As Silicon Valley is to the chip and Kentucky to fried chicken, so Montreal appears to be to the concept of putting circus in a theatre. Home to the sprawling global giant of this particular market, Cirque du Soleil, Quebec’s largest city is also the base for several other companies that create theatrical programmes from the synthesis of circus skills, one of the most enduringly successful of which is Cirque Éloise. Given that one of Montreal’s indigenous nicknames is La Métropole (The Metropolis) there is a certain synergistic poetry in a Montreal-based circus company touring a show entitled Cirkopolis.
The show title and the city nickname are but a coincidence, for it is Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of Metropolis that provided the initial inspiration for the company’s artistic director, Jeannot Painchaud, supplemented later by the imagery of Kafka’s writing and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The sense of theatre is provided by a digital backdrop of industrial machines with giant, spinning cogs and anonymous, modernist buildings portrayed as long, thin rectangles stood on one end. The juxtaposition of these digital cogs and very real Cyr and German Wheels revolving in tandem was emphatic.
Within this humdrum world, Ashley Carr (from Devon by way of Montreal) plays the clown character, forever processing and stamping papers that are delivered to him in huge piles. He remains the centrepiece throughout events that unfold around him. Apparently, Carr – a former student of Central School of Speech and Drama – did not start to acquire circus skills until aged 25. Whilst retaining the melancholic air of a clown (minus the face paint and over-sized shoes), Carr enlivened the theatrical aspects with dry, believable humour. His romantic duet with a red dress and white scarf (providing the “arms”) on a clothes rail was a highlight of physical humour and some of the best (and by that, I emphasise, subtle) clowning I’ve seen in a circus theatre show. If the work had a denouement then it came in the final part of the closing teeterboard act when it is Carr who is catapulted into the air, his journey from boring factory-office clerk to exciting circus acrobat, thus complete.
Carr’s contribution aside, the sense of theatre (as opposed to a cabaret of circus tricks) was spread thinly and I expected more dramatic exclamation from a show that was co-directed by the radical and provocative choreographer, Dave St Pierre. Unsupported, the video imagery of industrialisation became tiresome after a while.
The troupe’s circus skills were – as one must expect – of a very high order and expertly constructed to bring out the contrasts and drama of circus. The Cyr wheel act of Lèa Toran Jenner – a former world championship contestant in aerobic gymnastics – was an arrestingly beautiful oasis of calm amongst the frenetic activity that surrounded her section; and the contortionism of Maria Combarros was employed by St Pierre to great effect in his choreography for a scene that was reminiscent of the sequence in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet where Manon is passed around a group of men in the hotel particulier without touching the floor: similar in concept apart from the fact that Combarros stepped from one admirer’s palms to another in back-bending walkovers, drawing invisible circles in the space by stretching her legs up over her head and then back down the other side.
Jérôme Sordillon’s impressive physique provided the horsepower for an accomplished show of muscular control and strength on the aerial straps and the final group teeterboard session was a riot of activity with performers jumping off Carr’s filing cabinets to fling Maude Arseneault into a rich variety of acrobatic curly-whirlies! Other disciplines – Juggling, the German Wheel, Chinese Pole and the Hand-to-Hand – were slick, efficient but predictable.
This group of twelve multi-talented artists included (as is so often the case with a circus show) a late replacement due to injury (Nelson Caillard). Each of this doughty dozen has to leave their comfort zones by performing in disciplines outside their expert speciality but it is hard to see the joins. The whole ensemble had a refreshing zest for performance and an excellent rapport with their audience. Although perhaps lacking in theatrical drama, the combination of stylised circus skills and Carr’s easy-going humour and narration made this an entertaining spectacle; well worth a visit.