Paris, a wet November bank holiday Monday morning. On the outskirts of the city, Universite Paris Nanterre is deserted. This is a far cry from fifty years ago, when the 1960s-built campus once nicknamed Mad Nanterre helped ignite the student revolt that sired the seismic events of May 1968, when a revolutionary circus took to the streets.
Today, however, other than the seven Edinburgh-based street theatre makers walking purposefully down the boulevard, there’s not a soul in sight. They take their bank holidays seriously in France. Look a little harder, however, and as the performers from the tellingly named PyroCeltica and Circus Alba companies are about to discover, circus is an even more serious proposition.
This is something the compound of big top tents just off the main drag inside Les arenes des Nanterre, home of Les Noctambules circus school, makes arrestingly clear. In one of the big tops, a trapeze and ropes hang down from on high like some makeshift gym. Next to the bar in the corner, a unicycle hangs from a poster covered wall above two upright pianos standing back to back. One of the pianos is covered by a dust-sheet, as if asleep in its cage. An archaic heating system growls intermittently, as if a monster living below has just had their winter hibernation disturbed.
Today, however, this is the work-space for PyroCeltica and Circus Alba to learn what is required when they collaborate with Paris-based street-spectacle auteurs, Compagnie Remue Ménage – it translates as hullabaloo or ruckus - at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’s Street Party.
With support from the Scottish Government and City of Edinburgh Council’s PLACE fund, the three companies will perform a new version of piece called Amorous Ballad. Already part of Remue Ménage’s repertoire, this illuminated street parade fuses giant puppets, acrobats and choreography as two lovers in illuminated head-dresses tango their way between the National Gallery of Scotland, The Mound and Parliament Square.
In Paris, the performers from Scotland are put through their paces by Remue Ménage’s choreographer, Veronica Endo.
“We very much like working with companies from other countries,” says Endo, whose previous experience of Edinburgh includes choreographing Gilbert Deflo’s production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, with Jordi Savall conducting, at the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival. “It’s interesting to bring the Scottish artists to our studio, and to learn about them as much as they learn about what we do.”
A similar exchange, also supported by the PLACE Fund, was instigated in Germany a couple of weeks later, where Edinburgh-based Beltane veterans Harbinger Drum Crew hooked up with the light-based Dundu company. Such international exchanges show off what current political events in the UK might make difficult, and it’s no accident that this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is accompanied by the slogan, Be Together.
While European street theatre companies visiting Edinburgh is nothing new, watching Catriona Smith, Kirstie Duncan and Colin Morton from PyroCeltica swing their way through things to a soundtrack of Remue Ménage composer Erwan Loeffel’s rhythm-driven fiddle music is a treat. As is watching the Circus Alba team of Callum Donald, Laura Harrison, William Thorburn and Adam Romaine pad about in hi-tech looking stilts under the guidance of Remue Ménage’s Florentine Chartier.
Members of both companies are part of a busy and tight-knit under-the-radar Edinburgh circus and street theatre scene. Year-round support for the artform in Scotland is minimal, however, and companies and venues have come and gone. A lack of civic knowledge of circus at local and national level often leaves companies like PyroCeltica and Circus Alba poor relations in terms of funding and long-term infrastructure.
Despite this, PyroCeltica have been running ten years, having formed from from the ashes of Te Pooka, who were based in Big Red Door, a space in Tollcross they called home until rent increases forced them out. PyroCeltica formalised as a company after ex members of Te Pooka took part in Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’s Torchlight Parade. The Big Red Door space is now a restaurant.
Circus Alba too have survived for more than a decade. This is despite a lack of training opportunities for circus skills in Scotland. While fiercely self-determined, if company members really want to learn their stuff, they have to go to Rotterdam. Or Paris. Having similar resources to Remue Ménage would be a dream for PyroCeltica and Circus Alba, but in the current climate is unlikely. Again, any further international collaborations look set set to be complicated by Brexit.
Later, the performers move to the old warehouse space that makes up Remue Ménage’s HQ in Vray, an area just outside Paris, next to the thirteenth arrondissement, where the city’s Chinatown district is situated. Inside, an ornate 19th century carriage sits on one side of the room. A row of three wind-up gramophones are perched aloft, with a costume rail draped with vintage apparel in front. On the corner are stacked a fierce looking pile of fibreglass polar bear heads. Despite the clutter, Endo works out another routine with the entire Scottish/French alliance, augmented by Remue Ménage performers Angelique Verger and Maxim Campistron.
“It’s a huge challenge,” says Endo. “Everyone has to learn this very fast.”
All three companies will reconvene for intensive rehearsals in Edinburgh next week.
“It would be great if all of us could have a common feeling as part of one big team,” says Endo. “There may be three different companies doing this, but if we concentrate and work hard, we can all melt into one.”
Amorous Ballad is performed by Remue Ménage with Circus Alba and PyroCeltica as part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’s Street Party on December 31.
The Herald, December 21st 2019