Gratte Ciel – next year’s drawcard for WOMADelaide – comes from a centuries-long tradition of French street performance. By Jane Cornwell.

Aerial-theatre company Gratte Ciel

A black and white image of a Caucasian man wearing a straw cowboy hat and a white shirt. His face is grizzled and he has a salt and pepper beard. He is smiling at a woman to his right who is out of focus.
Stéphane Girard.
Credit: J. E. Julez

It’s late evening in the historic city of Strasbourg in northern France and high above Kléber square a feather is falling from the sky. Down it floats – white, soft, strangely wistful – curling its way past grand 17th-century buildings before disappearing into a gathering crowd. The trickle of feathers that follows draws eyes to the outline of a vertiginous tower crane, where a host of tiny, white-garbed figures huddle at its top.

Anges!” yells a youth, his face shining, his cool forgotten, as floodlights start strafing the air and recorded music – songs sung by the massed voices of children – begins to swell. Wings outspread, the angel-aerialists descend from their industrial heaven, moulting feathers as they zoom along zip-lines and flit between buildings. Posing, twirling and tumbling. Nose-diving, pillow-fighting and pedalling in the air. Showing off just for the hell of it.

It’s Strasbourg’s annual Festival of Street Arts and this is Place des Anges, by French aerial-theatre company Gratte Ciel, a production that has been globally acclaimed for its multisensory wallop. The work subverts the audience/artist dynamic by placing the crowd in the middle of the action, busting the fourth wall as performers arrive and mingle with mortals. A mohawked angel in bovver boots stands, hands on hips, beside a statue of a Napoleonic general. An angel wearing a bonnet and frilly knickerbockers springs onto a concrete bench and, with a wink, begins to dance like no one is watching.

The feathers swirl until they’re being tipped by the tonne from cages hooked on zip-lines, unleashing a maelstrom that – in combination with the music and the feelings piqued by this poetic display of beauty, danger and freedom – tips the audience into a sort of ecstatic abandon. There is laughter through tears and embracing of strangers. Kids run about, shrieking with glee. As the blizzard thickens an enormous inflatable cherub emerges from a side street and bobs skyward, its silhouette looming across the buildings.

It is the evening of the Strasbourg show. We’re sitting in a cavernous top floor hall of the former military garrison, the Aubette building, from whose baroque façade angels will soon leap. The cast is milling around metres away, stiff white wings harnessed to their backs, the belts around their waists heavy with clips and hooks. As start time approaches, they form a circle, lock eyes and begin clapping, foot-stomping and chanting.

“The life is not for everyone,” says Gratte Ciel artistic director and co-founder Stéphane Girard. “You have to be a free thinker and want to live outside society’s rules. We are aware we are considered scandalous because we fly really high in the sky, but also that society says that an open window, or a clifftop, is dangerous. Rules are not only there to protect the critical mass of society. They are there to keep people unconscious.” A Gallic shrug. “Imagine if everybody opened their eyes and took responsibility.”

Gratte Ciel’s 20 cast members and 12 crew have travelled to Strasbourg by train from their base in Arles, a city 600 kilometres away in Provence, on the other side of the Vercors mountain range. It was on the latter’s limestone cliffs that most of them started out as potholers and, most notably, free climbers, playing with rope techniques – a sideways hold, a swinging pendulum in the sky, plummeting then braking along a sheer drop – and organising shows for friends in the same way that clubbers might put on illegal raves.

The company has a repertoire of work but Place des Anges is their smash hit, taking them everywhere from London, Montreal and Buenos Aires to Kyiv, Stockholm and St Petersburg. In every city they have performed they’ve adapted their zip-lines to the architecture, reimagining and reinvigorating urban spaces in the process.

Astonishing tropes such as Gratte Ciel’s are common to French street theatre, a genre given to playing with scale and breaking theatrical convention. Works by companies such as Royal de Luxe – colossal, mechanised puppets – and Transe Express – drummers suspended by a crane – draw the eye from afar, democratising culture while prompting reflection on our insignificance and common humanity. At the other extreme, the intimate pop-up installations of Le Phun – plant-like characters emerging from the soil – spark similar musings.

Then there’s French contemporary circus – animal-free, attitude-heavy – and its penchant for creating spectacle using the symbolism of traditional circus arts. Pioneering nouveau cirque troupe Archaos, a direct antecedent of Gratte Ciel, didn’t just break the fourth wall in the mid-1980s. Chucking a wheelie, juggling chainsaws, they drove a flaming motorbike straight through it.

All these acts have visited Australia, some of them more than once. Gratte Ciel originally brought Place des Anges to the 2012 Perth Festival under director Jonathan Holloway and in 2018 played four nights above the treetops of Botanic Park/Taintmuntilla for WOMADelaide.

Next March, in what will be the production’s 15th year, Place des Anges returns to WOMADelaide to spread the magic again. Adelaide’s 34-hectare Botanic Park/Taintmuntilla is the only green environment – and the only music festival – in which Place des Anges has been professionally performed.

“A park has a very different energy to a city,” says Girard, a wiry 50-something with an iron handshake befitting the mountaineer he was. “There’s a fragility to those magnificent trees, whose canopy we can see from high up on five separate cranes and are careful never to touch. As in Vercors, we are fed by this beauty. We still have our rock’n’roll energy. But surrounded by nature we reconnect with our organic selves, our wild animal spirit. We dig deeper into our relationship with the sky, the air and the audience.”

It’s enough to make you want to run away and join the circus. Or at least to move to France, where being an artist is considered a valid profession. It’s an outlook arguably kickstarted by 17th-century dramatist Molière, who revolutionised French theatre by taking art from the salons to the public, writing, acting and touring the country in plays that often absurdly animated serious everyday topics.

In contemporary times, the status of fringe artist was most affected in the 1980s by French culture minister and Socialist Party member Jack Mathieu Émile Lang, who gave genres such as street theatre and nouveau cirque the same rights as other art forms, allowing them access to funding and the unique “intermittent du spectacle” system of subsidies for unemployed artists. “Lang’s actions gave the fringe movement visibility and new possibilities for expression,” says Girard. “It meant we could make art that was invested with politics to try and change minds.”

Girard’s belief in the transformative power of theatre began at 12, when he happened upon a street show by Bread and Puppet Theater, the award-winning, politically radical puppet company then touring France from America. Bored with school, angry at the world, he was gobsmacked by the company’s ways of seeing, by ideas that hinted at what could be. Four years later he dropped out of school (“Grey should never be the colour of a child’s uniform”) and headed for Vercors.

Around the same time, a 20-member troupe called Cirque Bidon was travelling through the villages of southern France and Italy in a convoy of horse-drawn caravans, putting on free open-air shows that finished with the passing of a hat. At their helm was Pierrot Bidon, a clown, tightrope walker and chicken hypnotist so charismatic that each member of the troupe had taken his surname. Theirs was a lifestyle, la vie, that symbolised freedom and belonging, an itinérance that seemed intrinsically, romantically French.

And wildly impractical. “Thank God we don’t all live together anymore,” says Girard of Gratte Ciel, whose members once colonised the Arles campsite where Girard, his co-director Camille Beaumier and longtime performer Jane Huxley still live in their caravans. “There is nothing romantic about communal living. It is very difficult. Many of us left to go back to the mountains, to have lives, to breathe. But we still invite people to meet us around the fire to eat and talk. We still have the same attitude of freedom that made us want to mix with circus people like Pierrot Bidon, who would always come to Vercors to watch us on the rope.”

When he moved to the town of Alès, 66 kilometres from Arles, Bidon co-founded Archaos with his then wife Martine, a trapeze artist, in 1986, the same year the Aurillac international festival in south-central France – one of the largest street theatre festivals in Europe – was founded. Fed by the streets, fuelled by savvy PR, the anti-circus circus with a raucous DIY vibe and tent hung with white ropes like a spider’s web – the 650-seat Chapiteau des Cordes – became a global phenomenon.

By the time Archaos imploded in 1992 – a destroyed tent, unsustainable la vie – Bidon and Girard were talking about creating a show that used the sky as a space for expression. A simple, beautiful show about a group of renegade angels granted 24 hours of parole from heaven. A spectacle that eschewed trapeze for rope and put the audience in the middle.

After he was mesmerised by the televised opening ceremony of the 1992 Winter Olympics held in Albertville, France, for which French choreographer Philippe Decouflé developed an air ballet featuring dozens of acrobats – members of Transe Express suspended on ropes – Girard knew they were onto something. He also knew that France wasn’t ready.

“It was clear that what we were doing in Vercors with ropes would one day become a major form of representation in the French cultural landscape,” he says. “But it was not yet recognised as art. We were like a garage band playing music for ourselves between climbing every day.”

In 1994, Girard left France for Brazil, where Bidon had set up a new venture called Circo da Madrugada (“With the people in the centre and the zip-line coming from beyond”) after creating a second company, Circus Baobab, in Guinea, West Africa. Back in France in 2000, Girard helped Bidon build a circus studio in Marseille, the multicultural port city in southern France. Bidon produced an invitation-only show for Gratte Ciel in Fontainebleau, the boulder-strewn climber’s paradise 70 kilometres south-east of Paris.

By the time Bidon and Girard premiered Place des Anges in Arles in 2007, trapeze was growing increasingly passé. What Girard refers to repeatedly as “the rope” – la corde – was the thing. High-wire walkers started choosing rope over steel cable. Big theatre music and dance productions were using rope to send artists soaring.

“Pierrot told me early on to forget about adding trapeze to the show,” says Girard of Bidon, who died of cancer in 2010 – allegedly with one hand flashing a peace sign and the other flipping a middle finger. “He said that our high technical expertise was already circus, expressed through poetry, choreography and movement.”

There’s irony, then, in the fact that Gratte Ciel has never qualified for funding as a nouveau cirque or street theatre act in France. Of late they’ve been categorised as “entertainment”.

“The current French government support a very niche, very intellectual and rather conservative type of circus,” says Girard. “They see that we don’t come from circus school or theatre school, even though today we work with acrobats and gymnasts and our second generation who were born into the rope. For a while it was as if we didn’t exist. Which is okay. Each time we perform Place des Anges I get many messages telling me we have captured what usually belongs in dreams. I know that there are certain shows which have the power to mark a life and even change its trajectory, which is what happened to me as a 12-year-old. This is what I hope will happen when we return again to WOMADelaide.”

He pauses, smiles. “Sometimes we just need some magic to realise that yes, it doesn’t have to be this way. That anything is possible.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2022 as "Heavenly flight".

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