The red noses and fright wigs may have gone, but clowning survives in the multidisciplinary art of contemporary circus, as two shows from France demonstrate at this year’s PuSh Festival. The humour in both Vu and L’Immédiat has a dark, unsettling edge to it, at the interface between the performers and objects of everyday life.
According to Etienne Manceau, the orientation of Vu’s Compagnie Sacécripa, which he cofounded in 2003, combines circus-based skills and acting in equal measure. “We work in particular with character development,” he says, reached in his hometown of Toulouse. “With Vu I wanted to do a solo show built around a character who’s not immediately sympathetic, and in the creation process of the piece we pushed the obsessional, over-the-top aspects of this guy. He makes people really laugh, but he’s what I call an involuntary clown. He’s not trying to be funny—quite the opposite.”
Vu has neither words nor music, so the focus is entirely on Manceau’s body language and actions as he mysteriously manipulates a series of small articles, creating strange new art and structures out of quotidian objects. “They come from the kitchen and the bathroom. There’s a knife, some sugar cubes and tea bags, a TV magazine, scissors, some matches. None of these are used in the usual way. I do a little bit of reconfiguration with them to create new things.…Audience members try to work out where I’m going, what I’m making, and why. It maintains a sense of tension throughout the show.”
What Manceau refers to as a “miniature circus” is meticulously assembled, and follows a closely written scenario. Despite this, there are moments in each performance left open to chance. “I’ve presented Vu some 400 times, and the manipulation of the objects is very, very precise, down to the nearest millimetre. But there’s also a part where the audience becomes engaged, and the result can vary greatly from show to show.”
Unintentional clowning—in the deadpan spirit of Buster Keaton—likewise lies at the heart of L’Immédiat, which brings together elements of slapstick circus, contemporary dance, and physical theatre. The stage for Association Immédiat’s show is strewn and piled with damaged furniture and household junk. As the six wordless characters negotiate their different ways through this chaotic environment, the haywire tables, chairs, ladders, clothing racks, and appliances are liable to collapse at any time.
“These people don’t necessarily notice what’s happening—they try to carry on living in the orderly way they did before, but all of them take a nosedive,” says Camille Boitel, L’Immédiat’s creator and one of its performers, on the line from Marseilles. “The show is about fragility, imbalance, and our lack of control over things. Its characters are like tottering babies that you want to prevent from falling and hurting themselves. Many meanings are possible for each of them—I like to work in a poetic and ambiguous way.”
Boitel and his colleagues move fluidly through a sequence of high-risk situations. “One of the characters gets on top of an object that falls apart under him—so he grabs on to another piece, which also breaks, then he leans onto something else that slides away. A great degree of acrobatic skill is required to do this.
“At the end there’s a kind of ritual in which all the objects we’ve used are stacked in a precarious heap that keeps growing higher. It starts out with another character who has a problem uncontrollably levitating—all done without any trickery—and has to be pinned under a kind of huge table to prevent her from flying away.”
Most of the human interactions in L’Immédiat are not of a cooperative nature, however. “The characters are more inclined to be squabbling,” says Boitel. “There’s one moment, for instance, when they’re all fighting over some water. So it’s a bit dark, really, and in its way not so far removed from reality. But because a situation is catastrophic, it doesn’t mean life stops. Nobody dies in our piece, which represents a kind of hope. And it makes children laugh—though it may traumatize parents who are afraid their kids will be afraid. But they aren’t. The humour’s not all dark, and we have a lot of fun falling down.”
Vu is at Performance Works from Wednesday to Sunday (January 20 to 24). L’Immédiat is at the Vancouver Playhouse from February 4 to 6.