WHAT’S THE STORY?

GROWING up on a tiny island, Jeannot Painchaud’s dream was to travel the world. It was a dream that gave birth to a radical departure in the theatre, sparking a movement that has transformed the way audiences think of circuses.

Along with an “acrobatic bunch of friends”, the French Canadian was the first to bring the circus — minus its animals — to the stage.

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He founded the now famous Cirque Eloize and Scots will have a chance to see it this summer when it arrives back at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in 18 years.

Its sell-out show Cirkopolis is being staged at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in the first year of a three year long partnership between EICC and the Pleasance to allow the latter to programme large-scale shows.

“I am very happy to be back after so many years as the first time we came to Edinburgh was a big step for our company,” Painchaud told the National. “We founded our company in 1993, launched in Europe in 1999 and came to Edinburgh then — Edinburgh was a huge platform for us.

“When we started we were alone,” he explained. “I think we were the first company to tour the circus on stage in a contemporary way in North America and then in Europe. We took the circus into theatres rather than a tent and mixed acrobatics with dance within a dramatic concept that was pretty much new on stage.”
 

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

VISITING 500 cities and 55 countries since it began, it’s fair to say Painchaud has realised his dream of travelling the world although not in the way he originally intended when he left the Magdalen Islands to see the Tall Ships in Quebec.

“Coming from a small island of 12,000 people I wanted to quit and travel the world,” he said.

He intended to travel through sailing but came across Cirque du Soleil and was transfixed by its stunning theatricality, staged in traditional circus style within a Big Top.

“I had been involved in the theatre as a teenager and I realised this was an opportunity to use my passion to travel the world.”

He became a circus artist doing street performances, busked in Europe then went back to Canada to enroll in the National Circus School.

In 1992 he went to Japan with the Cirque du Soleil show Fascination and won a bronze medal at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris for an artistic cycling act.

A few months after his return to Canada he founded his own circus.

“I fell in love with the idea of mixing different art forms and playing in theatres,” said Painchaud. “It became a trade mark of our company pretty fast and created some sort of movement after that of acrobatics in the theatre.”
 

WHAT’S THE KEY TO SUCCESS?

IN the early years, he performed as an acrobat, juggler and comedian while simultaneously serving as artistic director, but he left the ring for good in 1998 to focus on the development and artistic direction of Éloize and staging performances.

An adventurer at heart, Painchaud believes that risk is the core of every good number. “If the spectators hold their breath, you’ve succeeded. But the circus is also poetry, humour, energy and sensitivity,” he said.

As a pioneer in the modern circus movement, he draws freely from other art forms and works with designers to create stunning sets. Cirkopolis, is Cirque Éloize’s ninth original creation, on which Painchaud assumed the roles of artistic director and, along with Dave St-Pierre, co-director.

An imaginative show seen by over 450,000 spectators in 100 cities in 30 countries, it won the Drama Desk Awards for Unique Theatrical Experience in 2014.

Inspired by the legendary 1927 film Metropolis, Cirkopolis has a highly-stylised setting, where 12 acrobats and multi-disciplinary artists rebel against monotony and challenge the limits of the factory-city. Accompanied by an original musical score, video projections and an inventive stage design, they live in a world where fantasy defies reality.
 

HOW SUCCESSFUL IS IT?

Painchaud, who was in charge of the acrobatic numbers at the closing ceremonies for the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, says his new show was inspired by Kafka as well as Metropolis and the movie Brazil.

“Cirkopolis was imagined as a crossroads — between imagination and reality, between individuality and community,” he explained. “The show is driven by the poetic impulse of life, the physical prowess of the circus and its humour, at once serious and light-hearted. Entering Cirkopolis is all about letting go and allowing yourself to be borne aloft by hope.”

Since the show began touring in September 2012, it has received rave reviews from the public and critics alike. The New York Times said: “There aren’t more beautiful shows than Cirkopolis”, while the New York Post’s verdict was: Extraordinary! There’s the circus, and then there’s Cirque Éloize. These guys are on a whole other level.”

Added Painchaud: “It is a little pretentious to say the show has a message but what we are trying to talk about is the idea of being yourself. It has been a quest of ours from the beginning and is pretty much my own story of quitting my island.”