Cirque Phénix, the permanent chapiteau that houses Cirque de Demain, wallows like an enormous tortoise in a muddy park on the edge of Paris. For four days every year, the circus community descends on this desolate corner of the French capital to see old friends, meet new ones, gossip, drink, and watch an obscene amount of circus. And although it promises to deliver the Circus of Tomorrow, the results of this year’s festival strongly leaned towards the traditionally beautiful.
Cirque de Demain is emphatically a competition, Olympics-style, complete with a “Parade of Nations” and plenty of self-mythologizing. The acts are split into two shows, A and B, each of which plays twice before a jury. The jury awards points: a maximum of twenty for technique, twenty for “artistic,” ten for “contact with the audience.” Then, based on numerical scores, the jury selects half the acts to win medals—golds, silvers, bronzes, and “special jury prizes” (which seems to be code for fourth place). These winning acts perform in a Gala Show before the awards ceremony on Sunday night. Several private organizations also give out unilateral awards, which are not dependent on selection by the jury and often come with cash prizes upwards of 1000 euro.
As usual, the selection this year was eclectic—many numbers straight from circus schools (Montréal and Brussels heavily represented), two scenes lifted without context from contemporary shows (by Blizzard Concept and Nuua Company), some emo-ish acro-sport from Ukraine, some ‘90s-ish banquine from Poland, some trad acts from circus families, one former Pole Dance World Champion, a smattering of self-taught North and South Americans, and of course the obligatory, otherworldly Chinese (watching them training on the first day in the footprint of a not-yet-constructed concessions stand, an artist passing by murmured to me simply, “gold.” He was right).
Because the most prestigious awards are given by the jury, the backgrounds and tastes of the individual jurors play an important role in determining the festival’s favorites. This year, Dominique Mauclair was the chairman of the jury. Mauclair was working for an artist’s support and advocacy organization when he founded the Festival in 1977. Five years ago, on the occasion of Cirque de Demain’s 30th anniversary, he gave an interview with Arte TV in which he talks reverently about the early days of the Festival. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he introduced Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, and African circus to Western Europe for the first time. These presentations of unprecedented physical skill were important for the development of the contemporary circus.
In total, eleven people sat on the jury this year—Mauclair, plus five gold-medal winners from past years and five circus-industry luminaries. Of the medal winners, three—Darkan Kambyshev, Anatoliy Zalievskyy, and Elena Panova—come from gymnastics or the Russian / Ukrainian circus school system. The other two, Uuve Jansson and Héloïse Bourgeois, were educated in a contemporary context, both at the same school—Montréal, which is known as the least avant-garde of the major contemporary schools.
The other six jurors are not former medal winners. Agathe Alie, from Cirque du Soleil, worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and as Director of the Theatre in the Lac Leamy Casino in Ontario (currently playing: an Elvis impersonator) before joining Soleil in an administrative capacity. Franco Dragon Entertainment Group poached Yves Delacollette from Deutsche Bank. Even Maxime Nikouline, director of the Nikouline Circus in Moscow, turns out to have a background mostly in journalism. Valérie Fratellini, director of the historically key Fratellini School in Paris, probably has her finger on the pulse of the contemporary circus, but is only one voice among many (unsurprisingly, Google did not turn up any biographical information on remaining juror Mi Lu, an official from the acrobatics wing of a Chinese arts organization).
This probably explains why the results of the 35th Festival tended towards the traditional side of the spectrum. In fact, the contemporary entries were almost completely ignored, while more conservative acts were highly lauded. Cirque de Demain, despite the name, continues to be a bastion of traditional circus values in a field that is rapidly changing.
Did you watch the Cirque de Demain livestream? What did you think of the acts selected? Do you think that they represent a good cross-section of circus today?