“A Trip Into The Archives”

“A Trip Into The Archives”
By: Ricky Russo – Atlanta, Georgia (USA)

Researching a company with a history like Cirque du Soleil’s can lead you – if you’re not careful – down a huge rabbit hole. Imagine starting a search for information on one specific topic only to end up diving into the archives to chase down a dozen other interesting leads, more mysterious and unbelievable than the last. The end result of these archival journeys is usually something that shakes the foundations of what I know, or thought I knew, about Cirque du Soleil and its shows.

Take, for instance, Nouvelle Experience.

As fans of Cirque du Soleil, we’re familiar with Nouvelle Experience’s basic acrobatic skeleton — Contortion, Korean Plank, Solo Trapeze, Fil de Fer, Aerial Straps, Intermission, Trapeze Volant, Antipodism, Russian Bar / Trampoline / Cradle, and Balancing on Chairs — thanks to the 1991 recording made in Toronto. But would it surprise you to know that this was not the initial order of acts for Nouvelle Experience? Because it shocked the hell out of me. On one of my recent archival searches I ran across a review of the show from its premiere in Montreal and it showed quite a different show!

The first half features several airborne acts, of which the most spectacular is Vladimir Kechaje’s. There is no attempt to hide the thick straps used, a la Peter Pan; the marvel of the act is watching Kechaje wrap himself in the straps, and soar about the huge tent like an Icarus waiting for a fall. Kechaje seems from another planet – in part because of his somber, grand entrance wearing nothing but a sequined jockstrap – and it is the Cirque at its other-worldly best. Also from the Soviet Union is Vassily Dementchoukov’s superb balancing-chair act, and from China, Wang Hong – billed as “Magic Feet of the Orient” – using her tootsies to spin umbrellas and shawls, all the while smiling winsomely. Anne Lepage’s solo trapeze act is almost as lyrical as the work of Kechaje and, in the tumbling category, the acrobats who bounce through the air with double somersaults are first-rate. In the second act, four young girls make up the contortionist act. Aged 10 to 14 and students at the National Circus School in Montreal, they are as supple as uncooked pretzels, and perform a variety of stomach-churning movements with aplomb. But the show almost came to a halt when the net for the five-member French trapeze troupe refused to descend from the ceiling for the final act. The glitch only served to heighten expectations. Which was unfortunate, as the act turned out to be poorly focused and anticlimactic. The net was kept hopping as the flying leapers missed their connections again and again.

Did you catch the differences? Contortion opened the second half of the show, not the first, and Trapeze Volant CLOSED out the show.

The fact that Cirque du Soleil’s shows are not final at premiere shouldn’t be a huge revelation to anyone. For those who’ve made the trek to Montreal know how much a show can change even by the next night’s performance. But I’ve always believed this type of change was more of a recent phenomenon, not something that affected the pre-Alegria Cirque shows, and yet… here we are.

Of course the next question that comes to mind is: why did Cirque du Soleil change the running order of Nouvelle Experience in the first place? The answer, I think, is quite simple. Recall that the net gave the troupe some trouble according to the review from Montreal – it refused to descend from the ceiling on cue. Subsequent reviews in Montreal and Seattle, the show’s next stop, mentioned similar issues with the net. Therefore, moving Trapeze Volant into the opening slot of the show’s second half helps solve that problem – techs would have all of intermission to get the net properly into position (and be sure it could be retracted so the show could go on). This change meant that Contortion, which appeared to have opened the second-half of the show, needed to be moved. It became the new opening act of the show whilst another act – in this case Vassily’s “Balancing on Chairs” act – moved to the end of the show as its new finale.

What is not clear is precisely when these changes went into effect. Opening reviews on Nouvelle Experience’s 3rd stop – San Francisco – note the show in the order that we know and love today. So, the changes were ready for California, but could have been implemented during the Seattle run. We may never know for sure.

But this isn’t the only interesting tid-bit found in these archival dives.

I had my knowledge about Saltimbanco shattered on another such journey after coming across an article in the Montreal Gazette dated April 11, 1992 talking about the show, which was about to launch in the Old Port within a couple of weeks:

It was makeup-testing day at the Cirque du Soleil, and British acrobat Sue Brent looked like a punk rocker at Halloween. Her face was aflame with multicolored greasepaint. Her jet-black hair was tied up in a ponytail on top of her half-shaven head. But appearances can be deceiving. Brent is a former elementary- school teacher who quit, at age 30, to seek a more creative lifestyle. First she studied the trombone. Then she signed up for a course in clowning. From there she progressed to street shows, and finally circuses. Now, at 34, she performs the “cloud swing,” the most dangerous aerial act in the latest version of the Cirque du Soleil. Brent wasn’t able to demonstrate her act that afternoon; she had displaced a neck vertebra the day before. So she described it instead, while devouring lunch in the Cirque’s gourmet-quality employee cafeteria.

“It’s the ultimate liberation,” she said. “There’s a U-shaped rope, rigged about 11 meters high in the tent. You swing on it standing up and then you do tricks like wrapping it around your feet and diving off. In the traditional circus it’s a real macho, men-dressed-in-Tarzan-knickers act. There’s no safety wire. It’s a high-risk act.” Does she carry good insurance? “In the circus, yes. But not if I get hit by a car,” she replied cheerfully as she left for an appointment with the Cirque’s resident masseur Pietro Biondo.

Cloud Swing!? In Saltimbanco!?

Again, as fans of Cirque du Soleil, we’re intimately familiar with the acrobatic flow of the show… and a Cloud Swing act was never in the run. So, with just 22 days left until premiere, what happened?
The obvious clue here is that the artist became injured during rehearsals and could not demonstrate her act to the press. It’s possible then that she didn’t recover in time for the show’s premiere on April 23rd of that year. Though why the act did not go on to be re-integrated into the show afterwards appears lost to time (at least publicly, the artist nor the act is mentioned in association with Cirque again); however, another article dated September 12, 1991 mentions Brent “departing” a circus in Edinburgh, Scotland, having “assigned herself too much importance in the company.” So it’s possible she clashed with Dragone and/or other artists and creators and was let go to solve that problem. The writer of the Cirque article does mention that the day they visited the site, rehearsal schedules were “torn asunder” due to some unspecified personal conflicts in the cast. Perhaps she was part of that conflict. Or, the company could have also determined that it was not ready to accept the insurance risks of the act itself and did not give her a contract.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding her departure from Saltimbanco, it stands to reason she was around long enough to have her Clown Swing act integrated into the show’s flow. But where? Since there’s no official word on this matter, any answer to that question is open to a lot of conjecture. Obviously the house troupe acts like Chinese Poles and Russian Swings are shoo-ins, as they represent a huge aspect of the show’s cast (not to mention its signature pieces). Even Bungees was an early integral part of the show’s line-up, so we need to look at one of the individual or specialty acts to see if any of them were late additions. But this supposes, however, that Brent and her Cloud Swing act was replaced, rather than removed entirely from the line-up.

The April 1992 article goes on to say that “Brent is just one of 38 acrobats, clowns and jugglers who will be performing in Saltimbanco.” And that “This year’s lineup includes top talent from Russia, England, Portugal, Cuba, Germany, the Dominican Republic and China.” Those passages suggest that the Lorador Brothers (Hand-to-Hand), Sun Hongli (Double Wire), and Miguel Herrera (Juggling) were already part of the line-up, as they’re from Portugal, China, and Cuba respectively. (Hongli was even mentioned by name in that article; The Lorador Brothers in the photo credits.) The Steben Sisters (Trapeze) were also there from the beginning, as they came to Cirque du Soleil in 1990 and were then subsequently trained at the National Circus School.

Therefore, we’re left with Nicolai Tchelnokov, Galina Karableva, and Anton Tchelnokov’s double-feature of Adagio Trio and Vertical Rope, and Boleadoras by Malamba (Ann Bernard, Hélène Lemay, and Francois Beausoleil).

Even though Adagio is not pictured or mentioned anywhere in the 1992 Saltimbanco programme book (as printed in April 1992), there’s no doubt that Adagio opened the show (it’s also mentioned in the reviews). And there are a number of press reviews from Montreal – and beyond, really – that mention Vertical Rope and its accompanying song “Pokinoi” in them. (In fact “Pokinoi” was getting quite the radio play in Los Angeles.) Additionally, the Tchelnokov’s are seen in the behind-the-scenes documentary “Saltimbanco’s Diary”, so they’re obviously not late additions to the line-up. What we don’t see early on is Boleadoras. They’re not mentioned in the programme book nor are they mentioned in reviews, however, if one watches the aforementioned “Saltimbanco’s Diary” documentary you can see the act is clearly being rehearsed, so… why aren’t they in the show?

Well, here’s where more supposition comes into play: it’s obvious that “Saltimbanco’s Diary” was filmed not long before premiere and during premiere, as some footage of an early performance is interjected throughout. So if Malamba were brought in days before premiere to substitute for Cloud Swing, they may not have been ready to perform in the show. At least not ready until later in Montreal’s run when the press wouldn’t have been as attentive to the show’s changes (and therefore little coverage provided.) Interestingly, Boleadoras is mentioned almost exclusively in reviews as Saltimbanco wound its way across the United States while virtually all mentions of Vertical Rope disappear, although both are published acts in the 1993 Programme Book.

Additionally, an article from the Montreal Gazette dated November 4, 1994, mentions Saltimbanco’s special performances there before the show took off to Europe. Within the article they say “The only completely new act is a boleadoras number performed by two very Latin-looking Quebecoises, Anne Bernard and Helene Lemay, with Francois Beausoleil on percussion.” This tells me that Boleadoras was not in the Montreal run at all. Either way, learning that Cloud Swing was considered for Saltimbanco blows the mind. Now, I wonder, which song it would have used. “Pokinoi” doesn’t sound right for a Cloud Swing act… but “Rave Out” does!

But wait, there’s more! Montreal’s French-language newspaper La Presse also spoke with artists on April 11th, and mentioned another English-born acrobat in its article that we never saw perform – Rose Zone. Ms. Zone, as a quick internet search advises, is a “modern solo contortionist known for her artistic poses and elaborate costumes.” Though I have not been able to determine why she was not selected for Saltimbanco’s final line-up, it’s possible that her contortion act – while good on its own – may not have ultimately been what the creators wanted as a follow-up to the quadruple act that performed in Nouvelle Experience.

As exciting as it is to find out that Nouvelle Experience was in a different order in the beginning and that a discipline first seen in Quidam was seriously considered for Saltimbanco, this next find is equally mind-blowing. Imagine my surprise as I read the below passage from The Toronto Star dated June 18, 1995, regarding Cirque du Soleil’s performance there:

Among the featured performers, there is a decided emphasis on aerial work, apart from the two 10-year-old, Mongolian contortionists. After the overture, the show moves into some fairly standard – which is not to say unimpressive – trapeze work. And it closes with a high bar act by The Flying Lev, an eye-spinning ensemble of six soaring Russians. More novelly, French performer Isabelle Vaudelle slides up and down two strips of cloth, at times turning herself into an approximation of a human hammock, and Russian Mikhail Matorin mixes suspension and twirling in an original routine involving a wire cube.

Did you catch that? Yeah, Isabelle Vaudelle… in Alegría… performing her signature aerial silk act we thought we saw first in Quidam. O.M.G. The Globe and Mail from June 19th mentions her:

Two of its most remarkable acts are single acrobats who seduce as much as they astonish. Hanging by his hands from gymnast’s rings, Russian acrobat Mikhail Matorin manipulates a huge, metal, cube-shaped frame with his head and feet, giving the illusion that he is tumbling about inside a box. The French acrobat Isabelle Vaudelle has just joined the Cirque and her Drape act is a show-stealing North American premiere. Suspended from a long, red banner, she wraps herself in the fabric, twisting her body into astonishing positions.

And The Globe and Mail would also feature her in an article dated July 8th:

Isabelle Vaudelle, 22, is a native of France who appears to be the classic circus performer in that she ran away from home at age 18 in order to become a member of the theatre world’s rarest societies. [She] has been with Cirque only since June 16, which is when Alegria opened at Ontario Place in Toronto. When this show closes, Vaudelle returns to France where she says she will likely find a new job in a short period of time, [performing] the same number wherever she goes. Vaudelle [was] approached to bring [her] signature act to Alegria, a show whose theme of life as a composite of oppositions (birth/death, good/bad, and light/dark) allowed for exploration of the human condition. [Hers is] a solo piece in which she hangs upside down from the ceiling wrapped in a piece of red cloth. [In the act,] the imagery of a woman cradled in a swath of scarlet fabric suggests a tumultuous nativity. Her brief stretches and precarious balance are images symbolic of life as fragile and uncertain. The dead-weight drop of her body at the end looks like death as a brute finality. Of the meanings in her work, Vaudelle is reticent to elaborate. She says, speaking in French, that her body creates the imagery first; her mind finds reason in what she has done after the fact.

To find that Isabelle Vaudelle played Alegría before being featured in Quidam absolutely blew my mind. How did I not know this? But now that we know that she was brought on for Toronto’s run of Alegría (June 16 to July 9, 1995), a number of questions come to mind: Why was she brought on? Who did she replace? Where in the show did her act perform? And to what music?

Although I can’t say for sure, my educated guess is that she came on as a replacement for the Shoulder-Pole act during Toronto’s run. I conjecture that the artists in the act may have had VISA issues and/or problems preventing them from crossing the Canadian border again for just a short period of time (the show would go back to the United States following Toronto), therefore, the Shoulder-Pole artists had an extended vacation whilst they brought in another act to fill-in. (And what an act!) As for her placement in the show… I would suggest she popped right in the Shoulder-Pole slot, following Synchro Trapeze, FastTrack, and a clown bit. As for the music she performed to? It’s possible she performed to “Kalandéro”, but it doesn’t strike the right chord. Then again I’m used to hearing/seeing her perform to “Let Me Fall” so I might be a little biased.

These are the kinds of things I run across as I research topics on Cirque du Soleil. Sometimes the things I find are mundane, but sometimes… why they shake the very core of what I and others know about the company and its productions. And that, my friends, is why I do it!

Until next dive!