What if suddenly a whole pack of potential actors and dancers ran away with the circus? As a matter of fact, this is what’s happened in Quebec.
Don’t count on me for a studious history lesson, but it does seem as if the phenomenally internationally successful Cirque du Soleil now has a substantial fleet of smaller craft bobbing in its wake. Circus is now a bona fide funding category in the arts bureaucracy, a sure sign of legitimacy in Quebec.
These are morning after thoughts to be sure. While I was watching Patrick Léonard’s fabulous solo show Patinoire at Théâtre La Chapelle, all I could do was grip my seat, wondering when the dare-devil was going to topple and be hauled off-stage on a stretcher. Léonard’s act may not be as dangerous as it looks, but there was a palpable sense of fear in the opening night audience.
A member of the celebrated cirque troupe Les 7 doigts de la main, Léonard started out by explaining he’d been working up to a solo show for years, and so hoped he could pull it off. The evening started low-key, with the performer in cords and t-shirt assembling the most ordinary of props – a collapsible table, gymnasium chair, a hodgepodge of ancient stereo speakers connected to a turntable and amp. Just the kind of stuff you’d expect to find in an ‘80s basement, which is where the piece seemed to be set, in the basement of Léonard’s mind.
What happened after that was pure, exhilarating exhibitionism, stunts, tricks, sleight of hand galore, the performer always keeping eye contact with his audience. The repertoire is rough, zany, inventive and refreshingly devoid of slick. In fact, the feeling of choreographed improvisation adds to the tension. When I wasn’t worrying about bodily injury, I was afraid he’d run out of ideas and just stand there, sobbing, and we’d all feel so bad. Such is the intensity of the performer’s need to dazzle, you get completely caught up in his desperation, his need to stretch every muscle on behalf of the show.
Agreed, the circus has been declared an art. Maybe next, an Olympic sport. Watching this extraordinary effort, I felt like I was watching the actor, Everyman, naked. So this is what propels the theatre artist, a raw need to be seen and dazzle? No secondary agenda such as story-telling or soul-searching. Just us and him. A night to remember.
Patinoire continues at Théâtre la Chapelle, 3700 St. Dominique St., through April 30.