We’re Off and Running, Part 4:
Nouvelle Expérience, Part 1 (1990)

A few weeks ago, as I was flipping through a few classic Cirque du Soleil programme books (as is my wont), I was happily caught off-guard by a brief history of the company that it had written about itself in Saltimbanco’s original European Tour programme, published sometime in 1996. Not because the historia was in English, French, and Spanish, but rather I found the wording a bit more colorful… haughty… than what you’d find from the company today. Something about its whimsical and heady nature spoke to the way Cirque du Soleil saw itself then, containing a youthful verve and arrogance that is simply no longer present. When did Cirque lose this dynamic sense of self, this liveliness, and vivacity about its past, present, and future? Unfortunately, not long after. Thereafter the speak becomes less joie de vivre and more lié aux affaires, and Cirque du Soleil turns from a rag-tag band of street performers into a bona fide corporate entity right before our very eyes. This is not a new revelation – far from it in fact – but this re-discovery struck a chord of curiosity within…

How did others see Cirque du Soleil during this period?

Think about it: as Cirque’s multitude of shows travel around the globe in either arenas or under the big top, at each stop, in each city, there is a write-up in the local press. Sometimes the coverage is just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there’s a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times it’s an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. But the reviews we see today are too current, discussing these shows through a contemporary lens; shows that have/had 15 to 20 years touring the globe, shows we would refer to as “classic” or “signature”. What I’d become interested in knowing was what some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of these shows were as they took their first steps across North America. How did the press see Le Cirque du Soleil in 1998, 1994, 1990, 1987?

It was time to peck through the archives.

What I found was extraordinary, and more than I expected. And I’m sharing these discoveries here in Fascination through a series of collections, beginning with the 1987 tournée of Le Cirque du Soleil (better known today as Le Cirque Réinventé), and continuing on from there. This month we continue on with 1990’s reviews of Nouvelle Expérience.

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By: Karen Mathieson | Seattle Times
July 6, 1990

Le Cirque du Soleil may be the closest we’ll ever get to the Land of Oz. For the hours of the Cirque’s 1990 show “Nouvelle Experience,” one is transported to a world of incredible grace, strength and zaniness, in which gravity is transcended in every sense of the word. This is the Earth set free in peaceful delight, a symbol of the goals of the Goodwill Arts Festival.

It is imagination, in good part, that does the freeing. L. Frank Baum, creator of the Oz books, would recognize many of the marvelous Cirque du Soleil characters dressed by costumer Dominque Lemieux. The wild-haired impresario with his crazily curled coattails, the perky acrobats in their Munchkin blue, the bizarre personalities known as “flounes” who are full of raucous curiosity, all are familiar in their essence to a lover of Baum’s fantasies.

There’s commedia dell’arte here too, especially in the opening moments when David Shiner, as the clown inside each of us, meets up with the stiff-nosed regulators of everyday life. Hey, loosen up and have some fun, commedia told Italians centuries ago – a message that remains timely for the planet across which Cirque du Soleil will be roaming in the coming months.

Fantasy and hilarious mime are all very well, but where Cirque du Soleil excels most clearly is in combining these elements with astonishing physical, technical and design achievement. Even without the French trapeze act scheduled as the show’s finale – the apparatus was there, but it wasn’t used last night – “Nouvelle Experience” is worth every cent of every ticket.

Presenting artists from China, Europe, Canada, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could well turn a show into a tedious if impressive display of athletics. Pacing and variety in the sequence of “Nouvelle Experience” acts helps the one-ring theatrical circus from Montreal avoid that fate, and so does the pulsing live music score by Rene Dupere.

The ensemble of saxophone, guitar, bass and keyboards (with an occasional assist from a cello-playing “floune”) is as integral to the effect as the moody blues lighting by Luc Lafortune. These elements, like the stage with its trapdoors and slanting perspectives designed by Michel Crete, supply an enchanted environment for the action directed by Franco Dragone. Even the breakdown of the equipment used in each act is accomplished with casual precision and no little art.

Although Cirque du Soleil doesn’t use animals, and thus needn’t worry about balking elephants or bolting horses (the acrobats do take one exit with backs bent and arms swinging in simian style), the unpredictable always remains a possibility. There’s a teeter-totter launching pad for gymnastic flips, a narrow plank for balancing, a trampoline and other gear in which split-second timing puts the audience on the edge of its collective seat.

Last night, people were hanging on to their seats with laughter as well as excitement, and some of the time they were laughing at each other. Shiner is not only a classic mime who can make you see the power of an umbrella as it pulls him off the ground, he’s also a regular wizard at evoking audience participation. The four “volunteers” who practically brought the tent down were just ordinary, slightly embarrassed folks – until egged on by Shiner, they became inspired comedians.

Four young Chinese-trained Canadian contortionists, arching their spines into unbelievable curves, were among other highlights of opening night under the 2,500-seat big top. And the Russian balancing genius Vassily Dementchoukov showed similar panache assembling and surmounting a tower of high-backed chairs.

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By: Sylvie Drake | La Times
October 13, 1990

There are two sets of performers who create Le Cirque du Soleil’s “Nouvelle Experience”: those who do it on stage and those whose work was done months ago but is every bit as important a part of the sparkling new show that has landed on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier.

As before, Le Cirque comes to us from Montreal, but surely via the moon or Mars. Its design suggests nothing terrestrial.

Dominique Lemieux’s pixillated costumes look like brilliant illustrations for a children’s book of spooky fairy tales, enhanced by the lunatic mask creations of France Baillargeon and Andre Henault under the quirky hats of Catherine Lauda. Rene Dupere’s all- nouvelle musique is as playful and exhilarating an accompaniment to events in the single ring as it ever was.

Luc Lafortune’s lighting games, his scarlet maws, purple and orange horizons and whirling, prismatic laser beams inform Michel Crete’s alien landscape with its pivoting Stonehenge wall under the ampler nouvelle Big Top.

This is all pulled together by the prestidigitation of artistic director Franco Dragone, which smoothly weaves into the different acts the considerable skills of clowns, catchers and flounes –a coinage for a new breed of bashful, gibberish-spouting clowns that combines the words clown and flo , Quebecois slang for child.

Dragone uses this gaudily clad, weird little enclave of five as a distinctive kind of Greek chorus. The group serves as rudder and glue, bridging some acts, insinuating iself into others and unifying the show. Wot a show.

The youthful, savvy, even cocky Cirque, which took Los Angeles by storm when it launched the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, returned to the beach in Santa Monica in 1989 with a perplexingly mediocre edition of its former self.

Apparently, the chiding it received for that slipshod work found its mark. The creators rethought and reorganized. “Nouvelle Experience” is a full-scale comeback, in which all but one or two performers are brand new.

And dazzling. No one more so than American clown David Shiner, a skinny beanpole of embattled comic tics in floppy gray pants and short jacket who looks like nothing so much as a collision between Harold Lloyd and Marcel Marceau’s Bip. Immensely gifted, Shiner pulls members of the audience into his act like reluctant taffy that he cajoles, noodles, browbeats and finally spits out in the form of hilarious, brilliantly negotiated routines.

The more traditional circus stuff–contortionists, aerialists, trapeze artists–are almost all of the same first water. Nadine Binette, Isabelle Chasse, Laurence Racine and Jinny Jacinto form a quartet of contortionists 8 to 13 years old whose bending and folding make it hard, at a given point, to discern whose limbs belong to whom.

Anne Lepage’s stunning solo trapeze is an absolute stomach churner while Vladimir Kehkaial’s graceful flights through the air, uniquely suspended by arm straps, is a beguiling never-before-seen oddity–a sort of Chippendale’s meets Michelangelo. The Russian’s intense self-awareness, brooding good looks, flowing black hair and Grecian designer jock strap are a curious paradox as they slice angelically and self-importantly through the air. He’d make a fortune in Las Vegas.

Despite a humdrum tightwire act and a skilled but needlessly coy “Korean Plank” routine by the Corporation Team, the first half, as a whole, holds more surprises than the second.

The latter kicks off with your traditional team of trapeze artists (nothing like the breathtaking earlier solo work of Lepage) and includes a second round of Corporation capers. It is distinguished principally by Zhao Liang’s uncommon juggling act with Chinese parasols, more antic zaniness from Shiner and the witty flounes , and by yet another Russian, Vassili Demenchoukov, who can find more new ways to build a “Tower of Chairs” than one would have thought possible.

Ultimately, though, the Cirque’s real triumph lies in its presentation of self–youthful, driven, ethereal and high-tech. You won’t find animal acts; you won’t find anything that remotely smacks of Ringling Bros. or Barnum & Bailey except the popcorn.

The flounes , led by roly-poly ringmistress France La Bonte, are its most seductive nouvelle invention. Their versatile gobbledygook, counterpoint physical skills, the way they move–like anxious ostriches or surprised whooping cranes–are a wonderful contrast to the sleek, astral look of a state-of-the-art Cirque that won’t let you stop gasping or guffawing for a moment. (A word of caution, however: This show may be too sophisticated for very young children. Children over 5 will probably enjoy it more.)

Thursday’s opening-night audience clamored for no less than five curtain calls. For all its novelty, the “Nouvelle Experience” had done it the old-fashioned way: It had earned them.

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By: John Godfrey | LA Times
January 28, 1991

Spectacular. Ingenius. Unbelievable. Inhuman. These are the sorts of words that jump out in response to Cirque du Soleil’s “Nouvelle Experience,” an eye-opening, jaw-dropping circus event playing outside San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, through Feb. 10.

Underneath its trademark blue-and-yellow big top, Cirque du Soleil performers defy gravity just as the show’s designers defy convention, integrating theatrical elements into a world of human spectacle. Yes, clowns fool around on stage during this circus, just as contortionists bend and acrobats soar easily through the air. Still, Cirque du Soleil presents amazing performance after amazing performance as little more than a starting point, a springboard from which the real show begins.

Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) pitched its tent in Balboa Park 3 1/2 years ago and wowed San Diego audiences with its unique, animal-less circus. By injecting elements of an actual story line, dance choreography, laser technology and stage theatrics, Cirque du Soleil succeeded in creating a new genre, a one-of-a-kind event. On Saturday, le cirque returned to San Diego with “Nouvelle Experience,” an all-new show that struck the same successful balance between physical feats and design spectacle.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Flounes”–four maniacal, bird-like clowns–introduce the action on stage. Dressed in Dominique Lemieux’s colorful, otherworldly costumes, the “Flounes” take physical comedy to a new level, inciting uproarious laughter as they embark on the simple, yet somehow dangerous journey from upstage curtain to downstage platform. The “Flounes” serve as a binder throughout the evening, providing welcome distraction between routines and outlining a loose narrative subplot as the hapless fools struggle to communicate with an outcast “human” clown.

“Nouvelle Experience” features two solo routines by yet another clown, English-born Geoff Hoyle. The multitalented Hoyle has appeared in front of San Diego audiences before, acting in three La Jolla Playhouse productions, including a starring role in last year’s “Don Quixote de La Jolla.” Hoyle’s performances proved uneven Saturday night. His first piece, an audience-participation act entitled “Mr. Sniff,” seemed a bit contrived and the show dragged perceptibly as Hoyle worked his way through a series of Ed Norton-esque comedy bits. Hoyle returned after intermission, however, with a wonderful, show-stopping three-legged man routine. Alone on stage with his five limbs, Hoyle danced with himself and captivated the sold-out audience of 2,500 with an imaginative demonstration of wit and physical prowess.

Throughout the evening, Cirque du Soleil director and artistic director Franco Dragone took conventional circus acts and added something–anything–in order to make stunts seem fresh. Cirque du Soleil’s female contortionists, four Quebecers aged 12 to 14, danced their way through a series of impossible postures, turning a rather commonplace sideshow act into a slick, choreographed routine. Similarly, Russian-born acrobat Vassiliy Demenchoukov revived a tired circus standard, climbing his way atop a stack of eight chairs–carrying a birthday cake with lighted candles.

Vladimir Kehkaial’s “Aerial Straps” routine proved to be the most bizarre, most incongruous segment of “Nouvelle Experience.” The scantily-clad Kehkaial looked like a perfume-ad model–an unlikely meeting between Tarzan and Vidal Sasson–as he flew across the stage suspended by arm straps. Unlike most Cirque du Soleil performers, Kehkaial seemed to bask in his abilities, drawing attention to himself with a pained expression on his face and an overly romanticized manner to his movements. The vast majority of Cirque performers demonstrated one expression–glee–as they performed throughout the evening.

Lighting designer Luc Lafortune and set designer Michael Crete succeeded in creating a dramatic, versatile environ for the show. Lafortune, in particular, made his presence felt in “Nouvelle Experience. ” During the more straightforward circus acts, such as Anne Lepage’s solo trapeze work and the ensemble’s “Korean Plank” routine, the big top glowed with appropriate glamour and flash. For the more stylized numbers–Kehkaial’s aerial routine, for instance–Lafortune used soft, diffused light to create an entirely distinct playing space, a perfect look for the ethereal performance.

At its inception seven years ago, Cirque du Soleil founders coined a phrase that captures the essence of this circus company: “Behind each perilous leap, there is a purpose, an intention, an individual, an emotion.” The troupe remains true to that vision today.

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By: Jan Herman | LA Times
February 21, 1991

Nothing could be further from the grim reality of the Persian Gulf War than the beautiful fantasy of Cirque du Soleil, which opens Friday at the South Coast Plaza parking lot in Costa Mesa.

Yet during a recent afternoon in San Diego, where the Montreal-based circus played earlier this month on its current North American tour, staff carpenter Peter Le Blanc was constructing a can non-like missile launcher behind the blue-and-yellow Big Top tent.

The launcher, designed along the lines of an old Prussian artillery piece rather than a Patriot battery, could become oper able in time to protect South Coast Plaza by firing a droop-nosed Everyman missile called Mr. Sniff, if not on opening night, within a week of it.

“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” said Le Blanc, hinting cryptically that Mr. Sniff’s ballistic plans cannot be predicted with any more accuracy than a Scud missile’s and might well pose a danger to shoppers and circus-goers alike.

In the artists’ rehearsal tent later that day, I caught up with Geoffrey Hoyle, the British-born creator of Mr. Sniff, who was getting ready to practice some of his most dexterous ground moves with a battered bowler hat. I asked him about the launcher.

“If (Gen.) H. Norman Schwarzkopf calls to say he needs a secret weapon,” Hoyle replied, “Mr. Sniff may be it, although I think not. He is an anti-heroist.”

The implication was that Mr. Sniff’s trajectory might not carry him beyond the cannon’s lip, much less across the circus ring. Without Mr. Sniff’s huge proboscis on his face, moreover, Hoyle seemed no threat to anyone. His pale, round eyes had an innocent gaze. His voice was gentle.

But that is not to say he could not become dangerous. Put him in clown costume at center stage and he turns into what he termed “a human bomb,” more than ready to blow up pride and property.

Hoyle, a former student of Parisian mime master Etienne Decroux, has been a theatrical explosive for years in the San Francisco Bay Area (where he lives) and, more recently, at the La Jolla Playhouse in “A Man’s a Man,” “Feast of Fools” and “Don Quixote de la Jolla.”

“My interests lie in the anarchistic elements of the fool’s role,” said Hoyle, who joined the circus tour in San Diego as the clown soloist replacing David Shiner. “I really don’t want the character of Mr. Sniff to get soft or pretty. I want to keep on the edge of risk, not to mention a certain amount of reality, because laughter comes in this situation from breaking taboos.

“If I go into the crowd and I take someone’s clothes off or I mess with someone’s possessions, that’s a huge taboo, especially in America,” he added. “People see the risk. They recognize it as something they probably would like to do themselves. So I’m enacting their unconscious desire. That has been a historical attribute of the clown from way back in primitive ritual.”

Cirque du Soleil does not originate quite that far back. But Gilles Ste-Croix, who helped found the circus in 1984 and is its casting director, admitted that he, too, wanted Hoyle “to really rock the public.” At first, though, Ste-Croix wondered just how daring Mr. Sniff would be.

Hoyle came in as a replacement on only 24 hours’ notice (because Shiner had exercised an option to return to Europe) and, thus, had no time to adjust to the rhythm or the atmosphere of the show. By his second performance, however, Ste-Croix needn’t have wondered.

“Geoff got hold of a lady’s purse,” he recalled in French-accented English. “He went through that purse like a scaven ger. He took the money, the credit cards, the car keys, the old Kleenex. The lady was really embarrassed.”

The casting director, a former stilt walker who at age 41 calls himself the “grandfather” of the troupe, noted further that Hoyle provides a raw counterpoint to the slick beauty of “Nouvelle Experience,” as this edition of the circus is titled. But, above all, the clown soloist serves as an essential link to the troupe’s theatrical roots in street performance.

“We knew with our first edition that we had something different from the traditional circus,” said Ste-Croix, who was sipping an espresso on the terrace of the artists’ canteen after a tasty lunch (this circus travels with its own chef). “It wasn’t the fact that we don’t have animals. It was the way we present the acts. We are from the streets. We brought the essence of that into the tent.

“If you see a performer in the street, even a simple juggler, there is some kind of theatrical approach,” he said. “In the early days, we presented each act that way. Then we refined it into a thematic style. ‘Nouvelle Experience’ is our most developed production in that respect.”

Certainly it is larger than ever, despite the relative intimacy of a one-ring circus. This edition is traveling with 39 performers, 61 crew members, 58 trailers and more than 600 tons of equipment. The new Big Top tent–custom-made in France for more than $750,000–still takes only a day to erect, but now accomodates 2,500 people (750 more than before).

In fact, what began as a risky enterprise with a $1-million grant from the Quebec provincial government has turned into a huge success, commercially and artistically. This year the circus’s worldwide budget totals about $16 million, with only a tiny fraction coming from government funds as a form of “symbolic sponsorship,” Ste-Croix said.

Daily preparations for the show can be both intense and deceptively casual. An afternoon spent wandering the circus grounds, as the troupe went through its usual backstage activities, gave the impression of a rather democratic family of performers who truly appeared to be enjoying their life on the road.

Nobody was more spirited, for instance–nor more different from the role he plays–than Vladimir Kehkaial, a 29-year-old aerialist from the Ukraine with a flowing mane of jet-black hair. In the show he flies virtually naked on leather straps like a haunting figure out of the Icarus legend, as spectral and flamboyant an emblem for this “circus of the sun” as any performer on the tour.

The only hint of Kehkaial’s aerial grace as he careened around the circus grounds on roller-skates for more than an hour was an apparently miraculous ability to avoid bodily injury to himself and others. After diving through alleys between trailers, climbing stairways at breakneck speed and caroming off people like a pinball, he finally took a break for a cigarette.

“When I was 10, I study ice skates,” he said. “Here no ice. So I do this. Is good. Weather is good. I like.”

A former coal miner, Kehkaial said he became a circus performer in the Soviet Union while in his mid-20s. He worked his way up to “the straps,” an aerial style developed by the Chinese, but became a soloist for the first time last year in Canada with Cirque du Soleil after Ste-Croix discovered him in Moscow.

“I try to make solo three years there, and nobody believe me,” he said. “Now I make solo here and they say, ‘Vladimir, come back.’ I don’t want go. I like American public. In Soviet Union, I have no friend, no money. I like bring my mother here. All her life she fix rails for train. Is harder work than coal mine.”

Kehkaial stubbed out his cigarette and examined the blue, cloudless sky. A pennant and three flags–representing the United States, Canada and the province of Quebec–fluttered in the wind above the Big Top tent.

“California is good,” he said. “I like.”

Then he was off skating again, pretending the San Diego asphalt was as smooth as Ukrainian ice.

In the meantime, the four teen-age contortionists featured in the show were busy studying algebra under the tutelage of Robert Ballard at a nearby classroom trailer.

“They must pass the regular school exams at the end of the year just like everyone else,” said Ballard, a 27-year-old teacher from Montreal who joined the tour in April. “So they have to study hard.”

Isabelle Chasse, who is 14, knew that perhaps too well. She looked up from her algebra textbook and groaned.

“I really don’t like this subject,” she said, then tucked her head back down and resumed writing mathematical equations in her notebook.

In a troupe with a profusion of exotic acts dominated by Canadians but drawing many players from different parts of the world–among them Polish acrobats, French trapeze fliers and Flounes (a species of clown), and Soviet balancing artists–the purest home-grown product of Cirque du Soleil is the contortionist team.

Each of the four girls–Chasse, Jinny Jacinto, Laurence Racine and Nadine Binette–trained in gymnastics and contortion at Montreal’s National Circus School, but none had contemplated turning professional until Cirque du Soleil President Guy Laliberte convinced their parents they could succeed as an act.

After studying for a year with a celebrated Chinese contortion teacher, they represented the troupe at the international Circus of Tomorrow competition in Paris in January, 1990. There they won the gold medal for artists up to 14 years of age, besting even the top-rated Chinese team. Three months later, they joined the “Nouvelle Experience” tour.

‘It’s like a dream for me,” said Jacinto, who will turn 15 in August. “. . . I worked hard to be here. It doesn’t come just like that.”

Indeed not. After four hours of academic classes, which let out by midafternoon, Jacinto and her three cohorts took an hour’s break and then spent two hours training.

As showtime approached, activity also intensified in the Big Top. A pair of “Russian bar” fliers tuned up their dazzling somersaults. Choreographer Debra Brown put a cadre of blue-suited acrobats through precision dance steps to heighten their impersonation of corporate automatons.

At the same time, artistic director Franco Dragone was reshaping a trampoline number yet to be inserted into the show because it had not reached the level of excitement that he wanted. Then, for the better part of an hour, the French-speaking Dragone and four of the acrobats sat at the perimeter of the ring and frankly assessed what was wrong.

One of the issues involved Philippe Chartrand, the world champion on the high bar at the 1983 World University Games and captain of the Canadian gymnastic team at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. The number used to feature the 27-year-old athlete leaping from the trampoline to the high bar. But he was not hired to perform that stunt in the show this year.

“It was a very exciting moment, and they miss it now,” said Chartrand. “So they want it back. I don’t mind. Only I don’t want to do two passes on the high bar. . . .I don’t want to injure myself. I have 300 shows to do this year, and I want to do them all.”

Although the reshaping of the trampoline number was left unresolved, the discussion between the acrobats and Dragone was typical of both the troupe’s seriousness and its open informality.

“Behind the scenes it is very democratic here,” Chartrand said. “We are heard as artists, and we listen as artists. We make decisions to see if something works. If not, we find another solution.

“The question of who will be a star, all that la-la-la , sometimes gets into the air. But when it does, we deal with it, because the whole concept of Cirque du Soleil is that there is no star. We are a unified company, and that is what makes it so good.”

Outside the Big Top, dusk had already begun to fall. In little more than an hour, the tent would fill with spectators about to be galvanized not by particular stars–true to Chartrand’s word–but by an entire constellation of performers.

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That’s all I have room for in this issue, but there’s plenty more to come!

• Issue #164, SEP 2017 – Nouvelle Expérience, Part 2 (1991)
• Issue #165, OCT 2017 – Saltimbanco, Part 1 (1992)
• Issue #166, NOV 2017 – Saltimbanco, Part 2 (1993)
• Issue #167, DEC 2017 – Alegría, Part 1 (1994)
• Issue #168, JAN 2018 – Alegría, Part 2 (1995)
• Issue #169, FEB 2018 – Quidam, Part 1 (1996-1997)
• Issue #170, MAR 2018 – Quidam, Part 2 (1998)
• Issue #171, APR 2018 – Dralion, Part 1 (1999-2001)
• Issue #172, MAY 2018 – Dralion, Part 2 (2001-2003)
• Issue #173, JUN 2018 – Varekai, Part 1 (2002)
• Issue #174, JUL 2018 – Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)
• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)