts each year and ship them across the Atlantic ocean. I’d kind of prefer if they did in fact ship all the medal winners over, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers, and I would imagine the scheduling logistics could be a little bit difficult.

As a consequence Ba Jianguo was the only gold medal winner from last year that we got to see. In Paris there were four gold medals given out. If you’re interested Sarah & Guilhem, Trio Anneaux and Lewie West got the others. Now I’m not certain if I should call him Mr. Jianguo or Mr. Ba or if in fact Ba Jianguo is the name of the act since there were two people involved – one playing what could have been a Pipa, a Ruan, a Liuqin or a Qinqin – I’m not all that up to date on my Chinese stringed instruments that are plucked. So I quickly went through wikipedia and they looked like what I remembered – and another one playing with a top. OK, I’m being a little silly. He was playing a Diabolo. Basically a top that is juggled using two sticks attached together with a string.

It appears to be easy to do, and at the merch table at Tohu they sell kid versions that are good for any seven or eight year-old you might happen to know. Whatever his name is, he wasn’t a seven or eight year-old. Basically whipping it around like a lasso, he did some tricks throwing it high, making his hat turn into one, pulling a string from whatever the instrument was, and launching it out into the audience and at rather rapid speeds. While it is easy in retrospect to see and understand that he has phenomenal technical chops, to me the diabolo is a simple instrument, tool or whatever. So I wasn’t completely thrilled down to the bottom of my feet. More like a calculated appreciation of his skill.

Bert & Fred are from Belgium and they do something called a Washington Trapeze. No I hadn’t heard of it either. In short, a large heavy trapeze that moves up and down vertically with a special bit so you can do a headstand on it while it swings side to side while moving up and down. Bert and Fred are a man and a woman. They also have these short bits, interludes they call them on their website where Fred threatens Bert with some sort of physical violence, which he successfully avoids due to the surgical precision-like body placement he has. They had one part in their act where they slap each other that made me wince slightly as I find it hard to condone violence against women in any form. Even if they hugged and made up afterwards.

The Washington trapeze is graceful and probably extremely hard to do. But like the diabolo it doesn’t really hold that much of an allure to me. Their interludes on the other hand made me bust a gut. Between the knife, the darts, the sledgehammer and the whip everything was much better than their calls of “ok.”

Chris & Iris did Hand to Hand. They got a silver medal two years ago. They incorporate simple statements into their act, and as their French was heavily accented I initially thought that they were from the United States of America, but in fact once I read the program I discovered that they were from Germany. As with most heterosexual hand to hand acts, she is significantly smaller than he is. But in their specific case it is more in height than in muscles. They did one bit where he threw her around like a medicine ball that I was particularly impressed with. It was partially because I missed filming that bit that made me rethink how I was going to do the video.

Le Boustrophédon did some weird combo with a marionette, a flute, something pretending to be a piano, some stemmed glasses and toe shoes. More serious than any other act, it wasn’t a favorite of mine. But none the less I gotta give credit as it is something I never would have imagined in a million years. According to their website it was created by Lucie Boulay, directed by Christian Coumin – with Lucie Boulay, and Daniel Masson – Stage managed by either Thomas Marshal or Arnaud Mignon since they alternate and the puppet was made by Johanna Ehlert. Although I would swear that there were only three people on stage. Apparently it was an even shorter version of something they called Camélia et son pianiste. I guess it goes over great with adolescent girls and other people going through hormonal changes. If you hadn’t noticed I’m not an adolescent girl nor am I (as far as I know) going through hormonal changes.

Lisa Rinne was another German act. She won a silver medal two years ago. She was also the only artist who made the audience gasp, as once she was on the trapeze, there was one time when she did a flipping twisting somersaulty thing where it seemed for a brief instant that she had missed regrasping the trapeze. But fortunately she was able to regain her hold and so the show continued. A major chunk of her act involved work on a rope ladder, which was quite nicely done. Particularly this one thing she did where she balanced her entire body horizontally on one arm while holding on to one of the uppermost rungs. Then there was her particular method of descending where she sort of slithered snake-like in a spiral head first from the top to the bottom. I’m still not entirely certain how she did that. But it was particularly well done.

Which brings up another nice point. This was a circus that did not have any particular linking thread, storyline or narrative. It was just a bunch of disparate performers who had been brought together because of what I can only presume were a variety of reasons ranging from medals won to availability to being in the right time at the right place to other reasons that I can’t even guess at. As such it was quite refreshing. Seemingly old school in comparison to some of the other circuses I have seen recently where they unsuccessfully try to impose some sort of rationale to why all the stuff is happening.

M. De Nigremont as ringmaster (or if you will, Master of Ceremonies) was more than sufficient to keep everything running smoothly and connected. While I might have had difficulties with some of the acts themselves (more on a practical level than their actual performance) I can’t complain about the format. If anything it reminded me of the circuses from my childhood where as I was much less critical, it seemed that there was just this endless parade of people doing phenomenal and amazing things one after the other after the other, until it was time to go home.

And as long as I am talking about the practical aspects of the circus, I think it is about high time that Tohu allow food and beverage into their space. I’m not talking three course meals with silverware and linen napkins, nor am I talking about having people wander through the stands in order to sell you stuff. But it would be nice if there was popcorn, chips, cotton candy and other “boardwalk” type of food available (and I am certain that parents would agree with me 100%). Then perhaps instead of sodas, maybe a nice selection of juices and some adult beverages. I’m fairly confident that the extra revenues would more than offset the extra costs for cleaning up the place after each performance.

Then my final critique of Tohu would be that they seriously need to improve the merch table. While I don’t mind the black and white seemingly photocopied programs that never have quite all the information that I think they should. They really don’t live up as mementos of an evening (or matinee) that will be cherished forever and ever.

What about full color glossy oversized programs with lots of pictures of the performers in action? Just perfect for getting autographs. What about t-shirts? Baseball hats? Not with the Tohu logo. But that of the circus who is performing or of one of the performers. DVD’s of the performance? Large color glossy pictures of the performers. CDs or USB sticks of the music played. I’d suggest starting out quite conservatively. Making just enough items so that 5% of the audience for the run of the show would be able to purchase stuff. And then quite aggressively letting people know that they were limited edition items, never to be remade.

Then depending on the reaction, slowly step up production until there was enough data to be able to confidently guess what demand was going to be like. Since the circus troupes themselves never have any excess money to be able to do stuff like that, if Tohu offered to front the cash necessary for production, I’m fairly certain that the circus companies would be more then willing to give Tohu a larger percentage of each sale.

But enough of me trying to tell the fine folk at Tohu how to run their business. Let me get back to the main task at hand of telling you what the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was like.

I think of all the acts Morgan the juggler from France was my favorite, or maybe he tied for favorite. Due to his insistence on using only his first name his website was one of the tougher ones to find. For the record his last name is Cosquer and in the entry for this video over at Zeke dot com you can find links to his website along with links to all the other performers.

I think the reason I got such a kick out of his performance had an awful lot to do with the fact that he seemed to exude joy. He had won a silver medal five years earlier, so I can only presume that he has learned a lot since then. And while he closed out his act by juggling seven balls. The large majority, and best part of his act was centered around him simply tossing one ball around, with his feet.

Deceptively simple looking and probably insanely difficult to do. It was actually aided by a couple of minor mistakes that Morgan did. As is the case with 21st century circus, if you aren’t able to accomplish the feat the first time, for the most part you get second and third and sometimes even fourth chances to get it right. All of this is one other method of getting the audience to actually sympathize with the performer and not only appreciate the skills that they are using but get them to actively root for them. Kind of similar to professional athletes, just not paid quite as well, and without a connection that is as long lasting.

Anyhows there was this one stunt, where Morgan pantomimed what he was going to do in advance. As I understood it, he was going to try to launch the ball from his right foot through a circle made by his right arm touching his shoulder, return through a similar circle formed by his left arm touching his left shoulder, and then be caught on his left foot. He then continued the pantomime of how, once he had accomplished the feat he was going to prance around like Sylvester Stallone at the top of the steps in the first Rocky movie and accept any and all applause offered by the audience. It took him something like seven tries, but he finally got it and the applause was deafening.

By contrast Nathalie Enterline did not interact with the audience at all. Touted as doing the “Twirling baton” (someone really should take Tohu aside and offer to help with their translations). She was the only other gold medal winner to perform here in Montreal. However her gold medal came at the 7th Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain which just so happens to have taken place 27 years ago. To her credit they also gave her a medal of honor last year. But I seriously doubt she was anywhere near the same age as the other performers who according to the rules all had to be under 25.

Nor did she really do any baton twirling. Sadly. She came on stage did a brief imitation of Charlie Chaplin, then switched into some bright red suit that would have been appropriate about 27 years ago. All the while strutting around and doing what looked more like baton shaking than baton twirling. I don’t know if they have drum majorettes in France, but I have seen some high school bands that had better baton twirling than Ms. Enterline.

Weirdly, on the night that I saw it she was the last act to appear. I don’t know if they all appeared in the same order night after night, but she definitely was a downer at the end. On her website she writes in her bio that she met the legendary juggler Francis Brunn here in Montreal and started to collaborate with him. Which can go a long way towards explaining how what she was doing was much more like juggling than baton twirling. After looking up who he was I felt kinda bad. She definitely was trying to push limits, boundaries and go beyond the box and the envelope but it took me some serious research to discover. It would have been relatively simple to add to either the paragraph about her in the program or stick into a press kit (if Tohu deigned to make press kits) on Zeke Dot Com I’ll have some links to Francis Brunn so you can understand. Sometimes background information can help, a lot.

One of the things I don’t quite get about “new” circuses is how they have decided that while it is acceptable to not have animals, it is also acceptable to have contortionists. From my experience most contortionists look like twelve year old girls who wear skin tight leotards and end up in positions where I as a 50 year old guy can’t help but end up looking straight at their crotch. Or in slightly plainer language they make me uncomfortable as fuck. I can remember one night, the night of my grandparents’ 50th anniversary when my just a little bit too tipsy grandmother (who I adored) insisted that she still could put her leg around her neck like she used to when she was 20. I cringed, and quickly moved to another room. I had no desire to see her break herself. Especially since I knew I wouldn’t be able to fix her. Well, surprise of surprises Robert & Abillahi were as you can tell from one of the names not girls. But they were still contortionists. As M. De Nigremont said, they were the first African acts to ever win medals at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain which isn’t exactly something I’d be thumping my chest about, as it kind of made me wonder why it had taken the Festival that long. Heck the USA elected a black president in 2008. In 1930 Raoul Diagne became the first black soccer player in Ligue 1 and if I remember my jazz history I thought Paris was a refuge from the racism in the states for most of the 20th century. What the heck took the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain so gosh darn long?

Then while they were guys, I still had my standard issue awkwardness with contortion, as they still made the audience focus on their crotches (serious props for incorporating strength conditioning into the act) and no matter how hard I tried to avoid the thought I couldn’t avoid wondering if they could give themselves a blowjob. Which no matter how you cut it kind of interferes with the rest of the circus vibe. I don’t know if it is because I am the only one in the audience of 1,500 at Tohu who had their mind in the gutter and was incapable of getting it out of there, or if it was something else, but to me putting contortion acts instead of animals in contemporary circuses are kind of like the guy who says he reads Playboy for the articles, on the surface it makes sense, but once you look at it with any amount of seriousness you realize it’s a load of crock.

Then again I could just be a prude.

Which brings us to the last act, alphabetically. Starbugs from Switzerland doing what they call rhythmic comedy. Fäbu, Tinu and Silu also known as Fabian Berger, Martin Burtscher and Wassilis Reige (apologies for my accent and butchering their names). Like M. Cosquer they have taken advantage of the five years since they won a medal to seriously hone their craft and skills. Since five years ago they didn’t even get a bronze medal and this year in my estimation they tied for the best act.

Rhythmic Comedy the way that Starbugs perform it, is kind what you would get if you crossed the Rock Steady Crew with the Three Stooges all done to an insanely complicated soundtrack where various random sound effects are inserted into pop music hits working as cues for complex physical movement. I’m certain that they have many different sketches, but here in Montreal they had one brilliant one where Tinu (or at least I think it was Tinu, they all kind of look alike) dances in the middle of Silu and Fabu and manages to hit, trip, poke and otherwise “accidentally” beat them up, all the while keeping up to a rather complicated bit of choreography. Their motorcycle piece was probably the weakest part of their act. However, Silu (or at least I think it was Silu, they all kind of look alike) beating himself up is a gut-buster. As you might suspect there are way more hits than misses in what they do.

The opening number was done by students from the École nationale de cirque who were directed by Julie Lachance who according to her bio over at the Cirque du Soleil has been teaching since like forever (ok 1987) and Nicolas Germaine a professor there since 2005 who originally hails from Saint-Valery-en-Caux a small town in northern France. After looking it up on wikipedia, I can kind of understand why he got the heck out of Dodge. The act itself wasn’t bad. A little bit of everything there were at least a dozen folk on stage doing just about every type of circus act under the sun. Then there was also something they called the Barrière which I think was this thing they had at the back of the stage where they were able to get something like another ten kids involved.

The music was directed by François Morel, who I don’t think is the same François Morel as the one who is a Knight of the National Order of Quebec and was awarded the Prix Denise-Pelletier in 1996. The actual musicians were Olivier Caron, Laurent Falso who I think played drums, Franck Guicherd who I think played the trumpet, Christophe Gruel possibly on guitar, Louis Paralis who might have played the keyboards and Cédric Ricard who (if Google is right) played flute and saxophone. I wasn’t able to figure out what instruments M. Caron played because his name is way too common.

Tickets cost in between $36 and $55 although since it took me this gosh darn long to get this up I have no idea if in fact there are any tickets left. For your sake I hope so, because if you’ve slogged all the way through this, you’re probably deserve to get a ticket.

As I mentioned earlier, I quite like circuses that have no overriding narrative or theme. Just a collection of people doing cool stuff. The only real criticism of the special edition of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain would be that I’d prefer that the Montreal version look more similar to the Paris version. Maybe not including all the acts, but all the award winning acts. It would have been very nice to see the other gold medal winners Sarah & Guilhem (especially since they are local), Trio Anneaux, Lewie West along with the silver medal winner Angelica Bongiovonni (especially since she’s a local) and the bronze medal winners Eric Bates (especially since he’s a local) Robert Muraine, Papin Khachatryan and Duo XY (especially since they’re local).

Or another thought, since the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain focuses on artists under the age of 25, what about starting something like the Festival Mondial du Cirque d’Hier? A competition between circus artists all over the age of 35 or 40? Or maybe clowns over the age of 50 and anyone doing something physical older than 35 or 40? That way Tohu and the Cirque Phenix (the guys who run it in Paris) could do some sort of coproduction on the greatest hits versions which they could trade and then possibly tour. Plus I’m always a big fan of knowing your history. There should not have been any reason why I had to do the research myself to figure out who Francis Brunn was. And actually that was another weird thing, given that Herr Brunn was known for juggling one ball I don’t know why the organizers decided to include M. Cosquer or did they not realize that there were going to be comparisons?

Either way, it was a fun time. I’m looking forward to keeping an eye on the various performers’ careers and seeing them again and again and again.