The Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VII, No. 7

Make It an Ensemble

Now that the traditional circus has been reduced to a handful of struggling companies, we look to what is normally called the contemporary circus to see what the future holds.  The most significant difference between these two forms of circus is not the use or absence of animals;  it is the artistic choice of creating and presenting the performance as an ensemble piece rather than a series of disjointed acts.  The significance of this difference is the contemporary circus’ best chance at affecting an audience and advancing the circus arts.

The first circus company I identified as an ensemble, back In Spring 1998, was Cirque Éloize, over  twenty years ago.  Obviously  Éloize was already at that time far out ahead of the pack of upstart circus companies.  It recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a new production called Hotel.  It was reviewed in the previous issue.  That review and the accompanying photos are still available down in the right hand column of every issue.

These productions present us with a model of how we are drawn in and are able to identify with individuals as I have suggested in my original review of Éloize from 1998.   The reason is that  we see more of the individuals  throughout the performance; they don’t just do their thing and disappear.

“What makes this so appealing,”  I wrote back then of  Éloize, “is that as we get to see more and more of the performers, we begin to feel connected to them in the same ways that they are connected to each other.  As so often happens in the theatre we begin to identify with the performers who are nor just acrobats but characters who have an existence beyond the skills they exhibit.

“Something else that helps establish this connection between the audience and performer is that through their repeated appearances we get to see various features of their talents.  Sometime they juggle or tumble.  At other times they perform their own highly developed specialties.  It is very much like being a subscriber to a resident theater and getting to see the actors play various roles throughout the season.  Here, of course, it is all compressed into one evening, but the effect is much the same. “

Éloize’s importance was overshadowed 20 years ago by another circus that attracted, most of the attention.  That, of course, would have been Cirque du Soleil, which was not in the truest sense an ensemble performance even though its performances were not a simple series of acts, at least not under the direction of Franco Dragone.  His works were always populated with lots of extraneous characters who inhabited the edges of the production.    Soleil, however, has always had company acts, but I don’t think they were created collaboratively, which is a significant characteristic of the creative process in an ensemble circus.

Other characteristics of ensemble work include strong transitions from one section to the next, so that even when there are solo performances they are enhanced by having been propelled into action by the ensemble.   So there is not a series of isolated acts.  The members of the ensemble often assume various roles and tend, therefore, to be multi-talented and are often both acrobats and musicians.  There is a sense of a common theme in the costuming.  Éloize’s Hotel  uses a rather uniform style with variations on the theme of the common costume design.

The major companies that I have seen which can be classified as ensemble begin with Éloize from Canada and Australia’s Circus Oz. It has taken considerable time for others to join in and since the appearance of these seminal shows, there has not been much in the way of evolution of the form or aesthetic.  Several recent companies have changed that.  Circa and Machine de Cirque, both of which are reviewed in this issue’s Passing Spectacle have accomplished that.  Others are Cirkus Cirkor, Compagnie XY, and the hyper-active 7 Fingers, which keeps turning out new productions at an amazing clip. It is important to note that none of these companies are American.  When Spectacle first began publishing there was Circus Contraptions from Seattle, one of the most unique and outrageous of such ensembles, but it was forced to disband after a few seasons.  We are holding out hope that Cirque Mechanic, currently the only hope for such a company in America will continue to develop and keep a company together to become a true ensemble.

There is also one individual,  Daniele Finzi Pasca , an Italian Swiss who should be noted here, for having employed the ensemble aesthetic in his own productions such as La Verite which I saw performed at BAM,   and in those he has directed for other companies, most notably Cirque Éloize’s Nomad, Rain and Nebbia.

The trend in Europe and increasingly in America is for a group of adventurous artists, usually graduates of a particular circus school to band together and form a new company.  But two or three or even four artists, which is the usual makeup of these eager circus companies does not an ensemble make.   Two, three or four artists is an act. So one final characteristic a company of artists should display in order to be an ensemble, that most satisfying form of contemporary circus, therefore, is to be comprised of at least five members.   Hopefully we will see more of them.

 

In researching back issues and reviews for this article I came across a mention of two clowns working in Cirque Éloize show Excentricus. They were Jonny Filion and Soizick Herbert who I identified as “the funniest clowns I have seen in a very long while of circus going.  These two get my vote as the discovery of the season.”  They were billed as Les Voilà.  I never heard of them again.  Does anyone know whatever became of them?