Nouveau Cirque Theater/New Circus comes to Maine setting the stage for a transformation in New England shows
A performer in Harrison Bergeron Escapes from the Zoo the second Circus-Theatre-Cabarets ever performed in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Photos and article by Ramona du Houx
In May, at Bowdoin College, audiences were in awe watching aerial dancers twirl high overhead on “silks” that wrapped round their arms as they completed dare devil acts. It was hard to imagine these performers were not professionals—but they were students in Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva’s course, Interdisciplinary Devising. And it wasn’t just a circus act; they were part of a narrative dance theatre performance in Harrison Bergeron Escapes from the Zoo the second Circus-Theatre-Cabarets ever performed in Maine.
Amazingly no student had ever performed aerial stunts— many had majors in areas unrelated to theater. The staging – on four levels (floor, two balconies, a catwalk, and aerial silk) was remarkably complex, yet the constant dance-like motion of the performers made everything flow.
“Harrison Bergeron was a wonderful opportunity to stage an amalgam of dance, drama, circus and live music – with a strong social narrative. The Bowdoin production was an experiment in trans-disciplinary theatre,” said Syssoyeva, who was a visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance. “And it was an exploration of the power of live performance – of what makes theatre fundamentally different from film: intense, physical immediacy. With the rise of collectively devised performance, theatre is becoming ever more multi-disciplinary. Despite eternal funding difficulties, despite ever more sophisticated technologies of mediated performance, live theatre is experiencing a revival - especially physical theatre. At the same time, the New Circus movement (nouveau cirque) is surging in North America and Europe. Our production of Harrison Bergeron is a cross over from devised physical theatre into New Circus.”
Poetic, dance-influenced circus is breaking new ground in the United States. Cirque Du Soleil, “the circus of the sun,” is the largest theatrical circus production in the world and some of their shows now have a suggestion of narrative running through them. Many Cirque Du Soleil shows are mix of circus arts, street entertainment, dance and myth like the Moscow Circus started before the Revolution. Based in Canada, the production company was founded in 1984 by two former street performers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix.
Maine's Circus Conservatory troupe put on a show in Monument Square in Portland last June. The school is the only one of it's kind on the East Coast of America. Photo by Ramona du Houx
In June the Soleil troupe appeared in Bangor, Maine, for the first time. The crowds were transported into another world, in Varekai, as the aerial dancers defied gravity while enacting a story that ran throughout the performance. If performing in the Olympics they all would have received perfect scores.
Circus du Soleil has roots in the American New Circus movement. In the 1970s a group of performers, with a few ties to the circus, emerged from the counterculture revolution and took to the streets to entertain. They dedicated themselves to skill and intimacy, beginning the movement Ernest Albrecht describes as the "New American Circus," a reinvention of the circus as an authentic form of art.
Yet the roots of the New Circus movement go back even further. Theatre and circus artists in Russia began exploring the merger of the two forms toward the end of World War I. It is this earlier form of circus-theatre cross over that has especially influenced Syssoyeva.
“I trained, directed and performed in the US, Russia and France, and studied performance in Germany and Poland; I am very influenced by performance traditions of both Eastern and Western Europe, by the one-ring circus, turn-of-the-century clowning, French mime, Brecht, Meyerhold - and early Russian circus-theatre,” said Syssoyeva. “At the height of the Russian avant-garde, the merger of circus forms and dramatic text was one of the most exciting directions theatre was taking. Stalinism ended all that.”
The contemporary New Circus movement has revived of the traditions of the one-ring shows of Eastern Europe and Russia. These shows focused on artistry with more music and dance, than large-scale spectacles, while embracing a principle of equality in what each performer could bring to the show.
That sort of equality was evident in Harrison Bergeron as students were given the opportunity to discover and develop their hidden talents, equally. Most of the college students involved didn’t know their classmates at the beginning of the semester, but by the end they were working in harmony with complete trust in each other. Interestingly, Harrison Bergeron was a social satire, set in the future where citizens have been rendered equal by having their talents handicapped. The students created a world taken over by cooperation’s and their media networks. They used some symbolism of recent world uprisings placed around the room as backdrops for the story.
With Harrison Bergeron, adapted by the cast from Kurt Vonnegut's eight-page story, ones senses pick up the story through dramatic visuals and music overlaid with announcements, so much so, someone in the audience could understand the performance without speaking English. That captivating communication through expressions, dance, song and areal acrobatics was also ever present in Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, where performers had their own nature language, which no one could translate but everyone understood.
Performers in Harrison Bergeron at Bowdoin College a unique dance theather play with circus acrobatics, music, song, dance and a deep story line. Photo by Ramona du Houx
In both productions performers get caught in nets or silks hung from the ceiling. During the first half of Harrison Bergeron the dancers are trapped in cocoon silks hanging from the ceiling, as militants march around the stage working for an overlord who appears, in white, riding a unicycle. As the storyline progresses and rebellion begins to take root the dancers burst from their cocoon prisons, tumbling out of the silks. In Varekei one acrobat intertwines himself in the net performing stunning maneuvers to scored music. In both performances, the actors expressed love and freedom as they twirled in the air.
In Portland, this spring, ground was broken for a new school that teaches the techniques of aerial acrobatics and clowning. Peter Nielsen, president of the Circus Conservatory of America, said that the planned 48,000-square-foot training complex at Thompson's Point would open its doors in September of 2015.
During Portland’s June First Friday Art Walk people were given a sample of what kinds of presentations they can expect from the Conservatory as students performed in Monument Square. The school's first bachelor of fine arts program will kick off in September of 2016. Maine College of Art (MECA) will provide conservatory students with access to core classes in literature, anthropology, history, business, natural science, plus art and design.
There are only two schools like this in the US; the other is in San Francisco, where Syssoyeva is now directing her next show, Cabaret Metamorphoses at the Circus Center. And Portland-based aerialist Janette Fertig, who trained and choreographed the Bowdoin aerialists for Harrison Bergeron, is with her, in charge of choreography. Fertig is the director of Apparatus Dance Theatre in Portland, Maine.
Adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the show tells the story of Arachne – the weaver of Greco-Roman myth whose tapestries spoke truth to power. It is a modern fairy tale for adults, mining ancient tales about human experience.
The American New Circus movement has evolved into Nouveau Cirque Theater, with it’s own American grown roots. And Maine is setting the stage for this exciting theatrical development to take root in New England.
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