FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.
The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!
Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe. Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole
I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.
But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.
Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.
Pollina and its built-in theater
Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.
It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…
Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.
I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!
The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.
The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.
And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café
commandments of the jam at the moonshine
Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.
Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.
In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.
house rules at the moonshine
The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976
By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!
Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine
ASNIERES-SUR-SEINE, France – It is now a week ago, so no longer considered news, but I wanted to get down as a matter of record, the fabulous day I spent performing with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnères-sur-Seine. Founded in Milan, Italy, TAC Teatro now also has a base in France, in Asnières. And last weekend was the annual associations forum of this city just outside of Paris. That meant it was time for the local associations to show off what they do, and try to get new adherents. We had the whole stage to ourselves in front of the mayor’s building – the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall – and had great fun performing a little show as Ornella introduced TAC to the people of Asnières.
I was pleased to find myself on stage for the first time with the newly face-lifted Peter McCabe, my ventriloquist’s – well…o.k., sorry, Peter, I’ll just say, happy to be on stage with Peter after his recent facelift. Only problem was the facelift seems to have gone to Peter’s ego, and he announced to the people of Asnières that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America – saying that he could do a lot better than the current office holder.
We put together a short video of some highlights of our time on the stage, which I paste in here; and we were very proud to find a few days later – and this makes some sense of having not written about this before now – to find that we were picked up in the official city video of the event, very much near the place of honor, in the last 10 or so seconds of the video, at approximately the 2 minute 20 second point of the video. I am pasting that one in here too.
In any case, it was a fabulous day, and thank goodness the weather was great – as it has been all summer, but after the worst winter in recent memory in Paris (and Asnières). I hope Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro are selected to do this again (as not all of the associations were selected to show off their expertise).
PARIS – Having now arrived back in Paris after a weekend in England, I have finally found a few minutes to report on our final days at the Braziers Park Mini Indie Film Festival, and what came after. (Does that sound like one of those click-bait headlines?: “…what happened next will ASTOUND you!!!”)
The final day at the Braziers Mini Indie Film Festival was highlighted by a great fun final show resulting from Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro’s Flow Zone workshop – three days of the workshop ended in a show put together by the participants – and the long shadow from the night before of a fabulous film by a 16-year-old director.
Actually, the film, called “Charlie’s Letters,” and about a voyage by the director’s great grandfather up through Italy solo trying to escape from the enemy during World War II, was certainly one of the high points of the festival. I think few of the spectators expected to find this mature work of a film done by a teenager, despite the hype around it stating that Elliott Hasler, the director, was the youngest ever director to premier a full-length dramatic film at a major film film festival in Britain, as he had already done at both the Brighton Film Festival and the Edinburgh festival.
Somehow, Elliott, with the help of his family’s financial support – with a miraculously small budget of about 7000 pounds sterling, managed to create a persuasive feature film where both the size of the budget and the age of the director is soon forgotten by the passionate story telling. It was in fact years in the making, as Elliott began it at between 13 and 14 years old and finished it just shy of his 17th birthday. He is now 18, and during the talk after the film showing at Braziers, he struck me as being as mature as all the great young and precocious Formula One drivers I have interviewed over the years – Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, and many more – and made me feel that there will be great things to come from him.
I don’t want to go into detail about the film, as I’ve not got the skills of a film critic, but suffice to say that the story – with Elliott in the lead role and looking like a man in his late 20s or more – just draws you in from the first images and carries you along with expert editing, story-telling, visual beauty and acting. The only hint for me – as a non professional – of its low budget nature was the less than perfect sound capture. (So I was not surprised to learn that it was done with a mic on the camera, rather than a separate sound source.) But even this was dealt with in a way that managed to add a certain atmosphere to the whole.
My feeling was that Elliott, given the right support and continued interest (he said he started making films at around age 10) could certainly go on to become another David Lean or Richard Attenborough or…Elliott Hasler!
And from Braziers on we went to Giffords Circus in Stroud
Giffords Circus tent
It has been years and years that I had intended to attend Giffords Circus, a small family-run circus that I first heard about in 2014 when I met three of the musicians of the circus’s orchestra. I wrote about that meeting on this blog, as it happened in the context of my open mic journeys around the world. They showed up at the great Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford, and I could see immediately that they were massively talented – and entertaining – performers. I introduced myself afterwards and we continued our musical evening at a pub or two after Catweazle ended.
So it was that a light flashed in my mind last month when Peter Pullon (to be mentioned below) told me that I really should check out the circus up on the commons outside Stroud. It turned out that the final date of the circus in Stroud took place on Tuesday afternoon, and that I had just the time to attend on this, my return trip to see Peter.
So Ornella and I attended the show, and I was hoping to find my friend the musical director of the show, but he was not there for this performance! What we did find, however, was a very, very classy circus show that incorporated the best feel of the intimacy of a family-run circus along with a judicious hiring of acts from around the world to make up the non-regular acts. So in the end, I may not have met my old acquaintance, but I did meet a performer who used to live on the same street as I did in Toronto, while Ornella, who was born in Sicily, met a couple of Sicilian performers.
The show was sold out, and while I have no idea how many spectators the tent seats, it felt like it must have been anywhere between 500 to 1,000. It was smaller than many of the big Christmas shows I have seen in Paris, but bigger than the smallest. My favorite acts were the main clown, who was almost acting as a ringmaster too, the juggler, and the acrobats who launched themselves high above the ground in the second part of the show. I also absolutely loved the miniature ponies and the dachshund dog act.
The performers live at this circus in trailers, as it is a real, true travelling show. Part of the charm of attending this last show outside Stroud was to watch how the troupe began dismantling the tent and packing up the show the moment the place had emptied of spectators, as it was clearly time to hit the road. It reminded me of my life in Formula One and the biggest travelling circus of them all in the afternoon after a Grand Prix race ends.
And then back to Peter Pullon’s workshop to reunite with Peter McCabe
Peter Pullon and Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
After the circus on Tuesday we headed over to the workshop of the master puppet maker, Peter Pullon, who was giving a facelift to my sidekick, Peter McCabe. I had left Peter with Peter last month, 43 years after Pullon made Peter! Pullon is a fascinating man, having had two or three successful careers in his life, including working in theater for the decade of the 1960s, before setting up his own business as a theatrical prop builder in the 70s and then becoming the film director and producer of advertisements.
And during much of this time he also sidelined as a great puppet maker. His two most famous creations were probably Emu, the bird figure of Rod Hull, who was massively popular in the UK in the 70s, and the ventriloquist figure, Orville. In recent years he decided to put an end to the TV commercial making career and return to his great love of making puppets. So he set up shop in the Cotswolds and now devotes his time fully to making – and repairing or renovating – puppet figures.
When I approached him a year or so ago and asked if he would take on a renovation of my Peter McCabe, he agreed, and I had to just wait for the right moment. I was, of course, somewhat worried at the prospect of what might happen to Peter if I sent him across the channel and subjected him to the no doubt painful process of a face – and body – lift at age 43, but when I stepped into Pullon’s studio on Tuesday and saw the masterful job he had done, I was overjoyed. So was Peter. He apparently had a lot more fun in the Cotswolds than he usually does with me in Paris.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Peter McCabe (and me) in coming months….
In the end, our second trip in as many months, was as successful and fun as the first. We hope to do it again soon. (Peter is yelling in the background, telling me to cut the crap, he refuses to undergo another facelift for at least another 43 years.)
PARIS – I could have created some click-bait for those who do not know who James Thierrée is by adding in the headline of this blog post the words “grandson of Charlie Chaplin.” But James Thierrée, who is the son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria, made a name for himself long, long ago, and so it is debatable how much value the “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson” moniker still holds today. Thierrée, who grew up performing since he was a child in his parents’ circus, then trained all over the world (including at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan and the Harvard Theater School), and who is adept as a mime, dancer, acrobat, violinist, actor, director among other things, has clearly added several dimensions to the Chaplin identity that he inherited. Of course, the one thing he cannot really do anything about is that he looks almost a dead-ringer for his grandfather – especially the grey-haired version. This last week Thierrée has been putting on a show, called Raoul, at the 13éme Art theater in the place d’Italie in Paris, and Ornella Bonventre and I decided to check it out.
My not-reviews are meant to be blog posts about me going to a show, reading a book, listening to music, eating a meal, and talking about it as a spectator – no “critic” attached. But this time, I decided to explore a slightly different version, and give most of the words over to Ornella, who, as an Italian actress, theater director, playwright and circus artist, I knew had a much better sense of what James Thierrée’s show was all about and could do a better job of talking about it than I can.
So we spoke about it together, and I have decided to run a little Q&A from that talk as my “not review.” Oh, and by the way, just for the sake of context it is important to know that despite our leaving home on time to get to the show by its 20:30 start time, we arrived at least 15 minutes late due to the tragic accident of someone falling – or jumping? – onto the metro tracks on Line 6 at the Quai de la Gare station and causing us to lose nearly half an hour in getting out of the metro and finding a taxi and then having to wait to be taken to seats in the 900-seat theater. As a result of me being placed in a handicapped person’s seating area, my view of the show was not great (would the view have been better from a wheelchair? If not, this is scandalous.), and we missed the beginning of the show, and therefore perhaps some vital information on the game-plan of the spectacle.
The Q & A With Ornella Bonventre Answering Brad Spurgeon on James Thierrée’s Raoul
Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning
Question to Ornella from Brad.You were telling me that you enjoyed some of the technical aspects of the show, like the puppets but also James Thierrée’s physical movements. Why?
Answer from Ornella. I enjoyed the entire show from a technical point of view. I was very, very surprised because I wasn’t expecting anything. I wasn’t expecting a comical show, I wasn’t expecting a mime show, I wasn’t expecting him to be doing Charlie Chaplin. I was just expecting something very good – and in fact it was very good. I enjoyed the techniques he used as a director, because the structure of the show was based on principles that I am trying to use as a theater director too. For example, the puppet theater technique, or the use of the lights, the use of the space, the different levels of height he used on the stage throughout.
And I think this is something that James Thierrée had to face as the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin. He cannot just repeat what Charlie Chaplin did. He has to be something else, and probably something more and different and unique in his own way.
Q.What about the mixing of the huge puppets he used occasionally as well, the use of the giant stage set, and trapeze-like things, etc.?
A. I loved that because everything was transformed. Each object had its own life and was transformed into something else. And that’s very magical. And it is always the goal in my theater to obtain this result as well. And they were doing it with very traditional techniques. The puppets were built in a very simple way. And they were moved by people, not with machines, so there was nothing extraordinarily technical, and the materials also were simple, poor materials – like papier maché, simple cloths, etc.
A. Yes. I loved the use of sound in this show, the use of the soundtracks and the noises. And I think that they were necessary because they were also covering the noises of all of the huge machines that were moving up and down on the stage, the things from the floor to the ceiling, and the huge puppets. So the soundtrack was necessary to cover these sounds so that the audience would not be distracted and removed from the spell of the show by the unintended noises. It was very well done.
Q.For me the biggest problem was that I was waiting for, or expecting, a kind of storyline that I couldn’t find. So it was difficult for me to hitch in to the narrative. Was that something you found difficult too?
James Thierrée aloft in Raoul
A. Yes, there was no story…or possibly because we arrived late and we weren’t able to see the beginning of the show, and that might have helped to follow the story more. But even so, for me the story was: “Welcome to a magical world!” A world made of little things in which the objects have their own life, and the objects themselves were actors on the stage. Strange things were happening around this poor character who was reacting to what was happening around him. And he was very tender; he was the typical character of the clown, with the stupefaction, the wonderment about everything; every little thing became something extraordinary. This is the principle of the work that we saw. And it is something that I really adore – the magic of little things.
Q.That makes me think of the fact that I felt the theater was too big for the show! 900 seats! I had the worst seat I ever had in a theater (for the maximum price of 45 euros), with two people right in front of me on the same level, and I could not see clearly the area where Thierrée performed most of the show. It was difficult for me to see the little things and small movements. So I felt I was missing a lot. How was your seat just beside me?
A. My vision was good. It is true that probably the theater was very, very big, but fortunately for Thierrée it was full. It was sold out. And I think that’s why it’s necessary to have a very big theater; in order to contain all of his fans, the whole audience that he brings. It’s true that perhaps this show can work better in a smaller theater, but the reason for such a big theater I think is simply to contain the audience he brings.
But, even so, I was able to follow the details. As I said before, every theater show is made of the details – the movements even of the eyes – and usually you are able to see those things even if you are far away from the stage. Because that’s it, this is theater. The quality is in the details, and even if you are not really able to see clearly the details they touch you in any case.
Q.What did you see that I did not see since I am not an expert on mime, on movement, on dance? Can you tell me what you saw in his skills, in his techniques, that was so exciting for you and that held your attention?
A. Perfection. I never saw such a high quality of movement in all the senses. His movements were so fluid, so organic and so true – above all organic and fluid and it had a high, high quality that I’ve never seen before.
Q.What kind of movements are you talking about in particular?
A. In general. The whole show is based on his movements. There is no wind on stage, for example, but it exists, a very strong wind blowing at 100 kph because you see his body that is acting as if the wind is there. So he is creating a world with his body, just with his body. He is acting as if the wind is there, so for me, the wind was there. I was believing in that.
Q.Some of the funniest, most successful parts were the simplest, most slapstick things, I felt. Like him pouring water into a cup that it is bottomless, and then when he tries to drink it, there is no water in the cup. It’s a gag. It’s an old joke. But for me it was a moment I could really relate to and identify with.
A. Me too. Welcome to the magical world of the little things. It’s amazing how he had such beautiful tricks and big machines that carry him up and around the stage, but what is working best are those little things. In fact, you asked me about the quality of his movements, and the quality of his actions, and I told you it is amazing. I never saw such perfection. Why? Because I always saw those tricks – the water, or the wind or the body acting in a certain way, mime stuff – because I grew up in circus, in theater, and to me this is my daily life. So I appreciated those little things because they were so well done, they were magical.
Q. So he did old gags in a fabulous way.
Q.What about the advantage or disadvantage of being Charlie Chalplin’s grandson? I think that part of the reason the theater was full was because everyone knows this is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. But also that can be a negative thing too because you are being compared to Charlie Chaplin, to your grandfather. How do you see this aspect of his identity?
A. I think it is already difficult for everyone to find their own identity. To find our identity is a battle. And so, I think that for him, as for all people who are the “son of,” “grandchild of” or the “daughters of” famous and loved personalities, it is very, very difficult. I think it is a weapon that can turn against you easily if you are not good enough to demonstrate to the audience that you are really unique and great in your own way. So at the beginning it can be something that brings an audience, but if you are not good enough this is also something that can destroy you forever. And I don’t think the theater was full because he is the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, because he has been on the stage for many years. So probably in the beginning the theaters were full because he was the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, but today if he wasn’t good enough the theater wouldn’t be full.
Q.Were there areas that disappointed you?
A. I don’t know if “disappointed” is the right word. But one flat point was the story. It is true. I don’t know if it was because we missed the beginning or not. Another thing, and I asked myself this: “Why are you not doing this guy??!” It was a moment when the house lights were turned on over the audience and he stared at us, and I thought, “My God, use this! Now you see us, and you are trying to interact with us. But do this for real. Come to us and use this other part of the space.” In fact, he did do that, but just one time. When he entered from the door and walked directly in front of us. But it was just one time, and it was so quick. Just a moment like that! (Ornella snaps her fingers.) So not disappointment, but…it could have been more.
And also, I think this show was all about teamwork, and I would have loved to see more of the other participants. As well as their names on the posters, etc., being more recognized for their contribution.
But the rhythm of the show was amazing. Because it was a very long show. And without a structured story. So it is difficult to keep an audience seated down like that for 1 hour and 40 minutes. So the rhythm was amazing.
And the meta-theater aspect was interesting too. To show the show being made was amazing.
Q.You mean when they were fake hiding the members of the cast and crew with screens as they came out to set up the props, pretending that they were not there, etc.? But much of the show was “meta” stuff. It is external appreciation of what was being done, as opposed to really entering into the character, no? How much were you involved personally in the character?
A. I can honestly say to you that I was moved. As I am moved every time that I work with Claudio Madia in Milan and he really becomes a child, and the tenderness, and the innocence comes out…. At that moment I am completely with the character and I am moved. Because the theme of the innocence of childhood is personally something that touches me a lot. Was I with the character? Yes.
Q.We are living in a world where anything is technically possible in film, on the internet, in YouTube, and here is James Thierrée’s show with traditional gags, the flesh-and-blood live performance of an individual, and nothing that you can see in the way of the technological achievements that even a knowledgeable home video editor can do. What place does a show like this have in today’s world where our senses have been numbed by anything being visually possible on YouTube?
A. I think, honestly, that shows like this, and not even just this kind in particular, but the theater in general has a very important place in our contemporary world. I really believe that it is the future of this world. Theater is a meeting. But for real it is a meeting. It is a meeting between the audience and the actors and it is a meeting between the daily life of the audience and the life of the show, of the stories of the show. It is a meeting between the audience and the audience. It is work that you do in a team. When you are working in a show you are not alone. Your show depends on other people. So theater is a meeting, and it is made by people for people. And it is the future. And its place in our contemporary world is very, very important. Wherever there are two people in the same spot that want to listen to each other, there is theater. It is up to theater today to save human relationships and humanity.
PARIS – I could not believe it when I calculated that the last time I had attended the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was 23 years ago. I did this calculation last Sunday while attending the 39th edition of this circus festival, at the Cirque Phénix on the Pelouse de Reuilly in Paris. The last time I had attended it took place in Paris’s fabulous indoor circus building, the Cirque d’Hiver, and the change of location defined a big part of the growth of the festival. But it was above all in seeing how the acts themselves had changed, transformed, grown, that defined the passage of time over those years. The only thing that remained the same was the clear, undeniable importance and innovative nature of this, one of the world’s greatest circus festivals.
But it is the sheer baffling talent that awes at this festival today as in the past. The circus arts often are thought of us something slightly tawdry, and often not really a true art, but a cheap thrill obtained through buffoonery or minor skills of juggling and gymnastics. This festival shows how high an achievement, how much discipline mental, spiritual and physical it takes to achieve the highest level of the circus arts. Today it seems a circus artist can no longer be content to master one thing: A juggler has to be something of a gymnast, dancer, clown, tumbler, and have enough imagination to be able to communicate with the audience through more than just wowing them with throwing objects into the air.
Cirque de demain diabolo solo
Same for the trapeze artists, the tumblers, and others: Multitalented consummate artists who absolutely send shivers of emotion through us at their multifaceted shows and skills. Anyone interested in going into the circus profession as an artist, really must check out this festival to see how high the bar – literally and figuratively – may be set for the very highest levels of the art.
Aside from this clear development since the early 1990s, another of the biggest developments I noticed this year compared 23 years ago was that at that time, the dominant acts, most of the acts, came from the former Soviet countries, from Russia, Ukraine, all over Eastern Europe, as well as from China. All of those communist states that had for decades poured money into developing the circus arts.
This year, act after act came from Western countries, or a large number of the performers no matter where they were from had trained in the West. Much to my delight and surprise, that included many of them having trained at the National Circus School in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 1981, that school would not have had the time by 1994 to have produced such a large quantity of performers, I suspect. But what was also interesting was that some of these performers seemed – if I understood correctly – to have come from other countries to study there.
Cirque de demain Bar Russe
There were plenty of West European performers as well, of high quality. In all, my favorite performances came from the two diabolo juggling acts, the solo artist, Arata Urawa, in the early part of the show and the group of four jugglers from Taiwan called Diaboloism. I loved the hand-to-hand performances of Tristan & Eve, as well as those of the other such performers, i.e., Julius & César. And I enjoyed the huge hoop, or Roue Cyr, performance by Vincent Bruyninckx of Belgium. The various trapeze artists took my breath away and raised my heart rate permanently as I feared for their lives so high above the stage. Cirque de demain hoop
The festival has grown vastly in its public success as well in the last 23 years, and since it was founded by Dominique Mauclair – who died recently – in 1977. Although the Cirque d’Hiver remains myself favorite circus location, the move to a big tent like the Cirque Phénix brings a whole different dimension to this international competition – there were some 20 countries represented – with an audience on the third day of the show for the finale (which is what I attended) reaching something like 5 to 6,000 spectators. It was, in fact, the record of audience size for the festival.
Cirque de demain flippers
Another constant between 1994 and today, was that there is nevertheless a common feel to these acts with avant garde music and the effort to raise a circus act to the level of high art. That is one of the distinguishing aspects of this festival. This is not really for young children. Lasting nearly three hours and consisting of the finest, most artistic acts around, it lacks the big gut-splitting sort of act of that lower kind that children – and adults too – really love to see. But that is not, either, the purpose of this festival. It is more competition, showcase, career launching board than at strict family show.
Cirque de demain flags
Oh, yes, and on that point, it is also worth pointing out that there are no animal acts. This is purely the side of the circus that is involved in great human achievement, not the P.T. Barnum fascination with animals and oddities. Speaking of which, as I left the festival, I wondered to myself how it is that with the health of the circus act so clearly incredibly high – higher than ever before, dare I say? – how is it that over the past year one of the greatest of all circuses with more than a century of tradition, still was unable to succeed and had to close down forever? Did Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey depend too much on the old idea of the circus? In any case, my feeling is that the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, after 39 years, still has decades more to go, and I can’t wait to see how it all evolves in the future….
PARIS – At a recent party of a friend in Paris, I met a guy from Detroit who has lived in France for a couple of decades. We started talking about various personal projects, specifically film and theater. He had made a documentary film about a century of his family’s life in Detroit. His wife was playing in a one-woman show in Paris, the director of which also had his own one-person show. The man invited us to see first his wife’s show, then the director’s. Little did I realize that it was the beginning of a long string of attending one-person shows, readings, theatrical productions – and film – that would keep me musing for weeks on the meaning of one-person productions on stage, in film, with texts, without texts, the physical versus intellectual and emotional theatrical representation and other profound and less profound thoughts. Let me get to specifics:
The man we met at the party was Steve Faigenbaum, who has had a long and varied career in film and video, but whose recent documentary is his first full-length personal, big production. His wife is Yannick Rocher, a French actress, starring in “La Voix Humaine,” by Jean Cocteau, at the Théâtre de la Contrescarpe. The director of the play is Charles Gonzales, who is starring in his own one-man show in Paris, at the Théâtre de Poche in Montparnasse.
The idea of comparing these two linked shows was too enticing not to try. So it was that after Rocher’s show we then attended “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel“…and, as you may have realized, this might be called a one-woman show as well… or whatever. (Which set up more strands of musing.)
In between those two shows we saw Steve’s film, “Internal Combustion,” (called “City of Dreams” in France) a story based on his return after 25 years to his home city of Detroit, where he retraces his and his family’s past, but simultaneously tells the history of the city and especially its black and Jewish population. (And, through these, a certain history of the United States itself.) The documentary is in some ways a one-man show, since it focuses on Faigenbaum’s look at his own world where he grew up in Detroit; but it is obviously made thanks to a cast of hundreds, including the crew and the many interview subjects and people of Detroit, dead and alive.
Steve Faigenbaum from Internal Combustion
As a grand finale to all of this, we went last Saturday night to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see another one-man show, “Imagine-toi,” of Julien Cottereau. One of the reasons we chose to attend this was to have a direct comparison to the other shows: Because it was a performance told entirely through the movements of the body, and not through spoken language. Having said that, it turned out that Cottereau depends hugely for his communicative effects with the audience on sound. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
I now want to return to look a little at each of these shows in the order we saw them, and in the spirit of my Not-Reviews.*
Yannick Rocher at the Contrescarpe Takes the Neutral Approach to Cocteau
Yannick Rocher’s “La Voix Humaine,” written by Cocteau, and here directed by Charles Gonzales, was the first of the bunch for us. It was in the small, but very cool Théâtre de la Contrescarpe, off the place de la Contrascarpe (Hemingway called this “the cesspool of the Rue Mouffetard,” but it has changed since then, going somewhat upscale). The play is about a woman who has ended her relationship with a lover and is reminiscing with him on the telephone, in a call, or a series of calls. It must have been technically an original concept at the time Cocteau wrote it, to use the telephone as a device for a one-person show.
Well, it still stands up today, entirely. The first performance of “La Voix Humaine” was in February 1930, in Paris, at the Comedie Française, starring Berthe Bovy. One of the original aspects of Yannick Rocher’s production are the decision to portray the role in as neutral a manner as possible. Her voice remains mostly neutral throughout. It gives a modern sense of gravitas to the play that the original production does not have in the same way.
And that leads to the other bit of originality: The use of a recording of the voice of Berthe Bovy in the original production as a kind of backdrop, or dramatic ploy, which makes its “appearance” several times throughout. It’s an interesting concept, that forces the spectator to compare Rocher’s performance with that of Bovy’s. In other words, you have the lines being spoken by the creator of the role, and then you have the same lines being spoken by the actress in front of you, but in a completely different way. That is quite a courageous thing for any actor to dare to do, I would think, being compared simultaneously with the creator of the role. So kudos to Yannick Rocher.
Yannick, I learned later, has done the role elsewhere in recent years, including in the U.S., and she did not do the neutral approach – which fact I found interesting as well, as I thought it must be like trying different ways to sing and play a song I’ve been doing for years in a certain way, and just completely change it. Not easy.
And then we saw Faigenbaum’s Film about Detroit
The story behind Faigenbaum’s film “Internal Combustion,” is fascinating on its own: This is a film all about the city of Detroit and the life of its black and Jewish immigrant population. It is done entirely in English. But it was funded and produced entirely in France. As I indicated, this is a film that might in some ways also be called a one-man show, as Faigenbaum goes on a personal quest back to his hometown and relates his family life through his own words, and above all, those of other family members and local personalities he interviews.
Internal Combustion trailer
But the brilliance of this film is the way the director manages to go from the personal situation into the general one of the history of the city and the life of all of its inhabitants throughout the 20th Century. He charts the movement of the Jewish and black populations, as they move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the social developments. A previously Jewish neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. Some neighborhoods then get wiped out for new projects, highways, modern life that leaves no trace of the old, of the past.
Through it all, is a path of integration – or not – and for me it was absorbing to see an historical presentation – along with the family’s point of view – of the race riots of the 1960s, which I was aware of as a child while visiting relatives on the other side of the border, in Windsor, Ontario, putting a lot of things into perspective for me on a personal level. But I felt the biggest success of Faigenbaum’s film was that fabulous marriage of the personal with the universal, along with Detroit’s story mirroring that of the U.S. as a whole.
And off we Went to the Théâtre de Poche and the Camille Claudel One-Person Show
After the experience of seeing the one-woman show – although I’m not sure that’s the right term for a play with just one actor or actress – we were curious to see how the director, Charles Gonzales, would act and direct himself in a one-woman show starring himself, a man. For I think in some ways it has to be called a one woman show, his “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel.” Yes, it is a man performing the role of the lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and sister to the writer Paul Claudel. But Gonzales is clearly trying to live in the skin of a woman throughout.
Or maybe not so clearly. In any case, the story of Camille Claudel is one that has a particular resonance in France in a way that it does not elsewhere in the world. She feels in some ways like one of the great women heroes of the country, like Joan of Arc. And yet Camille Claudel’s story is not one of any sort of heroism that saves the republic. It is more some kind of tale with which the whole country identifies and feels pity and sorrow for. A sense of collective something!
A highly respected sculptress herself, the lover of Rodin ended up spending the last 30 years of her life in an asylum. And with a 19th Century twist to it, this 20th Century story is one suspected of having a grotesque lack of humanity attached to it on the part of her family – and society. Was she really crazy or just locked up for convenience?
The piece was written by Gonzales and has been performed in various different locations – he has become recognized as something of an expert in Camille Claudel. And as I understand it, he had special access granted to him by the Claudel family to letters and papers, from which he draws for the text.
Of course, the originality here is that it is a man playing the woman. On the other hand, I don’t know if it was my lack of adeptness in the French language – although I usually consider myself bilingual – but I could not really see anything in the show to indicate WHY a man is playing this role. I saw nothing in the text or stage actions to indicate the purpose. So I assume it is just the passion that Gonzales has for the Camille Claudel story that drove him to this. And it is clear that Gonzales comes to life through this story, and so carries the audience with him.
The Théâtre de Poche was packed, and with about 90 or 100 seats, that’s pretty good for a play that is running for several months a couple of nights a week.
And off we Went to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see Julien Cottereau in his one-man show
Julien Cottereau has a long and illustrious career in clowning and circus, including working at the Cirque du Soleil. He has also worked much in film and theater. This show, “Imagine-toi,” was actually first performed in 2006, and for it he was awarded France’s highest award in theater, a Molière. But it is the kind of show that cannot age. Full of visual gags and audience interaction, it remains as fresh today as if it was just created.
But the most important aspect to writing about it here is that where I say this was a show that has no text, no words, a show that depends wholly on visual gags, movement, it is in fact a thoroughly modern show that could not have been performed at the time of Vaudeville when the idea of a modern sound system did not exist. In fact, it could not have existed through most of the 20th century either, as the key to this show’s main effects is the small microphone attached to Julien Cottereau’s head, and into which he makes his noises.
Julien Cottereau in his show
These noises – sounds of bouncing balls, roaring animals, barking dogs, squeaking window cleaning cloths – are also occasionally treated or added to by a sound man at the back of the room, who appears to add reverb or volume and other effects, when needed. So it may be a visual show based on movement and visual gags, but without those popping, bursting, barking, roaring sounds we would just have a mime. Granted, for me this is a mime of a much more dynamic, modern style than the classic Marcel Marceau. Cottereau’s show is just uproariously funny. And I noted that it was enjoyed equally by children, adults and others.
Together, all of these stage productions really got me to thinking about the nature of living theater. What makes a stage production. The importance of movement. The importance of voice. The importance of sound. Emotion. Of text. And, in fact, as it turns out, since seeing these productions we attended in the last couple of days two other shows that were readings of text alone, one of which in a language we could not understand. Seeing a pure “reading” was a perfect counterpoint to provide us with a comparison to the classic stage production and show the utility of memorisation and stage action in holding an audience’s attention.
* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.
PARIS – The Cirque d’Hiver, or Winter Circus, in Paris is one of the great treasures of the circus arts. After the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently – and, for circus lovers, tragically – closed down after more than a hundred years of existence, this Parisian tradition is one of the last remaining great, great circus attractions. Over the weekend, I decided to attend its latest show – called “Exploit” – and was not let down. I threw together some of the videos I took during the show into a single little clip that you can see below. And I also decided on this occasion to republish, on the blog, an article I wrote about this great Paris institution 24 years ago in my blog articles section under the title: Cirque d’Hiver: A Unique Tradition Under the Big Top Ceiling in Paris. It all remains so incredibly true and fresh, and I cannot be happier to report that. The show, as you will see in the video, was stupendous.
MILAN – The idea was only to try out my DJI Osmo 4k camera again and see if I could do a cool atmospheric video of a walk in the park with a bunch of jugglers, musicians, slack-line walkers and other circus arts practitioners at a get together by a lake in Lombardy. Then, thanks to some fabulous serendipity and synchronicity, something quite unexpected and beautiful, it turned into the seventh video of the series of 10 that I have been working on to “illustrate” my 10-track CD, “Out of a Jam.”
I have been working towards finding the best way to record sound with this DJI Osmo and so I again tried out my system of using a Zoom recorder attached to the DJI as a microphone. Without me realizing it, the connection between the two gadgets was bad, and eventually the recorder unplugged itself from the camera, as I was walking around the lakeside park. When I returned to view and listen to the video, I found great images – as usual with this fabulous little camera – but the sound was a disaster. A horrible mess. There was crackling, banging, popping and sometimes no sound at all. It went from silence to hurting the ears – moreover, the level was set too high as well, even when it worked, so it was distorted even when at its best.
I decided to put the video up on this blog as a demonstration, again, of what the Osmo can do, but I would put a music recording over the original sound, so not to distract and hurt the ears of the viewers. For that, I decided to use my song, “Since You Left Me.” Then, after importing to the film editing programming, when I pressed the play button, I saw immediately an uncanny synergy between the content of the video in the park and the music of the song. The musicians playing, and the dancers dancing seemingly to the same beat as my song; the link in the lyrics between seeking out another world, another way to live, and the otherworldly link to the juggling, slack-line walking, and other circus arts; even the view up to the sky at precisely the right moment for the song.
I immediately decided that I had the basis for a video for “Since You Left Me,” and that I would put in either a performance by me of the song, or do some more filming, some kind of dramatic storyline of me acting something out. So I used the performance I did of the same song at the Noctambules bar, edited it all together, and felt lucky for the serendipity, synchronicity, synergy, and luck that all seemed to combine to come up with another video for my CD, and the first with which I have used the 4k camera.