I’ll admit it – I was already one martini and a couple of glasses of wine into a birthday lunch when my dining partner asked me if I’d like to join her in Paris for a circus festival. “Sure,” I replied, more to Paris than to the circus, of which I am historically no fan. Clowns tripping over themselves and tigers jumping through hoops of fire just aren’t my thing.
I told her as much the next day under more sober circumstances. “This isn’t just any circus,” she assured me. She had in mind a visit to the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, and I would soon come to see that she was absolutely right. I suppose I should have expected as much from an event held in Paris, one of the birthplaces of the modern circus. It even used to be held at the storied Cirque d’Hiver, although some time ago it moved to Cirque Phenix near Bercy.
The fact is, the Cirque de Demain isn’t really a circus at all. The four-day competition, which culminated last weekend, is open to artists who are younger than 30, or 25 if they are acrobats. From the nearly 1,000 hopeful applicants, 24 are chosen to compete; this year they came from 15 countries. A jury made up of some of the most important people in the circus world awards medals and special prizes.
Performers come to win awards, of course, but mostly to showcase their talents for the judges and audience, made up of circus insiders, students and aficionados. In many ways, it’s the industry’s pre-eminent job fair.
It is certainly impressive. The acts push the envelope artistically far beyond what most circuses offer. Being surrounded by so many circus people feels like being given access to a secret world.
As the performers paraded on stage holding placards announcing their nationality, my neighbour took one look at the large Chinese team and gleefully announced, “Oh! There’s going to be stacking!” When it was their turn to perform, they started spinning large lassos and somersaulting through them. “They’re not stacking,” I said. “Just wait,” she replied. “They can’t help themselves.” Sure enough, a few minutes later they were standing on one another’s shoulders, three people high.
Watching circus with a circus crowd is illuminating. More than once I held my breath at what seemed to me a particularly daring flip or drop just to have my companion – a former performer herself – whisper to me, “Oh, I could do that.” And the acts I thought were just like things I’d seen before, a twisting trapeze artist or a guy balancing on flexible tubes assembled high in the air, were the ones that had the in-the-know crowd buzzing during intermission.
Well, I couldn’t have done any of it. I’m not even sure how the performers did it – there was one particular hip-hop contortionist from Guinea whom I would like to get an orthopaedic doctor to see.
Contortion did seem to be the theme of the day. The trapeze artists could bend, the hand-to-hand artists could bend, the balance artists could bend, as could the acrobats. They all could do things that most of us can’t, which made the acts awe-inspiring.
Forget what you think you know about the circus and rediscover the art in it. Leave your kids at home – or not. I brought my 10-year-old son, who loved it, but the 8:30pm to midnight performances were a bit tiring for him and he was one of just a smattering of children in the audience. The Cirque de Demain comes to Paris only once a year for four days, but those who are intrigued are in luck. This year, the festival’s 32nd, the whole thing moves to Montreal for 12 days, beginning on February 17.
This article is part of ‘Postcard from ... ’, a new occasional series