Real life doesn't stop for tah-dahs. Words and gestures are exchanged, emotions flare and fade, fear and laughter bubble up and float away. Rarely do we interrupt their flow just to acknowledge the roar of the crowd.
Cirque Eloize (pronounced el-WAH) follows a similar premise. In its new show, "Excentricus," running through Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the 5-year-old Canadian troupe uses the language of circus arts to portray little joys and heartbreaks of human interaction. Co-founder and artistic director Jeannot Painchaud says the focal point of the show is the small stories that spring from the relationships between the characters, not the circus skills they perform.
"The message is so simple," Painchaud explained by phone from the troupe's Montreal office. "The technique is very important, but we want to reach the people by the heart, rather than by the somersault."
Painchaud, who grew up in the Magdalen Islands of Quebec, helped establish the troupe in 1993 "just for fun" after he and a group of friends completed training at the National Circus School of Montreal. Although he and other troupe members have done stints with the larger, showier Cirque du Soleil, Painchaud says he prefers Cirque Eloize's simpler, more down-to-earth atmosphere.
"Cirque [du Soleil] is a very imaginary world, big image, big tableaux," said Painchaud, who specializes in bicycle acrobatics. "Our world is much more intimate, more concentrated on the individual performers.
"We are a group, and you can see that group [interact] onstage. It is not a [single] story like in a theater, but there are maybe 20 different stories in the relationships between the group. . . . You follow the characters across their acts."
"Excentricus" began without a script. The 16 acrobats, jugglers, clowns and musicians created the 80-minute piece through workshops and improvisation. In the process, each performer found a unique character to portray and devised interactions between the characters. With the flexibility afforded by an onstage band (as opposed to a taped score, which they worked with before), that evolution can continue with every performance, Painchaud said.
"To have the band behind us is so amazing because we can add all those subtle things," he said. "If I find a new idea about my character, maybe the guitar or saxophone can be part of that.
"Also," he added, laughing, "if I fall down from my bicycle, they can add more music."
The artists use their circus or musical skills to define the characters, instead of dialogue or excessive costumes. Unlike a traditional American-style circus in which acts are performed individually (followed by the aforementioned tah-dahs), there are no rigid rings around Cirque Eloize's acts. Circus skills are co-mingled as the artists interact.
"Always, there is a second action behind the first action . . . a major focus and a minor focus," Painchaud said. "That is a part of life."
Shana Carroll (the only American in the cast) and company co-founder Daniel Cyr perform simultaneously-- she on the trapeze, he on a two-legged ladder--as their characters meet and fall in love. A performer known as Marcus uses his artistry on the rope to portray a loner who yearns, and eventually allows himself, to become part of the group. Painchaud uses bicycle stunts to create the persona of a naive but adventurous youth, an idea he said came to him while clowning around during a rehearsal break.
Painchaud compares the company's energy and interactions to those of a group of children at play, and says youngsters have no trouble following the stories as the artists tumble, soar, spin and cavort.
"Sometimes it is really a big party [onstage] . . . all of us on the same bicycle and the music is very rock 'n' roll," Painchaud said. "Other times, there is maybe sadness. These are all facts of emotions, and the children absolutely feel all of these."
Cirque Eloize presents "Excentricus" tonight and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $17-$28. (714) 854-4646.
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Circus tastes vary. Some folks go for the Las Vegas-style spectacle of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show; others prefer the intimate theatricality of a Cirque Eloize. Whatever side your popcorn's buttered on, you may want to check out these circus-themed children's books. (These and loads of other titles were found on the Web at http://www.amazon.com.kids.)
For preschoolers: "Circus: Funny Fingers" by Karin Blume and Brigitte Pokomik (Abbeville Press) or "Harold's Circus" (Harpercrest) by Crockett Johnson (of "Harold and the Purple Crayon").
For children 4 to 8: "If I Ran the Circus" by Dr. Seuss (Random House) or "C Is for Clown: A Circus of C Words" by Stan and Jan Berenstain (Random House).
Readers 9 to 12 may enjoy Alaine Chenevieve and Lisa Davidson's "Maud in France" (Lerner Publications), which chronicles the real life of a fourth-generation circus performer. Those who thirst for the spotlight may want to brush up on their skills with "The Most Excellent Book of How to Be a Clown," a primer by Catherine Perkins, Katie Roden and Rob Shone (Copper Beech Books).