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Imagine a Circus by Fellini

Entertainment* The Montreal-based Cirque Eloize's 'Nomade' show puts a surrealistic spin on its story of wandering performers. There's plenty of clowning around too.

September 17, 2002|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Everybody wants to sleep under the sky, outside, once in their life; the night sky seems endless, and it's a starting point of reflection where you try to be connected with other people." That's Jeannot Painchaud, artistic director for Cirque Eloize, explaining the opening scene for "Nomade."

The Montreal-based troupe of acrobats is traveling the world performing "Nomade," a form-fitting production about two wandering clans of circus performers who juggle, tumble, clown, sing and dance in a dusk-to-dawn showdown culminating in a riotous wedding.

Cirque Eloize performs "Nomade" at Royce Hall Friday through Sunday. Trying to explain "Nomade's" surrealistically unfolding story line, Painchaud says, " 'Nomade' emerges from a dream, but not dreams about a character from another planet. These are dreams we imagine from inside.

"The scenes emerge like an image from an old postcard, or something like that. We try to show these links between people, the tragic comedy of life and the spirit of the nomads. It's the state of mind, like you'd see in a family of gypsies a little bit, or a family of Italians."

To dramatize their vignettes, the "Nomade" cast relies on circus implements that have been around for ages--tumbling pins, ropes, trapeze bars. But they make use of the tools in new ways, Painchaud says. "We try to reinvent the way to use the apparatus. You'll see the children play a street game with the Russian bar, and then a scene later, two big men hold the bar up in the air for the balancing act. Or you'll see the big black ball, which goes back centuries in the circus, but we use it in this kind of surreal scenario so the man balancing on it looks as if he is floating on a cloud. It's a little like Fellini, who is really an inspiration to us."

Painchaud says he needed performers who could conjure a touch of poetry on stage, so when it came time to cast the "Nomade" ensemble, technical virtuosity was only one criterion. "What we also look for are the eyes of the artist, to see them deeply inside. We prefer a very good [performer] but with a very nice personality and a big interest in being part of a community so that what the public receives is some kind of realistic feelings that these characters on stage, they could be your cousin or grandma or your son."

Casting Isn't Easy

It was tricky finding soulful circus performers willing to submerge their egos for the common good, Painchaud says. "It's not easy to do casting for this type of show, because sometimes people who work so hard to be the best work alone, and they're not always open to others.

"For what we do, you have to have eyes all around the head, you have to be really careful of each other on the stage. We choose people who are interested not just in a job but in having an experience with a group of people, because our shows go on the road for many years and they need to be ready for that."

Last year, 14 circus performers from Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland and Guinea gathered in Montreal and rehearsed "Nomade" for seven months with four musicians under the direction of Swiss choreographer Daniele Finzi-Pasca, whom Painchaud likens to Italian madcap Roberto Benigni. Finzi-Pasca urged the performers to develop back stories for their characters and insisted that everybody contribute to the musical numbers.

"When we hired them, half had never sung, not even in the shower," Painchaud says. "That was such a job."

Finzi-Pasca even figured out a way to make use of a tone-deaf Polish gymnast. "It was absolutely impossible for her to sing without a false note. She was singing badly, so badly," Painchaud says. "Then the director says, 'OK, you're going to be the soloist.' So now there is a clown act, and she sings so loud that it becomes funny."

Painchaud enjoys cultivating all-around entertainers since he started his own circus-biz career as a versatile street performer. "I used to be a busker," he says. "I had almost an hour show, using a bicycle, unicycle, juggling, everything."

Plying his trade as a teenage stunt whiz in the early '80s, Painchaud found himself at the right place at the right time, just as Cirque Nouveau was gathering steam in Quebec. The movement, which started in France in the '70s, dispensed with animal acts and refocused European circus arts in a more lyrical direction by integrating stunts with theatrical elements of set design, music, choreography and lighting.

Cirque Nouveau Led Way

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