There has to be something in Canada’s water, especially in the beautiful city of Québec. Perhaps the Québécois have their own secret kryptonite? How else can you explain the prevalence of so many super humans with elite circus skills in that region; the best of whom have mostly been found within the roving ensemble that is Cirque Éloize.
The company is not, as may easily be supposed, named after a woman; but the word, Éloize (pronounced El-Waz) is from Chiac, a vernacular French dialect, originating from the Îles-de-la-Madeleine archipelago, located in the Gulf of St Lawrence River, some 200km east of Québec. The original artists who came together to form Cirque Éloize, almost 25 years’ ago, came from these islands. The word, by the way, means “heat lightning”, an appropriate description for this pioneering company that fuses circus into theatre.
Their latest production (the eleventh) is all about the pioneers, men and women who opened up the frontiers of the American Wild West; the action taking place in the Saloon of the work’s title, a ramshackled, roughly constructed, wooden refuge that also doubled up as a barber’s shop and the local undertaker.
The show’s extensive creative team, led by Emmanuel Guillaume and Jeannot Painchaud, has interwoven the traditional skills of a circus theatre show (juggling, Cyr wheel, aerial, hand-to-hand and teeterboard) into a narrative that derives inspiration from just about every Hollywood cowboy film, ever made. Although, thankfully this is a plot without hostile “Red Indians” or treacherous Mexican bandits; and one where the women are just as much warriors, as the men; so, it’s very much a western for the modern age.
There is the wind, of course. Not revealed through rolling tumbleweed but the strong gale that blows everything away, each time the saloon door opens (highly reminiscent of a leit motif in Quentin Tarantino’s latest western, The Hateful Eight). There is the frontier train, ingeniously fashioned out of the back of a piano and some steam effects (the ubiquitous slow motion chase across the top of the train is an effect of pure gold). There are fist-fights; a lonely horse-ride across an arid desert; there is dynamite; gunpowder; a campfire; hard liquor; shady card games; a cowboy funeral (his boots stayed on); and in amongst all of this there is a triangle of love and jealousy that smoulders like the fuse on the dynamite that is juggled around the saloon in an unusual take on Russian Roulette (and also the cause of the aforementioned cowboy’s demise).
The cast of three musicians and eight acrobats (one of whom, Shena Tschofen, is also an outstanding fiddler) covered the full range of the stereotypes to be found in any “cowboy” film: there is the dodgy saloon keeper (Jules Trupin); the ambitious showgirl (Justine Methé Crozat); the taciturn Sheriff (Jérémy Saint-Jean Picard); the handsome stranger (Alastair Davies); and the loner cowboy (Johan Prytz) in the style of Alan Ladd’s Shane. This may be, essentially, a vehicle for some extraordinary circus skills but it is also a knowledgeable and affectionate tribute to a whole movie genre.
A major contribution to the charm of the work is an evocative soundtrack, designed by Éloi Painchaud (another Madeleine Islander) with support from The Vultures, a three-piece group, composed of Ben Nesrallah, Trevor Pool and Sophie Beaudet, which looked and sounded as authentic to the place and era, as a pot of refried beans and a herd of bison on the plains. Their outstanding set included some Western classics, like the lonesome In the pines and the raucous Cotton Eyed Joe, as well as covers of folk and country classics by Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Against these standards, Beaudet’s imposing voice was an excellent match.
The circus skills were – as one would expect – of the highest quality. Trupin – another charismatic performer who caught the eye continually – is both an extraordinary juggler and, together with Davies and the immensely strong Jérôme Hugo (described as “the player”), they created an exciting culmination through the teeterboard (aka Korean Plank). It seemed, often, as if the flier would hit the lights in the flies. But, my star award goes to the ebullient Tschofen who not only plays the fiddle so well and so exuberantly, but also gave one of the best (and most varied) Cyr wheel routines that I have yet seen.
Its clearly impossible to keep up ninety minutes of circus, without a break, and this show does better than most of its genre in terms of filling the gaps between (notably through a strong vein of humour and The Vultures) but some of the interludes fell a little flat, including the barber shop scene and a session with lassoes that didn’t really go anywhere.
Nonetheless, Saloon is a great addition to the company’s outstanding repertoire. Cirque Éloize average around one new production every two years and have clocked up some seven thousand performances in over 500 cities, during their life to date, which works out at something like 600 outings for every show. It all adds up to a lot of thought in the creative process and a lot of time to hone the professional values of each production; and it shows. This Saloon, which runs at The Peacock until 21 October, is highly recommended, especially for fans of cowboy movies!