Montreal brings a slightly muted vision of the city to Melbourne Festival’s circus showcase
Melbourne Festival is on a mission to prove the legitimacy of circus as a serious art form, with an entire arm dedicated to the delights of the big top, but judging by its headline production it may have a way to go yet. Cirkopolis is the new show from Canadian outfit Cirque Éloize, and while proficient and entertaining, it does little to persuade audiences that circus is maturing into an example of high art.
Taking its visual cues from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the production relies heavily on projections to summon the atmospherics, even if the relevance to the stage business often seems tenuous.
It opens with a desk-bound office employee overwhelmed by paperwork, constantly interrupted by straight-laced workers in grey trench coats, who quickly reveal themselves as expert tumblers. Several set pieces involving the whole cast, acrobats getting tossed in the air or jugglers filling the space with flying skittles, work extremely well, and there is a great sense of mutability in the performers’ skillsets.
Colour is introduced by a girl in a red dress performing a lovely, lyrical routine on the Cyr wheel. It brings a welcome lightness to proceedings, which is picked up later by the gentle clowning of our original office worker. His long and intricate dance with a dress and a couple of coathangers is sweet, even if it goes on too long.
The most effective note of whimsy comes from a sole juggler, who uses his skittles as an extension of his body, and brings a kind of joyous naturalism to his routine. At this point the production is less seething metropolis and more Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and if it’s a little hokey and sentimental, it’s still rather winning.
Other acts are mere variations on the kind of thing we’ve seen countless times before, and even the most accomplished acts are hardly revolutionary. Chinese pole is becoming ubiquitous, and is in danger of seeming ho-hum. The German wheel is also pretty common, but is here given extra dimension by the addition of six acrobats instead of the usual one or two.
This is the problem with circus skills. Any innovations or improvements to a routine will be rapidly absorbed by the international community and start popping up everywhere, rendering them commonplace. The only thing a circus company has to differentiate itself is a point of view, and Cirque Éloise has a curiously old-fashioned one.
Setting a show in the twenties doesn’t excuse some frankly off-colour sexual politics. The woman are all delicate flowers or sexual nymphs, and one routine has the men literally become the pavement under the feet of one siren. It comes across as fusty and conservative, as if the whole thing had been conceived by Ayn Rand.
Production-wise, the show is slick and the costumes (Liz Vandal) and lighting (Nicolas Descôteaux) are beautifully evocative. The choreography (David St-Pierre) is also a major addition, adding a lyricism and grace to the usually rambunctious acrobatics. But the theatrical elements often come across as window dressing, and the overall effect is vaguely muted. It’s fun, but hardly a revolution.