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Flash Review 1, 7-15: Artistes or Artists?
Les Colporteurs: It Moves, but is it Moving?

By Jody Sperling
Copyright 2000 Jody Sperling

It's hard to think after a circus. Your eyes are still full of tricks. You feel dizzy from the sheer spectacle of it, and from craning your head to look at sailing acrobats. Even an arty, French "nouveau" circus, like the Les Colporteurs seen last night in the Lincoln Center Festival 2000, has this effect. I'm thinking, what did I just see? Okay, it's coming back to me now in pieces.... There was that steely-eyed tight-rope walker, David Dimitri. I recall now his soft-pedaled, downcast determination, his ceaselessly waving arms, his fancy footwork. How he slowly upped the ante. First walking, seeming to totter, then adding in fancy footwork, then some light jumps, then jumps with beats, and, oh yes, as almost an afterthought a back flip or two.

Let's see, what else was there? A woman (Kathleen Reynolds), who was rolled up in a tablecloth upon a table. Others were play-eating around her and then, as if it were a new-fangled family ritual, they hung her from a chandelier. Two men proceeded to prod her with long metal sticks, setting her into circular motions. Eventually, she squirmed free of the cloth and began a whirling, spiraling dance, her body skimming close to the table and the heads of the two men.

"Filao" had twelve such "movements," each one an idea spun out. According to the program, the evening-length work was inspired by Italo Calvino's "Baron of the Trees." But this was more an impressionistic than narrative treatment of the story. The most direct reference, aside I suppose from the tight-rope walker who could have been the story's anarchist-protagonist, seemed to be in the numerous branches which served as props and were variously arrayed. The whole evening begins with an acrobat making a sort of teepee from the branches and then stepping on top of this precarious structure. There is lots of such inventiveness in "Filao." In one vignette, aerialist Sophie Kantorowicz plays a marionette controlled by ropes. She is suspended mid-air and twirled around by ropes in the hands of four, earthbound men. It's a striking image.

The evening piles up these striking images. There's a breathiness in watching the traditional high-flying act in movement eight. There's fun in these acrobats' fearlessness. Midway through her solo trapeze act (in a later movement), Linda Peterson clips herself into a harness with seeming reluctance. We're in a small tent with no net and she's just been dangling up there.

Although I left the Damrosch Park Tent last evening with a warm feeling, I don't have a sense of having been moved or really startled, despite all this good stuff. As fearless as Peterson is, she's still an acrobat doing tricks. She's an "artiste," but perhaps not quite an artist (or maybe I mean the other way around).

The French nouveau circus promises something more than a plain-old circus. At it's best, the "nouveau" offers inventiveness and drama plus the satisfaction of the old circus -- daring, dazzling virtuosity and flight. But the "nouveau" also has a pretentious side. The program notes promise a reflection on "universal issues of transcendence and freedom." And the title, oy. It's a play on the French for high-wire (Fil-a-haut), it's also somebody's kid, and the name for a kind of tree in the Caribbean. In short, it's a nonsensical term that's supposed to mean a lot. In general, I found this evening more satisfying and less pretentious than the program given by Les Arts Sauts at last year's Lincoln Center Festival. (Although that program had its merits too.) I think the main issue facing these and the many other Nouveau circuses cropping up is how to deal with the reconciling of art and tricks. The truth of the matter is that we all enjoy watching feats executed, and the director's job is to find a way to make those feats seem necessary.

Les Colporteurs continues at Damrosch Park Tent through July 26, with no performances on July 18 or 23.


Jody Sperling is a dancer, choreographer, and writer based in New York City. On Thursday, along with Terry Borton, Sperling gives a presentation on "Loie Fuller and the Magic Lantern" at the Dancing in the Millenium conference in Washington, D.C.

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