In the process of innovating, ambitious young artists often reject the work of their predecessors. Not so with Jeannot Painchaud. The street busker and circus performer was just a teenager in the early 1980s when he and his friends began to envision a new kind of circus: one that broke down the barriers between acrobatics, dance, and theater. Yet Painchaud maintained a deep respect for older circus traditions.
“When we started nouveau cirque in Québec 30 years ago, there was a simultaneous movement in France,” Painchaud explained, speaking on the phone from Montreal last week. “In Europe, it had more to do with getting away from all the old acts and focusing on theatricality and fun. But here in Québec, we loved the traditional circus. We wanted to be like them — and at least as good as them.”
Painchaud’s quest led him to Montreal’s famed National Circus School and then to Cirque du Soleil, where he performed for a number of years. By the time he and his fellow circus artists Daniel Cyr and Claudette Morin founded Cirque Éloize in 1993, Painchaud had over a decade of professional experience in the circus — yet he credits the success of his company to naïveté.
“When we started in the early ’90s, theater was theater, and dance was dance,” he said. “But we weren’t afraid of working openly with other art forms. We simply invited acrobats, dancers, and actors in to experiment with us and break down barriers.”
As Painchaud sees it, this attitude of openness and freedom from discipline is characteristic of Québécois culture.
It’s also a theme that’s right at the heart of Cirque Éloize’s latest show, Cirkopolis, which comes to the Granada Theatre next Monday, February 3, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures. This will be Cirque Éloize’s fourth visit to Santa Barbara; they brought their first touring show to the Lobero in the mid-’90s, and have returned to town in more recent years with Rain and Nebbia, both of which offered a beguiling blend of sensitive storytelling and big-top razzle-dazzle.
Like those shows, Cirkopolis places traditional circus acts like trapeze, clowning, contortion, and juggling alongside modern acrobatic disciplines, including aerial rope and the Cyr wheel: a giant hoop inside of which the acrobat stands and spins with legs and arms outstretched, looking like the Vitruvian man from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch. The Cyr wheel earned its name when Cirque Éloize cofounder Daniel Cyr popularized the apparatus. According to Painchaud, Cirkopolis cast member Angelica Bongiovonni is currently considered the best Cyr performer in the world.
Like all of Cirque Éloize’s shows, Cirkopolis presents stunning acrobatic feats as part of a larger dramatic narrative, incorporating original music and video projections, cinematic lighting, physical comedy, and, in this case, lots of dance.
“There’s a lot of group choreography, which allows for a kind of reinvention of acrobatic movements,” said Painchaud. His codirector is Dave St-Pierre, a bold, sometimes sensationalist contemporary dance choreographer whose work centers on a fascination with the human body. Blend St-Pierre’s physicality with Painchaud’s sweeping visions, and the result is an immersive theatrical experience.
Cirkopolis is set in a grim industrial landscape, a blend of early-20th-century urban blight and futuristic dystopia on the order of silent film Metropolis and the 1985 cult classic Brazil. The show follows the adventures of a central character: a single worker whose role is to infuse the city with color and life. “He’s in this anonymous, dehumanizing city where everything is gray, everything is boring, and you always have to do the same job,” Painchaud explained. “You follow his journey as he transforms the city and it becomes more alive.”
In this way, Cirkopolis is a departure from Cirque Éloize’s past productions, which tended to shift their focus from one character to another. “This is the first time we have worked with a central character you follow throughout the show,” the director noted, adding that in addition to incredible strength, out-of-this-world flexibility, and sheer technical prowess, these performers have to be able to act and to elicit an emotional response from the crowd.
For Painchaud, the key to crafting great production is finding the right balance between acrobatic feats and what he calls “poetry.”
“Since I still want to call us a circus, we need to have a certain level of skills; yet if we want to touch people, we need to have people who can act,” he explained. “Casting is really important, and then it’s a matter of working the theater, choreography, and acrobatics simultaneously so they evolve together.”
Though Cirkopolis feels like a big production — and on a technical level, it is — there are only 12 performers in the show. Painchaud, who after three decades in the business has known a lot of casts, says he’s particularly proud of this crew of young artists. “This cast is perfect,” he said. “They’re really a clan — a family. You can feel that when they’re onstage together.”
Cirque Éloize brings Cirkopolis to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Monday, February 3, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.