What do you get when you cross a lumberjack with a juggling acrobat? You might find the answer by attending the Barbu Electro Trad Cabaret. Composed of a troupe of players who closely resemble carnivalesque strong men and women, Cirque Alfonse performs in the “nouveau cirque” style without animals (mostly) and kitschy set pieces (does a human punching bag count?). The group is made up of acrobats, musicians, dancers and even a ski champion. Their farcical and ironic bios give a hint of their love of absurdity: “He was born from a cracked ostrich egg…”; “…he was sold to the circus at the age of eight for three sheep, a zebra and a unicorn…”; “she is proficient in Swiss wrestling with its focus on breeches lifting…” and so on.
Coming from a circus family in Quebec, the ensemble draws on the folkloric origins of the circus in Montreal at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. At the same time, they embrace a postmodern ironic and self-reflexive approach as they comment on and make fun of circus acts, all the while performing them with incredible skill. In Barbu (meaning bearded), expect to see unconventional and amazing juggling, incredible balancing acts, absurd magic, wild humor, nudity and provocative movement. May the best beard win! One performer rides a bicycle upside down and then backwards, palming a pet hamster; in another sequence the performers hold onto each other’s beards as they roller skate in an intensely fast circle. Still again, two women engage in an intimate acrobatic routine while covered in mud-like slime, as a third woman cracks a whip behind them.
New or Contemporary Circus (nouveau cirque or cirque contemporain), grew as an alternative mode of circus arts in the late 20th century, often highlighting a story or theme that is conveyed through traditional circus skills, such as acrobatics, juggling, aerial work, acting, comedy, magic, music and other elements. This new aesthetic form evolved in part from the political theatre movement and also from growing street theatre and renaissance fair genres. There is an intense focus on the body, disrupting traditional codes of circus and favoring interdisciplinary approaches and experiments.
Contemporary Circus productions are often staged in theaters, in the round or in outdoor tents. Cirque Alfonse’s production of Barbu has been performed on a thrust stage where the performers do outrageous balancing acts and crazy acrobatics right above the heads of the audience. According to a review in Le Parisien, “Lovers of thrills, this show is for you, because everything is raw and without net, imbued with a rough poetry, with scents of bark.” Using unusual and eccentric acts with audience participation, Barbu aims to immerse the audience in their bizarre world of agile and muscular women and burly bearded men, at times attired only in black briefs. Focusing on the overall aesthetic impact of unbounded human physical potential, all juxtaposed against amazing video imagery, spectacular lighting design, throbbing electro trad music and flawless ensemble exchange – this inventive show promises to excite a contemporary audience with its rough madcap humor and brilliant skill.
Nancy Smithner is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU in Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions. She specializes in physical, devised and applied theatre, and worked for many years as a pediatric clown doctor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit.