Ahead of Cirque Éloize’s shows at The World Trade Centre in August, Peter Feely meets its inspirational French-Canadian founder and leader Jeannot Painchaud.
When I ask what we can expect when the circus hits town, its passionate leader talks about hip hop, urban dancers and a great fusion of live performance, technology and visual effects. Hailing from a small island in Gulf St. Lawrence, Painchaud’s circus pedigree was honed at the world famous Montreal National Circus School. A philosophical, articulate and cosmopolitan conversationalist, despite his languid French tone, the childlike enthusiasm he has for the stage is unmistakeable. A product of the nouveau cirque [new/contemporary circus], a movement which began in the late 1960s, Painchaud’s vision of entertainment transcends acrobatics and is more character driven than a traditional circus. He describes how Cirque Éloize ‘is really focussed on putting a dramaturgy [structured theatrical composition] – an idea, a sense, a script. And not only on the spectacular side of the show but in the meaning – searching not only to impress people but to touch people – talk to people in the same way that an author would in a cultural piece.’
Despite Painchaud’s desire to push the genre of circus forward, he stresses that it’s not at the expense of an appreciation of the classic art form claiming he has ‘always had a romantic relationship with the traditional circus.’
When it comes to risk, Painchaud’s raw enthusiasm subsides as he shows the pragmatic business acumen which saw him rise from a street performer to the founder of an internationally renowned brand. He equates the risk to any other high level physical activity and alludes to the vast improvements he’s seen in safety during his career.
‘Risk is part of our job – like any high level sport. You try to control everything but at a certain point there’s always a small percentage of risk. But with the education in circus, we’re not like it was back in the day, when the risk was that you’d see a guy fall and die on stage, but still there’s a part of risk. Look, if a guy’s skiing at 120mph and he falls there is a risk.’
As a perfectionist and someone who has been running his organisation since 1993, the recurring message in Painchaud’s ethos is hard work. In this respect he draws comparisons between circus artists and urban dancers, who he sees ‘a lot of similarities with...Circus artists and urban dancers train like crazy – they want to be the best.’ He also equates a similarity with the sense of loyalty, trust and community – ‘people from different countries, working, helping each other out.’ A champion of urban dance and music in its own right (all of the hip hop music in the show is original), Painchaud pointedly observes that, ‘twenty five years ago we wanted to go from the street to the theatre. In the last ten or fifteen years they were dancing in front of the opera house and now they are inside the opera house, with expert choreographers.’
Inevitably the subject of the behemoth of the industry comes up – Cirque du Soleil. Diplomatically he admits the parallels: ‘I come from the same city [Montreal, Quebec] – I saw the first show done by Cirque de Soleil, I even worked for them for a year’ but also argues that Cirque Éloize offers a greater sense of community than its larger rival.
‘We don’t hire other people – our members come with their main discipline but they’re going to learn to do different stuff and they’re going to work with different directors – we want this to be a clan – a group.’
Asked about how he sees the circus business looking in twenty years [Cirque Éloize turned 20 this year] and he starts to reveal the deep thinking, imagination and creativity that shape his work. While the show iD is already intimate in terms of audience interaction, he sees an increase in this trend, to the extent that potentially ‘I think that power of control will no longer be in the hands of a couple of producers – everyone will become a producer and control artistic material.’ Responding to concerns about the effect on standards, he remains characteristically excited.
‘It will be even more important to think about what I want to say, what I want to express and then it will be very interesting because the ones who pass through the masses will be the ones who can reflect and think about who they are or where they want to be and what they want to change in society. I think from that, some really interesting thinking for the future will emerge.’
iD by Cirque Éloize runs from August 15-24. Dhs150-1,000 Dubai World Trade Centre (04 457 3212).