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a circus without animals but with lots of heart

Jennifer Dix
Thursday September 26, 2002

They come from Canada, they do fantastic things with trapezes and the human body, they use no animals in their act—and no, they are not Cirque du Soleil. The performance troupe that has descended on Zellerbach Hall is Cirque Eloize, and it is a phenomenon all its own. 

Despite similarities to Cirque du Soleil (both are based in Montreal and came out of the athletically-centered cirque nouveau movement), Cirque Eloize is quite distinct from the older and more famous Soleil. In fact, one critic suggested that Eloize is kind of “anti-Cirque du Soleil.” Soleil is known for huge spectacle, pageantry, and tableaux, but Eloize offers a more intimate show, with a dramatic storyline or multiple story lines that often tug at the heart. 

Named for the heat lightning flashes seen near the Magdalen Islands off the coast of Quebec, Eloize (pronounced el-was) does have a fiery, creative spirit that comes through in all its performances. An Edinburgh newspaper described it as “circus with atmosphere, poetry, humor and, above all, heart.” Previous shows have included “Cirque Orchestra” a poetic, acrobatic spectacle about a musician who yearns to fly, and “Eccentricus” an exuberant celebration of the performing arts from music to juggling to trapeze artistry. 

The troupe’s new show is “Nomade,” a title that seems especially appropriate to an international troupe that spends nearly all of its time on the road. Inspired by Roma music and culture, “Nomade” is loosely constructed around the story of two wandering gypsy troupes that encounter each other on the way to a wedding. From dusk to dawn the two clans play and compete, sometimes erupting in challenges and quarrels, but overall the spirit is of romance and celebration. Lucie Cauchon’s musical score is rich in folkloric tunes, featuring accordion, trombone, drums, and vocals in a make-believe language composed for this dreamy, surreal spectacle. 

In keeping with the theme of wandering romance, “Nomade” takes place at night, under the open sky. The rustic set features an enormous full moon, a haunting and romantic backdrop for everything from a sensual tango between two lovers to the acrobatic antics of clowns. There is a chatty narrator on a trapeze and a contortionist who bends her body into extraordinary shapes.  

The creators of “Nomade” acknowledge a debt to filmmaker Federico Fellini, well known for his love of the circus. “The scenes emerge like an image from an old postcard… We try to show these links between people, the tragic comedy of life and the spirit of the nomads,” according to artistic director Jeannot Painchaud. While many of the props used by the performers are straight out of centuries-old circus tradition, they are used in new and ingenious ways. A man balances on a large black ball as if floating on a cloud. The Russian bar, traditionally used in balancing acts, doubles as a prop for a children’s street game.  

Cirque Eloize’s directors showed pragmatism and humor in adapting the show to their performers, too. While the troupe members are accomplished acrobats, many had little or no musical background. One woman simply could not sing on pitch, although she gamely belted out her lines at the top of her voice. They made her a soloist, and she now is one of the funniest acts in “Nomade.” 

Critical buzz has it that this is the best offering yet by the nine-year-old Cirque Eloize. If true, it’s proof that the company has succeeded in staying true to its vision of a good performance with heart. According to Painchaud, technical virtuosity is only one criterion. “What we also look for are the eyes of the artist, to see them deeply inside,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “We prefer a very [performer] but with a very big personality and a big interest in being part of a community so that what the public receives is some kind of realistic feelings that these characters on stage, they could be your cousin or grandma or your son.”