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Review, 8-6: Family Circus
In the Valley of the Dordogne, a Lesson in Engagement from the Petit
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider
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(Dordogne), France -- When freelance performing artists shut down
festival France last summer to protest changes in their benefits,
one circuit which escaped the scythe of the strike was that of the
family-run circuses which tour the countryside, entertaining the
locals and vacationing French and tourists. (After all, you can
hardly strike your mother.) The festivals are back this year, but
I'll take the engaging and engaged Petit Cirque Werdyn, seen here
July 15, over the sprawling but incompetently administered and unimaginatively
curated Paris Quartier d'ete festival any time.
For starters, instead
of relying on indifferent publicists or communications directors
who don't know how to communicate, the artists of the Cirque Werdyn
make their own publicity from the moment they arrive in town. We
were skeptical at first, when we saw the posters slapped up on telephone
poles and fences around Les Eyzies, best known as the capital of
pre-history. (It's here, amongst the limestone cliffs where you
can still see the caves of the cliff-dwellers, that the science
of pre-history was born.) We'd been burned last year, when the biggest
attractions a different circus had to offer were a tired thin lion
and three reluctant Pekingese. But then the horses and their human
passengers started canvassing the campsite where my family was staying
-- the circus was camped on the field abutting it, on the banks
of the Vezere -- and our interest was piqued. It also helped that
our gravel path to the Vezere, which we crossed to go into town,
took us past where the circus trailers were parked -- we even had
to circumnavigate the grazing horses. One afternoon, as I took my
Aveze (made from the gentiane flower that grows in the volcanic
park of the Auvergne) by the river, I was greeted by a soaked black-and-white
dog who would later turn up in the show.
It was a good sign when,
after we mounted the wooden risers under the medium-sized tent --
two performers had sold us our 6 Euro tickets -- the recorded pre-show
music came from a popular nouveau gypsy group. Another performer
-- the star, it would turn out -- tethered to the outside of the
ring a goose, who complained for a while until finally rolling over
on its back and relaxing. (We are still pre-show here.) My 6-year-old
niece Faye and my 3-year-old nephew Dashiell wandered down to play
with two cats tied to a post near an open flap at the rear of the
tent. (My brother would have to go back to the trailer to fetch
Dashiell his ear-plugs; like his uncle, Dashiell doesn't like loud
noises.) The scrawny white cat would make a herring-inspired cameo
late in the show, weaving through a row of slats propped on the
ring to get its fishy reward, which explained why it had been impatiently
meowing and pacing throughout the show, anxious to take its turn.
As for the show, the
two women, two men, two girls, the goose, a few horses, the goat,
the two cats and the dogs of the Petit Cirque Werdyn build their
charm as much on human frailty as agility. The most agile feat --
if we ignore the ones that entailed digging spurs into a horse's
gut -- was probably that performed by one of the girls, who can't
have been more than 10, as she balanced on an escalating pile of
boards balanced on a ball, giving a flourish of her arms as she
succeeded in staying upright after each new board was added under
The other humans and
animals impressed with their imperfection and with the pizzazz of
their personalities: The main horseman (I'm sorry I don't have names;
there was no program), after his horse collapsed on its side as
if dead, had to interrupt his elegy constantly to remind the horse
to stay dead. The man who had brought the goose out before, appearing
as a janitor -- he took on several personalities, including a fakir
who hypnotized himself into being able to lay on a bed of nails
-- tried, initially without success, to get the black-and-white
dog to emerge from an apparently empty garbage can, and then needed
several attempts to get the dog to disappear again. Later, he turned
what would otherwise be an ordinary tightrope walking act into a
tour de force comedy, playing a dweeby French guy reading the English
introductions of each trick in an intentionally hilarious accent.
"This is.... very hard," he told us, emphatically lisping the "Th"
in "This," before mounting the rope to try to balance while blindfolded.
Throughout the Petit
Cirque Werdyn, balls are sometimes dropped, animals sometimes miss
a cue, but the international audience is never lost and is always
When we exited two hours
or so after we entered, the star of the show was selling artisanal
posters for "Le petit cirque Werdyn," at 2 Euros a pop; I'm looking
at mine now back in Paris, where the mechants of the publicly
funded Paris quartier d'ete festival could stand to learn a few
things from the Petit CIrque Werdyn about how to treat their public.
And modern dancers in Paris, who all-too-often give the appearance
of disdaining their audience, could stand to learn a few things
too, about engaging their spectators.
PS: Even big-name, legendary performers can resist becoming jaded.
On Tuesday in the square Louise-Michael -- that sloping park in
front of Sacre Coeur -- a free outdoor showing of Jean-Luc Godard's
1961 "Une femme est une femme" was graced with the live presence
of the film's star, Anna Karina, the prototypical Godard heroine.
(The screening opened the annual Cinema au Clair de Lune festival,
which shows films in neighborhoods that figure in them. New York
and San Francisco, take note!) Still looking every bit the clever
charming engenue, Karina positively glowed when she told the tightly
packed crowd that to be able to see a film like this in a setting
like this, uninterrupted by commercials, was "Magnifique."
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