De Nos Jours

De Nos Jours (Notes On The Circus) is a charming, fresh, humorous but also poignant new performance by Ivan Mosjoukine captivated and intrigued Parisians of all age groups as evidenced not only by sold out houses but also by commending reviews. It is now playing at the Parisian Le Monfort theater, moving to Le Centquarte in November and going on tour afterwards.

The spectators are only admitted to the hall just before the performance begins. A voice from a speaker announces that the door has opened and once inside, the spectators are welcomed by a simple three-digit counter displaying “1” above the stage. As the spectators are settling inside, the voice from the speaker announces the distribution of the program and the counter above the stage has already switched to “3”. The attendants and actors (two men and two women) make sure everybody gets a copy of the program in the form of a folded A4 sheet of paper with 80 notes based on historical regulations related to traditional circus. The young authors of the show took it to their hearts to brood over these regulations and interpret them with respect to the present in serious or not so serious ways.

The door closes at number “4” and “5” advises the audience to take notice of a question the actors are writing in white chalk on a blackboard located in the back of the right side of the stage. The blackboard has two wings which mark the entrance to the stage and also the start line for every new number.

The show is separated into chapters with new questions written on the board ( “What are we gonna do?” “What are we gonna redo?” “What’s gonna happen?” “What’s gonna change?” “What are we gonna do now?”) and further subdivided by the 80 notes. For example, note #34 refers to a decree from 1812 which prohibits speaking during circus shows. the audience can follow these notes in the program and more substantial announcements and comments are also announced through the loudspeakers. The end of each number is marked by a chime provided by a performer standing by the portal and with every chime, the number on the counter goes up. This requires thorough coordination of all performers as on every chime, somebody must be ready to transform the stage.

A thick walking rope is stretched above the stage and there are 4-meter mobile steps readily available. Next to the blackboard, there is a drum kit and large sound speakers. There are also assorted cables around the edges of the stage, a lit-up jukebox which gives the impression the music is actually controlled from the stage. Everything happens in front of the audience: stage transformations, cleaning, costume changes. As the spectacle progresses, dozens of props make their way to the stage and its vicinity. Just like in traditional circus, there is a clear sequence of numbers. In each one of them, there is always one main acrobat while the others are either setting the stage or assisting the lead. Of course, one is always ready to change the counter and chime. During the whole almost 2-hour performance, all performers are always present on stage bursting with energy and ready to support each other.

The four young acrobats – Erwan Ha Kyoon Larcher, Vimala Pons, Tsirihaka Harrivel and Maroussia Diaz Verbéke – met at the Centre National des Arts du Cirque and since 2007, they have been cooperating under the collective name Ivan Mosjoukine borrowed from the greatest star of Russian silent-era movies of the 1920’s. In De Nos Jours, each acrobat offers various perspectives on his own special skill. A somersault is seen from different sides not only in the literal sense but each repetition of the movement serves to advance the action. Repeating movements are a basis for gags and dramatic situations and also testimonials to the quality of the skills being presented. Rope walking, juggling and all forms of acrobatics are a means of balancing and throwing off balance various cliches of traditional circus while weighing miscellaneous issues of the contemporary world.Somersaults, falling off the stage, hand stand until the water starts boiling in the kettle, rope walking without safety and a woman with a stack of plates on her head and napkins over her face – and the plates don’t fall even when the napkins are being pulled from underneath them. Every number is taken to the farthest absurd limit. The plate-carrying woman ends up carrying a table with a large tablecloth, a cake and a sparkler and doesn’t drop a single object even while her colleague strips her naked. The gender balance of on-stage nudity is later restored by a male performer who does a naked hand stand and holds it until a piece of bread is toasted. There is also a karaoke for the audience with lyrics sheets being held by a rope walker, a brilliant verbal clown act, an endless repetition of a fall on a pole from 4-meter-tall steps which eventually start moving and toppling over. This is just a short list of numbers sharing the common theme of balance and unbalance, flight and falling, baring and covering up. The numbers work in sequences, repeat and escalate which emphasizes the underlying themes. Each acrobat tries to take their number to their own physical limits, share their joy with the audience and doesn’t hide the disappointment if an attempt fails. Spectators become familiar with the individual performers, hold their breath, laugh, get startled, close their eyes and search through their programs for the number of the note we are at right now.The music is cued from the stage using the jukebox. The performers also play musical instruments, most prominently the drums, or create various sounds using the speakers and miscellaneous objects. This is no cheap music comping and the lighting design stays on par with it. The playfulness of the details of the lighting brings unconscious smiles to the faces of the audience. For example, when the speaker announces the acrobat is lying on a bed, the actual performer goes to a horizontal position holding his body up above the surface of the stage on one hand. The loudspeaker announces that the acrobat has fallen asleep, the lights dim, then brighten up again and the audience is informed that the acrobat, who is still in the single-hand handstand, has woken up. These lighting effects are also controlled from the stage. Another beautiful piece of lighting work was the illusion of a train ride. An acrobat was swinging back and forth standing on a rope over a line of stage lights passing repeatedly from light to shadow and back to the sound of a moving train.The second third of the performance and its final part seemed like a piece of theater rather than a circus performance, as the individual numbers developed a shared theme, the acrobats reacted to each other and build the action up to an all-on-stage grand finale. There was a large rectangular metal table in the middle of the stage which he acrobats manipulated and used to lead dialogs over in pairs. The performers were making gestures and clearly articulating in changing styles of movement and speech and as if it wasn’t even worth mentioning, doing somersaults, balancing and falling at the same time, in much the same way their props have been doing throughout the show. In De Nos Jours, it isn’t important what people say but how they say it and how they present it. It is important that except the questions written on the blackboard, nobody ever manages to finish the thought they want to express, therefore all messages are incomplete, fragmented and/or forcefully hysterical, which is probably how the authors of the show see our world in which slogans, sound bites, rules and regulations are relentlessly bombarding us from all sides. The insanity of this world is emphasized by the aforementioned acrobatics around the table, various rhythms and sounds and acceleration of movement. The actual finale portrayed the journey of man from the very beginning to his fall. A half-naked acrobat was being dressed, undressed and re-dressed and fitted with various props of daily life by two other performers, until he fell into the abyss of the off-stage darkness.The authors of De Nos Jours are definitely familiar with the concept of a metaphor and hyperbole and are free of the fear of experimentation and crossing limits, whether it means breaking down the invisible wall between the stage and the audience or defying gravity and physical limitations of the human body. The four people united under the name of Ivan Mosjoukine didn’t let themselves be intimidated by the rules of traditional circus. Instead, they have proven they are able to reflect and perceive the circus phenomenon in a broader perspective by incorporating acrobatic numbers into the structure of a classical drama and searching for a harmony of the elements of expression of drama and contemporary-circus.Hana Strejčková

Ivan Mosjoukine: De nos jours (Notes On The Circus) Original Idea, Directed by and Realization: Erwan Ha Kyoon Larcher, Vimala Pons, Tsirihaka Harrivel, Maroussia Diaz Verbéke, Théâtre Monfort, Parisphoto: Ivan Mosjoukineadded: Oct. 24, 2012

The article was written as a part of the “How To Write On Contemporary Circus” educational project for future journalists by Cirqueon.