I have not been writing much online lately as I had to finish up my article for the festival in Korea at the end of this month. here, at least, is its final version:
The National Circus School of Canada and Canada’s Theatrical Cirque Nouveau
The National Circus School of Canada
The National Circus School of Canada (NCSC) is recognized as a global center of circus arts instruction. Circuses and producers aggressively recruit graduates; over 90% find employment within a few months of leaving the school. Graduates work at Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Cirque Monti, Circus Starlight, Les Sept Doigts de la Main, and win top awards at the Festival de Cirque de Demain, and Cirque d’Hiver, among others.
How does NCSC successfully train its students to enter the competitive international setting of the modern circus? The answer lies in a dichotomy in the school’s pedagogical approach. NCSC trains the student as acrobats as well as autonomous creators. In other words, the school strives to find a balance between performer and artist.
Circus is a physical discipline, and the acrobatic skills and manipulations of its performers test the limits of human potential. The NCSC puts its students through three years of grueling physical training to maximize their strength, flexibility, dexterity, and balance.
Fundamental classes in strength training and flexibility accompany technical classes in handstands, trampoline, acrobatics, aerial techniques, juggling, and tightrope walking. Additionally, students specialize in and receive individual training in a discipline of their choice.
A student masters all basic circus disciplines before graduating from NCSC. A unique aspect of the school’s evaluation is that upon achieving baseline mastery, a student’s evaluation criteria are readjusted to accommodate more exigent goals. Thus, while a student with natural math ability might have a considerable advantage over her peers in a science classroom, unusually skilled students at NCSC are at as much a risk of failure as their peers. This highly competitive and stressful environment fosters both an extraordinary will to succeed and strong bonds within the student community.
It is the level of artistic expression that distinguishes traditional circus from cirque nouveau, or ‘new circus.’ This does not mean that cirque nouveau has a higher level of artistic expression nor does it mean that traditional circus shows are lacking, but the latter focuses more on technique and spectacle than on artistic expression whereas the former might sacrifice technical bravado in order to communicate artistic ideas. Exactly where one draws the line on this spectrum is beyond the scope of this article, but it can be said that arbitrarily adjusting the theme, costume, and choreography of a traditional circus act will not transform it into cirque nouveau. Similarly, dressing a cirque nouveau number in a traditional costume, accompanying it with a live big-top band, and augmenting its technical difficulty will not guarantee success with a traditional circus audience.
NCSC develops the artistic potential of students in two main ways: through its dance and acting curriculum and through various workshop creations.
For the first two years, the acting curriculum is based in the principles of physical theater masters such as Jaques LeCoq and Phillipe Gaulier. Students explore neutrality, rhythm, masks, movement, simplicity, and improvisation with an emphasis on developing stage presence and rapport with the audience. In the third year, the acting curriculum consists of master classes taught by experts in clowning, physical theater, and mime. Thus, students sample different schools of thought and styles than can be found at NCSC itself.
Dance classes emphasize both technique and creation. Students learn ballet and modern technique in traditional dance classes and practice choreographic theory by creating solo, partner, and group works presented before the entire school. Dance and movement (its companion class in the first year), integrate a well-trained body and a creative mind by developing technique (in the case of dance) and instinct (in the case of movement).
There are numerous workshop creations in the three years at the school. In the first semester of every year, NCSC divides the first- and second-year classes into two groups each whom create a total of four 20-minute shows. The groups work on their own over the course of the semester with an artistic counselor and present their work to the entire school and its alumni in December. In another workshop creation, three directors unaffiliated with the school direct one-third of the students each for a one-week period and present the three works before the entire school. Later in the year, the creation process is repeated, but this time with the students choosing their own groups and acting as their own directors.
The largest and most public workshop creation is the school’s highly anticipated annual show. Often, a visiting director or directors will be invited to direct the entire student body in a professional quality nouveau cirque show presented to the public for ten days every June.
For the individual student, however, the most important workshop creation is the development of his own professional circus number over the three-years at the school. The technical exploration, choreographic, and thematic development all transpire between a student, his personal coach, and an artistic counselor.
Ultimately, what puts a graduate of NCSC in such high demand is the artistic sense from dance and theater classes integrated with superior technical ability and the creative sensibility stemming from involvement in several workshop creations.
Canadian Cirque Nouveau
The most amazing aspect of cirque nouveau in Canada is that it exists at all. In the early 1980’s the only dominant circus presence in North America, the three-ring Barnum and Bailey Circus seemed comfortable with its image as a nineteenth century holdover from the circuses of the past. No one could have expected that the most revolutionary force in 20th century stage entertainment, Cirque du Soleil, was about to emerge in Canada, a country with no circus tradition whatsoever.
But it was exactly that lack of legacy that enabled this revolutionary troupe to work outside of conservative norms in the traditional circuses of Europe. It was financial necessity (despite Guy Laliberte’s famous quotation, “I would rather pay five acrobats than feed one elephant for a day.”) that led the group to eschew animal acts. And, finally, perhaps most importantly, all about them was the excitement that surrounds something unquestionably new, especially when it can somehow be identified as ours – in this case, Canadian, or more specifically, Quebecois.
Canadian cirque nouveau is geographically localized. Unlike France, where government subsidies have aided in the formation of hundreds of circus companies throughout the country, cirque nouveau remains localized in the areas surrounding Montreal. The major players Canadian circus companies can be counted on three fingers of the hand: Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, and Les Sept Doigts de la Main.
The reason for this localization has a lot to do with Montreal itself with its extraordinarily low cost of living and a disproportionately large artistic population. It is home to at least three of North America’s most well-known summer festivals: Just For Laughs, The Montreal Jazz Festival, and Francofolies. It is also a liberal college town hosting, among others, the University of Quebec at Montreal, McGill University, the National Theater School, the National Circus School, and the National School of Dance. As a French-speaking city with a large Anglophone population and a transient international student community, it is a breeding ground for cultural and artistic exchange and innovation. On a given night in the Montreal one can find a number of artists performing studio presentations and works-in-progress in black-box theaters, cabarets, and bars in addition to the many circus shows that premiere or pass through the city regularly. Indeed, this is a city that puts a premium on the promotion of artistic expression and creation, and is now reaping the benefits as home to one of the largest live entertainment companies in the world.
Montreal in the post-Cirque world presents a challenge to performing artists. A New York City performer skilled in singing, dancing, and acting is honorifically termed a ‘triple threat,’ but these talents alone are barely sufficient for the vibrant and multidisciplinary Montreal scene. A fictional Montreal ‘multi-threat’ artist would need skills in modern dance, jazz dance, hip-hop, pop-and-lock, breakdancing, ballet, Tuvan throat-singing, Quebecois folk singing, opera, rap, acrobatics, juggling, guitar, clarinet, sousaphone, accordion, cello, violin, (in a variety of musical styles), kung fu, tae kwon do, capoeira (or any other martial arts), multilingualism, swimming, highdiving, etc, etc… and have no fear of heights!
Theatricality of Canadian Cirque Nouveau
So with this vibrant city as a backdrop, how can one characterize the theatricality of Canadian circus? The answer is found in the sheer variety of shows that are presented in Montreal: ‘Experimental Circus/Theater,’ ‘Dance/Circus Collaborations,’ ‘Industrial Music and Live Acrobats,’ ‘Multimedia, Interactive Acrobatic Event,’ and ‘Cinematic Circus.’ The threads that unify Canadian nouveau cirque are multi-disciplinary collaboration and high entertainment standards.
One could go mad trying to count the number of influences present in a Canadian nouveau cirque show – from the most expensive Cirque du Soleil production to the lyrical romanticism of Cirque Eloize to the intimate urban spectacle of Les Sept Doigts de la Main. In Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ka,’ for example, the French underground urban performance art/dance ‘parcour’ is prominently featured, as well as a number of martial arts styles. Inline skating, BMX biking, and other extreme sports take the stage in Soleil’s new show ‘Love,’ based on the music of the Beatles. In Cirque Eloize, we see Italian film, African music, tango dance, gypsy celebrations, and Vaudeville influences. Les Sept Doigts have a live DJ, an old-school Broadway-style production number, and tip their collective hats to traditional circus, all in the framework of a show that also happens to seamlessly integrate multimedia and live-camera feeds.
This chaos is held together by Canadian circus’ high entertainment standards and production values. The work ethic of the unbearably demanding NCSC and other arts conservatories in Montreal and the discerning tastes of their graduates have resulted in disciplined collaborations. In Montreal, a performer’s job is first and foremost to entertain the audience. Thus, artists have set aside grand notions of politics or personal importance which can result in navel-gazing self-indulgent work and focus instead on the performance aspect of their art. Paradoxically, this approach does not seem to dilute the subversive potential or political nature of the performance in the least. On the contrary, an artist’s generous humanity and honesty can amplify and illuminate themes that might have been smothered by a more heavy-handed approach. Critics are as likely to praise a show for its entertainment value as for its political content, as was the case in “Les Anges de l’Orage,” a multidisciplinary 2004 collaboration with NCSC and TOHU.
Cirque nouveau is in a perpetual state of flux. In the course of a year, innovations become discarded clichés that are rediscovered, reinvented, embraced briefly, and then discarded again. Artists in Canadian circus push existing boundaries, explore new artistic territory, and strive to continually reinvent the face of their unique art form.
What of the future? New graduates of the NCSC and the international popularity of the Cirque du Soleil brand guarantee that Canadian cirque nouveau will continue to thrive, but cirque nouveau with its protean nature will change in unpredictable ways and an evolution into a sort of post-modern circus could take root anywhere. The main lesson of the birth of cirque nouveau its subsequent growth in Canada is that just like living beings, a new form of art needs a fertile place to grow. Montreal provided a fertile environment for cirque nouveau with a diverse international culture and a willingness to foster artistic experimentation, but unlike living creatures, new art forms have spontaneously generated in the most unlikely environments. The voices rising from the newest generation of Asian performing artists are of great interest to me since it is my belief that Montreal-like conditions for artistic innovation exist right here in Asia.