African acrobats make Odysseo really flip

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The 67 horses of Odysseo are rightly its brightest stars, but there are other marvels in the Cavalia company’s production—among them the astonishing feats of agility and strength of a troupe of 11 acrobats from Guinea, West Africa. The intensity of their exuberant energy and the speed of their flips and backflips from one side of the wide performance area to the other leave spectators’ jaws collectively dropping.

A chance encounter in Montreal a few years ago with artistic director Normand Latourelle brought the Guineans to Odysseo. “Our first show there, Cavalia, had just ended its run and the tent was being taken down when I happened to drive past the site, on the way elsewhere,” he recalls, interviewed in a downtown Vancouver hotel. “This guy comes up to me and says, ‘I’m one of those helping to take down the tent, but I’m an acrobat and would love to work for you.’ I invited him to an audition, and he told me he’d been in Canada eight years and sent part of his earnings back to Guinea, where he was creating a school for circus. He showed me videos. The students had no school building, and performed on beaches and on the dirt.”

The acrobat in question, Yamoussa Bangoura, had worked with Montreal’s Cirque Éloize, so he understood the contemporary circus in Quebec, as well as the traditional circus arts in West Africa. Sensing that the young Guinean artists that Bangoura was training at home might be a good fit for the new production he was working on—the future Odysseo—Latourelle sent director Wayne Fowkes to Conakry, the Guinean capital, to check out the acrobats. “Wayne told me there were about 20 of them. I only wanted three or four for the show, but I said, ‘Okay, let’s take 11.’ They’re among the most talented acrobats I’ve ever seen, with an incredible joie de vivre.”

The cousins Balla Moussa Bangoura and Alseny Bangoura came to Canada three years ago with the troupe. “Back home, we have a special caste for acrobats,” says Alseny, speaking in French in Odysseo’s cafeteria tent. “There are actually two circus schools in Guinea that mix the traditional black circus arts with white arts like the trapeze or the monocycle. The first of these, Circus Baobab, where Yamoussa got his training, was created by Europeans in the late ’90s, so it’s not very old. His own company, the Kalabanté collective, toured in West Africa, so we already had some experience.”

How do the ground acrobats feel about working for the first time alongside horses? “We love them,” says Balla Moussa. “Before, we were afraid of touching horses, but now we feel very close. We play with them and stroke them—they like that, and they wait for us and come when called. We’ve been riding on the horses from the very beginning, and sometimes there are group classes.”

Latourelle is currently training a new group of acrobats to take over from the original team, so there are 23 Guineans currently in Vancouver for Odysseo, and the mood is especially upbeat and lively, charged with friendly rivalry. According to both Alseny and Balla Moussa, the most challenging part of the show is the African dance sequence. “It’s called the doundounba, and takes us directly back home to Guinea. Each guy goes into the circle that we form and does his solo. You have to dance really, really well, to outdo yourself, and put out maximum energy, which is tough when you’re working so hard already in the show. It takes a lot out of us.” 

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