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"Ten thousand people saw our show last summer. So it's got to work on a different level than performing for a bunch of art friends." --Jess Curtis

AS A MEMBER of Contraband, Sara Shelton Mann's small but deeply influential San Francisco troupe of the 1980s and early '90s, Jules Beckman played anything from plastic buckets to toy piano, danced swooping patterns with limbs arcing wide, and charged like a rhinoceros into low-rent theater walls. In 1998, the outlaw dancer-musician realized, "I didn't want to do theater or dance or anything. I wanted love lessons. I think the real thing to risk your life over is love." So he ran away to join the circus--in France, where the "new circuses" overrunning the country are as likely to risk the performers' hearts as their necks.

Based in the south of France and backed by the French government, the circus company Cahin Caha began when circus artist and director Gulko (think "Cher") met up with his old friend, former Contrabander Keith Hennessy. In the late '70s, Hennessy and Gulko had performed together on the streets of Montreal, where the phenomenally successful Cirque du Soleil was just getting started. Later, Gulko moved to France to work with various renegade circus groups and Hennessy traveled west. Was Hennessy interested, Gulko asked, in forming a French-American circus to tour France and Europe?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, circus was in the air. Dance-inflected aerial performance was experiencing a renaissance, with flocks of modern dancers attending circus school and learning to fly. Joining the circus no longer seemed like such a stretch for a dancer like Hennessy, trained in the risk-addicted techniques of contact improvisation.

Hennessy had a choice: He and his pals could scrape together shows for Theater Artaud (a mid-sized theater in San Francisco) and lose $5,000, or they could go to Europe and actually get paid. He packed his bags. "Gulko and I made a company by each bringing two friends," Hennessy explains. "Compagnie Cahin Caha is based on a model of a family circus, but it's a new kind of family." The brothers Hennessy brought to their cirque batard (bastard circus) were fellow Contrabanders Beckman and Jess Curtis.


On tours across the States and eastern Europe, Contraband had startled audiences in evening-length works that were equal parts Greek tragedy, New Age confessional, Fellini-esque carnival and punk forum on public policy. In 1986, for instance, Contraband rolled and tumbled in the enormous sunken pit left by a fatal San Francisco arson fire eleven years earlier that had burned a Mission District flophouse to the ground. The dancers catapulted off the underground I-beams as scraggly skateboarders, punks and squatters played xylophones and paraded boom boxes blasting composer Rinde Eckert's avant-garde melodies.

A fire exploded in the center of the ruins. As neighborhood kids sped around it, shrieking ecstatically, Contraband danced in the deepening shadows and dust. Called Religare, the piece paid respects to the dead of the hotel fire and warned obliquely of a future conflagration that--in an era of "Star Wars" and the Evil Empire--they felt was bound to come.

The red heat and charred ideals of Contraband's early years caught on. By the '90s, dance troupes with names like High Risk, Knee Jerk and Steamroller were taking over San Francisco lofts, street corners and highway overpasses.

In 1994, Beckman, Hennessy and Curtis left Contraband to join Stephanie Maher and Stanya Kahn in a new experiment, CORE. The troupe's last dance before the men left for France was 1997's award-winning Ice/ Car/Cage, in which a dirty, driverless car creeps around a circle while three urban Everymen play a harrowing game of chicken. Curtis hugs a block of ice as if to warm himself, while Hennessy makes a dog cage his refuge. Beckman sings into a bullhorn as he sits atop a stepladder that rides the car's roof. Full of tentative curiosity, the three poke each other. You feel the circus in the daredevil stunts and tragic loneliness of the clowns.

The French government has funded an influx of rowdy San Francisco experimentalists because it is engaged in an experiment of its own: how to foster a contemporary art form that is both odd and populist, entertaining and aesthetically challenging. Circus, in fact, occupies a whole division of the Ministry of Culture.

Upon arriving in France, "We kept looking for the underground scene and couldn't find it," Curtis says. "The really wacky and interesting people in strange clothes, who in the States would be making work in warehouses and being the `voice of the other,' are funded by the government as a necessary cultural resource." Adds Beckman, "After being there for six months, we got a vacation check from the government and a train voucher. We danced around in glee. Not that it was that much money, but I play a wild messenger-of-love drag queen, and for them to see that as a part of the workforce is kind of incredible."

Of course, the Ministry of Culture, Circus Division, is not spawning renegades so much as catching up with them. France's new circus movement has been growing since the '60s, when middle-class youth began to live on the road and play the wise fool. Refusing the polyester trappings of a suburban status quo and the elephants and sleaze of traditional circus, le nouveau cirque introduced shadow and relinquished sequins; it sought visual poetry along with the stunts.

Since 1968, brazen acrobats have capered on thrumming motorcycles. Trapeze fliers and tightrope walkers have sung passages from The Odyssey. In place of tigers red in tooth and claw, white doves have cut the air in a rush of fluttery light. Inert young couch potatoes have suddenly erupted into triple back flips. Stilt-walkers have tiptoed through the conceptual entanglements of Duchampian art, and scabrous clowns have paid homage to the absurd and dangerous visions of Beckett and Genet. From a pair of mimes to a company the size of Cirque du Soleil, the French are visited by dozens of new-circus troupes a year.

The French take their circus as seriously as any other art. In roundtables, on radio talk shows, and in the pages of a magazine dedicated solely to circus, they argue hotly over whether a performance is still circus if it's not in a ring, if it tells a story, if the dancers plant their feet on the ground for a few beats. The answers circus directors and artists concoct are put before hundreds of thousands each year.

In any season, all across the country and continent (circuses do 80 percent of their touring outside France), people are going to the circus. And whatever the fare--from traditional trapeze to the bodaciously brassiered, hairy bare-bellied Beckman--parents take the kids. "Ten thousand people saw our show last summer," says Curtis. "So it's got to work on a different level than performing for a bunch of art friends. We're in this big tent with this big set, so you get a bit of a status break: You can do these things you haven't thought of before. But at the same time, you've got to make them believe."


French circus school incorporates dance, theater, music and writing into the training. At the Centre Nationale des Arts du Cirque in Chalons, one of the instructors is San Francisco-based environmental choreographer Joanna Haigood. Her Zaccho Dance Theater has had dancers swinging from ropes, scaling watchtowers, flying across the sky on wires, dancing on chairs suspended from brick walls--in short, making props their partners--for twenty years now. She notes, "French circus is becoming more poetic, a really clear and logical progression into theater. Where else could it go?"

Nevertheless, even liberally trained circus artists do tricks. In Compagnie Cahin Caha, director Gulko performs a near-calamitous off-balance act on the slack rope. Linet Andrea, a graduate of both circus and art school, has constructed a tear-shaped pendulum of steel and rope; she climbs it as if it were a staircase straight up to the roof of the circus pavilion, singing rich operatic laments all the way. Eric Lecomte is a cat-like aerialist whose specialty is the wide cloudswing; he dives out over the audience, hanging on with only his feet. "Circus artists take two to ten years to develop ten minutes of material," Curtis explains. "You can change the order, the costume, the music, but once you've invested that much time to learn the tricks, you're not going to drop them."

The three San Franciscans, on the other hand, substantially revise their movement lexicon for each new emotional-physical occasion. Take Compagnie Cahin Caha's current production, the ninety-minute Chien cru (Raw Dog), so named for its scrappy spirit and hungry chase after big themes. "This piece was an initiation for me," Beckman says. It started with a red helmet and his bright heart. "Then I found red shin guards at a Paris flea market. So redness started to happen. We each start on the show with a feeling-state and just allow the images to come up." Cahin Caha may well be a leader in the French merger of touchy-feely dance-theater and stunning circus stunts into a convincing, gorgeous hybrid.


Chien cru begins in a war zone. An enormous stuffed panda with a streaming, blood-red ribbon for entrails falls from the sky. Hennessy runs out and hugs it to his breast, grieving. Six men in Cossack hats, coats and boots dance a march, pivoting to all six corners of the large kiosk. A rhythm game with empty cans ensues while two men brawl: We're now in a bar, somewhere on the edge of combat. Even when one of the "men" (Andrea) strips off her coat to sing torch songs while hanging upside down, the initial sense of struggle remains.

"The piece begins with a group of people coming together and ends with each of us on our own, in a search for meaning," Curtis says. Beckman says the characters are like superheroes, their special powers derived from wounds. His character has a love wound: "When I activate that wound, I have special love powers." Or at least he has the power to convince a Godforsaken innocent (Hennessy) to mount an ever-rising stack of chairs while juggling in his underwear. Beckman orders him to be brave and foolish and honest and teetery, for love insists on these things. Hennessy does what he's told and says nothing.

Later, Gulko dances on his slack rope over a small pool of water while Beckman and Andrea sing loudly in 6/8 oompah time, "Show us the perfect fall tonight!" Curtis has been bound up high on a mast, like Ulysses tempted by the Sirens. Now he comes down and flops about like a fish in a skimpy puddle of water, as if he had no arms or legs. He's battling his own body. His victory is simply to stand up. In celebration, Lecomte flies through huge swoops and hair's-breadth catches. But Chien cru doesn't end in triumph. Hennessy descends headfirst from the rafters, calling out to God.

Circus has always celebrated a fundamental absurdity: that the only real certainties in life are death and our beautiful, foolish desire to court it. Still, keeping balance is usually at the center of the circus routine, while falling is the threat lurking at the periphery. In the tradition of the new, Chien cru tweaks that arrangement. Falling is at the center now. Beckman says, "We're playing with the idea that falling is necessary--falling in love, falling to scrape your knee, falling from grace." Chien cru revels in our vulnerability.

Compagnie Cahin Caha continues its European tour in September, including three performances September 14-16 in Kolin, Czech Republic. The U.S. tour begins in mid-October and includes stops in Chicago; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California. For touring information, contact Laurence Edelin, Cie Cahin Caha, 61 Rue Victor Hugo, 93500 Pantin, France. (011) 33-1-41-71-1260. Email: or Cirque du Soleil, meanwhile, will audition dancers in New York City Sept. 22-27. Send a photo and resume no later than August 18 to or call (514) 723-7636 for more information.

Apollinaire Scherr writes on the arts. She lives in San Francisco.
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Title Annotation:Compagnie Cahin Caha formed in France; Hennessy, Keith; Gulko; Beckman, Jules
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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