Feature Article Vol. VII – No.3

Jeannot Painchaud Has Taken Cirque Éloize
Where Few Circuses Have Gone Before


Cirque Éloize, the independent circus company whose innovative productions have thrilled audiences around the world is celebrating its 25th anniversary by creating two new productions, says co-founder Jeannot Painchaud.   One will be a summer production in the province of Quebec.  It will be staged in a 1,000 seat revolving outdoor, covered and heated, amphitheatre with a huge stage that incorporates a river and a forest.  Since the action will take place all around the audience, they will be able to follow the action as the amphitheatre turns.

The show is called Nezha, the Pirate Child, and is set to open July 3 in a town about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Montreal.  It is the story of a young girl who wants to be a pirate.  It will be played during daylight hours, and performances will go on even in the event of rain as the audience area is covered.

In honor of  its anniversary the company will also be producing a new touring show.   It will be directed by Emmanuel Guillaume who was responsible for the staging of Saloon, the company’s western themed circus which is currently touring the United States and Europe, along with a third production Cirkopolis.  The new show is titled Hotel and it will premiere at Foxwood Casino and Resort in Connecticut on August 22, where it will stay put for three weeks, one of the company’s longer residencies.

The idea behind the show came from the brain storming sessions of the company team.  In looking back over the past 25 years the one thing they decided that they all knew better than anything else was hotel lobbies.  “We don’t have caravans, “ Jeannot Painchaud points out, “but we know hotels.  In hotel lobbies you find funny characters from all kinds of backgrounds.  There is no discrimination.  You can come from any country in the world and have a very funny story.  For instance a couple might never have met if they hadn’t come to the hotel at the same time.  So lives can be changed.  Ours will be a timeless hotel, and so we are going to play with the time, traveling from one period of time to another from the 20’s, 70’s the 40’s.  with music inspired by the various periods.  It will be a very  physical production with lots of acrobatics.”

Another inspiration comes from the movie director Wes Anderson and his madcap film The Grand Hotel of Budapest.  So there will be lots of crazy characters, those that run the hotel and the  tourists. In addition to the same director the new show will have the same creative team and composer as Saloon.

As if two new productions were not enough to keep the company busy, it will also be doing some special events for one night here and there.  One of these will be a revival of Cirque Orchestre, which the company did back in 2002, starting a trend that was subsequently taken up by numerous other companies around the U.S.

Painchaud’s wife is a classic musician, a flutist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  She will serve as the production’s co-artistic director along with her husband.  The company wants to celebrate its anniversary by creating work in collaboration with other cultural organizations.  In addition Pascal Jacob is writing a book about the company’s history.  It is due out this fall.

One of the things that contributed to Cirque Éloize’s success when it started in 1993-94, was the simple fact that there was nothing else out there like what they were doing, putting circus in theatres.  “When we proposed to put acrobats in the theater with some story line and special music it was  very unusual at that time,”  Painchaud points out.  “We were pretty much at the beginning of the movement programming a circus in a theater.  Some people saw us at festivals, I remember.  The people who were running cultural festivals and theater festivals were amazed and surprised by our proposal that incorporated some sort of dramaturgy.  Another factor, I think, was that we were able to move quickly.”

There were only seven cast members when the company opened in the New Victory Theater on 42nd St, in New York City in 1995, playing there for three weeks, just two short years after its inception.  The first review from the New York Times, which more or less made them a legitimate theatrical entity called the show “a circus in a suitcase.”

A suitcase fitted Painchaud just fine.  Growing up on Canada’s Magdalan Islands in an entrepreneurial family he was  infected with an incurable wanderlust.  Eventually he wandered into the Canadian national circus school when it was still in its infancy.  There he not only learned certain circus skills but also developed a relationship with the staff, which was helpful when he began creating his own company.

Eventually, with his co-founder Daniel Cyr who later invented the Cyr wheel, they recruited their friends,  officially opening the company and the corporation in the Magdalan Islands in the fall of 1993.

Amazingly the company was already enjoying great success by its second year, capping off a 125 show tour by opening at New York’s New Victory Theater.  Its second production which opened in 1997, Eccentricus, played more than 500 performances all over the world.

Probably the most remarkable thing about all this is that the company achieved its success with almost no subsidy.  In 2002 only 12 percent of its funding was from subsidy.  Today it has none.  In the beginning it was even less.  Its first subsidy which might more accurately be called a gift was for $5,000 to buy some equipment.  In contrast Cirque du Soleil started out with a government subsidy of a million and a half.

“We arrived in the middle of a recession in 1993 in Canada,” Painchaud recalls.  “There was no money and so we had to fight, but at the same time that gave us the drive to go forward because we were always by ourselves.  So this is why we went into theatres rather than a big top.  We had no choice.  We couldn’t afford a big top.”  Necessity once again serving as the mother of invention.

“We realized very quickly that it was very interesting to be in a theatre and we started to develop our work specifically for the theater.  We opened this market.” What made them appealing to theater bookers was that they were creative, lithe, agile, and could move quickly.

As a result of touring theaters their engagements tended to be of shorter duration, and since the company was thrown together in all sorts of intimate situations while on the road, they developed an ensemble approach to presentation.  With success came great and greater artistic ambition.  Their productions became more and more creative and innovative artistically, thanks to the directors they used.

“I wanted to integrate some sort of dramaturgy and choreography because dance was always something I wanted to be a part of it,”  Painchaud says.   “Even with directors, I always wanted to work with choreographers to link all the movements, from one acrobatic movement to another acrobatic movement and from one act to another act by using the choreography.”

Part of the company’s artistic success may be attributed to their courage in inviting theater directors and choreographers from dance to challenge their people. “From the beginning I always wanted to invite people who didn’t really know circus,” Painchaud says.  “That was always my interest, to create something through this kind of collaboration.  I looked for that kind of creative people to invite them to play with us.  I didn’t want to stay in one image.  I wanted to explore with each new production.”

All that exploration has maintained and nourished the company artistically and financially for 25 years.