Founded in 1993 by Jeannot Painchaud, Cirque Éloize is one of the leaders in contemporary circus arts, infusing traditional techniques with dance, music and theatre to create a unique circus spectacular. Each artiste is used to their full potential with their personalities and creative ideas central to the conception of the show, contributing to its distinct style. The first company to perform on Wales Millennium Centre’s famous Donald Gordon Stage, Cirque Éloize returns just over a decade later with their brand new show, Cirkopolis.
Inspired by the 1985 Terry Gilliam film, Brazil, as well as by German expressionist influences, the show is set against the backdrop of a towering grey city of monotony and ennui where individuality and creativity is all but dead, crushed by the grinding machine of capitalism. The small cast of twelve extremely talented acrobats strive to break free from the daily grind and recapture their individuality through a captivating series of circus tricks.
With very little in the way of set, we traverse the city through a series of video projections; gigantic whirring cogs, cold metal bridges and non-descript office blocks all serve to represent the stifling pressure to conform. With so little colour and the repetitiveness of the opening scenery and costumes, Cirque Éloize is clearly not afraid to deviate from the traditional circus furore, boldly leaving all the magic to the skill and theatrical performance of the cast.
Whilst the first scene sets the tone of the piece and the second showcases the standard of talent on display, only in the third act do the cast begin to engage with the audience, meaning Lea Toran Jenner’s elegant and gorgeous performance with the Cyr Wheel does not carry the same impact it may have done if delivered later in the show, despite its beauty. The first few acts take just a little too long to hit their stride, stilting the initial progression until the emergence of Ashley Carr as the lovable clown character (sans red nose and traditional clown fashion) engages in a farcical macho competition with the immensely muscled Ugo Laffolay.
A dynamic and fast-paced show, the German Wheel act which follows is in sharp contrast to this light-hearted fun with its tense and ominous drumbeat music and masculine edge. Each act has its own ambience; whether it be the flirtatious, teasing nature of the clown chasing three women through a maze of metal, the mesmerising dance of the contortionist (Maria Combarros) as she balances on the heads of the other acrobats, or the humorous yet melancholy dance of the clown with an empty dress.
Following the interval we see some of the acts more traditionally associated with the circus: juggling, trapeze and banquine (acrobatics in which cast members form a platform with their arms and hands interlocked which the flyer uses as a take-off position for somersaults and other aerial tricks). But as ever, Cirque Éloize put their own unique twist on the proceedings by featuring more unusual acts. Ugo Laffolay performed an amazing feat of strength doing hand stands on the top of an ever-growing tower of enormous nails, whilst Maude Arsenault put on a charmingly cheeky display on the Chinese pole alongside Mikaël Bruyère-L’Abbé and Olivier Poitras.
Accompanying the circus acts was an eclectic soundtrack and wide array of dance genres from 1920s’ Charleston and classical to funky Jazz and hip hop, giving the show that added dimension that Cirque Éloize always bring. One of their most impressive qualities is the sheer diversity and multidisciplinary talent of the artists. Every member is the master of their own speciality whilst also being adept in a number of other circus skills – a fact demonstrated to perfection in the show’s finale.
All twelve members of the cast partake in a vibrant and spellbinding exhibition of acrobatics centred around the teeterboard (an acrobatic apparatus resembling a playground seesaw). Seamlessly incorporating commonplace office furniture such as desks and filing cabinets into the act, each circus artiste is flawless in their execution and fearless in their trust in one another. Any occasional wobbles or hiccups seen earlier in the night are nowhere to be found and the entire thing screams liberation as Cirkpolis’ inhabitants finally break free of the oppressive, soul-destroying confines of the city and rediscover their true selves.
Despite some slight issues in pacing and choreography, the skill of the acrobats, the unique twist Cirque Éloize brings to traditional circus and the strength of this piece’s message makes this more than worthy of notice and praise. By taking something simple and making it beautiful, by taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary, by showing the triumph of the little man against the machine, Cirkopolis gives us licence to dream, and for that alone it is art worth witnessing.
Cirkopolis is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff until April 11th