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Flash Review, 8-6: Family Circus
In the Valley of the Dordogne, a Lesson in Engagement from the Petit Cirque Werdyn

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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LES EYZIES-DE-TAYAC (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 her.

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 engaged.

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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