I was lucky enough to catch Leo by Circle of Eleven at the International Fadjr Festival in Tehran. The entire show was an uplifting experience for me – not only because it is a witty, astonishing and delightful experience that appealed to the sense of childish delight that I thought I had mislaid along the path to adulthood – but also because its exuberant physicality was a refreshing change at the end of an exhausting eleven-day festival.
I had been invited to sit on the jury of the Fadjr Festival in Iran and one of the many things I learned while I was there was that dance was forbidden. Dance, I gathered, is inherently lustful and therefore has the potential to lure even the most righteous of men into temptation. Choreography, on the other hand, is permissible ... so long as men and women don’t touch one another.
This, I suppose, is why this French-Canadian-German co-production was invited – with only one performer onstage there was little danger the foreigners would inadvertently offend the censors and bring embarrassment or ruin to the festival organizers. But there was another, better reason it was invited – it’s an astonishingly virtuosic physical performance created with a truly international sensibility.
Their press materials say that Circle of Eleven “carries on the spirit of classic German variety theatre at a contemporary circus level”. Julian, who lives now in Berlin, is certainly a product of the discipline and precision that circus training is famed for. And I can definitely see the German influence in his Homburg-style hat. But I can also see a German influence in the production overall, particularly in the strict formalism of the split stage.
For those readers who have not yet seen the video clip, the character Leo spends the entire play in a small room: adjacent to him is a projection of the same room, but tilted at 90 degrees. The result is a stunning visual illusion that sees the character slowly discover that he can defy gravity.
While Leo is a product of a German sensibility, it is also undeniably French. So, as much as the performance builds on the tradition of the German variety show and circus, I cannot help but think that it is steeped in the tradition of Jacques Lecoc and Marcel Marceau, two famous French performers who transformed international dance and theatre with a rigorous approach to physical performance.
Now imagine my surprise when I found out that Leo is not French, but French-Canadian. The director of the production, Daniel Brière, is an actor, director, and writer, and co-artistic director of the Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental in Montreal and has worked extensively abroad. I’m not sure why it should have come as a surprise to me: the innovative yet quirky use of projection technology. in relation to highly physical performances, is frequently a hallmark of work from Quebec.
(Sidebar: Daniel is married to the playwright Evelyne De La Cheneliere whom Calgary audiences may remember as the author of Strawberries in January and whom film buffs may have figured out is the author of last year’s Academy Award nominated film Monsieur Lazhar).
Ironically, Fluid’s main point of contact in organizing this tour was neither Daniel nor Julian: it was their agent, producer and international man of mystery Wolfgang Hoffman. In 1990 Wolfgang co-founded the Fabrik Potsdam in Germany where he worked as a dancer, choreographer and Artistic Director for 14 years, before moving on to be Artistic Director of the Dublin International Theatre Festival. From 2001 to 2007 Wolfgang ran the celebrated venue Aurora Nova at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 2009 Aurora Nova Productions was founded to continue that aesthetic by bringing high quality work such as “Leo” to venues around the world.
But let’s be fair: I’m really imposing my own cultural bias onto the performance. The strict formalism of the project is no more German than it is French: it only matches the stereotype of the German sensibility that I hold in my mind. Julian, the performer, trained not in France under Lecoc or Marceau, but in Brussels with the choreographer Cruz Mata among others. And Fluid regulars will know that Vancouver-based artists are just as famous for their innovative use of projection technology as the Quebecois.
Frankly, I think the biography of these three men brings my theme crumbling down around my ears. If a work is truly international, it defies geo-political boundaries, just as Julian, Daniel and Wolfgang do as individuals.
So let’s not celebrate Leo’s cultural specificity. Let’s instead celebrate Leo’s unique vision, which defies classification and refuses reductionism.
See you at the show!
Ken Cameron is a playwright, producer and Organizational Storyteller. Ken will be presenting “In the Cradle of Civilization”, an essay about his time in Iran, at “Literary Vaudeville: Loud In the Library” at Memorial Park Library on November 1st.