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A Canadian circus acts tackles modern absurdity with 'Cirkopolis' 


Jeannot Painchaud discovered circus arts in the summer of 1984. A native of Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, or Magdalen Islandsa small archipelago off the Canadian coast; population something like 12,000—a teenaged Painchaud traveled to the mainland to see the tall ships, dreaming of travel and adventure and pirates. It was Canada’s 450th birthday, and the biggest sailboats in the world—Les Grands Voiliers—were on parade.

But it was the jugglers and the clowns who captured Painchaud’s imagination that day, and wanting to see more, he bought a ticket to a circus show the very same night. By sheer chance, it was the very first performance of Cirque du Soleil. Painchaud was fascinated. Three months later, he was enrolled at Montreal’s National Circus School, earning money on the side by practicing his stunts for tips on the street.

“As you say in English, I ran away with the circus,” laughed Painchaud, in a phone interview from his company’s studio in Montreal. A French accent lingered charmingly in words like “parade” and “pirate.”

“I dedicated 100 percent of my time to my training … I was starting to do everything that was proposed to me, and I started to do shows in the street, in the city, with my hat, for a living, and then I start traveling in Europe. Then, a couple of years later, I decided with a group of friends to create a show, to go back to my island. We called this show Cirque Éloize,” he continued, “because éloize was a typical expression from that island which means a heat lightning.”

Founded in 1991, Cirque Éloize, like its inspiration, Cirque du Soleil, was part of a revolution in circus arts, something that would become known as nouveau cirque. Gone were the Big Top, the elephants, and the sword-swallowers. In their place was a newfound emphasis on poetry and storytelling, using a fusion of contemporary dance, theater, and acrobatics.

“One of the main things that Cirque du Soleil was focusing on is a circus with no animals, a storyline with choreography, with costume, and with some kind of theatrical experience—in the same way that you would create a theater piece, we would create a show using the elements of all other art forms,” said Painchaud, who still works as the company’s artistic director.

More than 20 years later, Cirque Éloize’s latest show, the Kafkaesque fantasy Cirkopolis, continues to re-evaluate what a circus can be: the stories it can tell, and the multitude of other storytelling genres it can claim as its own. The production’s current tour will make a stop at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center Feb. 5-6.


Cirkopolis fuses stunning acrobatics with a dystopian, surreal atmosphere indebted to the work Fritz Lang and Terry Gilliam. The setting is a nightmarish city much like Lang’s Metropolis; a place of cogs and pulleys, of smoke and looming, eerily blank skyscrapers.

Our hero is a kind of cog himself, operating dutifully in a dramatically forbidding office environment, a stack of papers on his desk, when suddenly, he begins to dream.

“When we open the curtain, there’s a guy in his office working, pushing paper, like a boring job; day-to-day job,” said Painchaud, who directs the show with choreographer Dave St-Pierre.

“And he starts having fun with his paper, he’s starting to imagine something a little crazy with the people walking around him, and then that is the starting point. And then it’s just an expression, a tableau, like if you would dive into a dream. It’s not a linear story; it’s really like a tableau, like photographs, like pictures that will come in your dreams of [how] you would transform your life, and that’s the starting point, and then you go on this journey … you go from very heavy choreography to something more poetic throughout the show.”

This story very much accommodates the talents of the Cirque Éloize cast. The fantastical elements of the nameless man’s waking dream are perfectly reflected in the acrobatic feats of the office’s suit-wearing workers. A man does a one-armed handstand balanced on another man’s head; a girl in a back-bend scuttles across the stage like a crab.

Stage designer, illustrator, and video images co-designer Robert Massicotte has created a set entirely of video projections, which reveals a love of comic books. The animations, projected on a backdrop of moveable panels, allow the cogs to grind ominously, the narrow hallways to zoom toward our office-dwelling hero, and the grey towers to loom large over a performer. When an aerialist is borne up into the air, a Gotham-like city seems to drop lurchily out from under her feet.

Montreal choreographer St-Pierre, who also co-directs the show, may be best known for works like Un Peu de Tendresse Bordel de Merde! (“A little tenderness, for crying out loud!”) which had naked dancers vaunting their genitals inches away from front-row audiences, in what was easily the most talked-about part of the show. (The reviews are quite divisive on that front.) Here, his work is in-your-face in a significantly less graphic way.

Painchaud met St-Pierre while working on iD, he said: “He was introduced to me for his creativity and I knew him by reputation, by him being very provocative and having this show where everybody’s naked, walking in the audience. But fortunately, he has a very strong poetry,” said Painchaud. “My goal actually for 20 years is always to try to reinvent acrobatics with the influence of artists from other frontiers, and definitely, what I was looking with Dave is to”—he paused, looking for the right words—“to shake, a little bit, ourselves, and bring us awake. But I didn’t want naked artists onstage, I didn’t want to shock people like that, but I want to have his energy and his crazy ideas.”

'DIVE INTO A DREAM':  Cirque Éloize performs 'Cirkopolis' Wednesday, Feb. 5 and Thursday, Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center, located at 1 Grand Ave. on the Cal Poly campus. Tickets are $29.20-$58; visit or call 756-4TIX (4849).
  • 'DIVE INTO A DREAM': Cirque Éloize performs 'Cirkopolis' Wednesday, Feb. 5 and Thursday, Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center, located at 1 Grand Ave. on the Cal Poly campus. Tickets are $29.20-$58; visit or call 756-4TIX (4849).

The inspiration for the storyline began with the company’s previous show, the hip-hop- and sci-fi-influenced iD, Painchaud said.

“In iD, it was a lot about your identity—show me your ID, show me who you are—so it was kind of a continuity, about identity, who I am in my family. But in Cirkopolis, it’s more who I am in the city; in the futuristic city,” he explained.

Cirkopolis’ urban worker, he continued, is “a guy that lives in his head, and he wants to be himself. To me, all the work of Cirque Eloize is to talk about the beauty of life, and try to bring the idea that everyone has to work hard to become themselves.”


Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at


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