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Clowning around © KDK

Listening with my Eyes

by Katie de Klee / Images by Le Poulailler / 22.05.2013

All the cars had parked along the pavements, so the people (unable to move between the wing mirrors and the walls) had all taken to walking in the streets. They moved like rivers, sweeping up drifters and carrying them along.

Have you ever seen a child separated from their mother? If you do you’ll see the face of absolute misery, like the frown of a melancholy clown. I saw one lost child last week: he had chocolate on his cheeks (perhaps from an ice cream or a crepe he’d merrily munched earlier) and now his salty tears were washing off the sugar. When his mother found him, he clung to her for a moment and when his sobs subsided he jumped down, took her hand and laughed. And they went together to one of the Festival’s clown shows.

Children feel emotions in a pure and simple way and clowns base their acts on simple childlike emotions: often exaggerated by the painted expressions on their faces. That’s why people enjoy them, they are empathetic characters, often simpletons, who struggle with inanimate objects and find their own bodies hard to control. But their exaggeration of our own emotions somehow validates those feelings in us.

Last week I saw a pair of clowns perform – Bibeu and Humphrey, from the L’Attraction Céleste in France. It was the second day of the Leu Tempo Festival in Reunion Island, and I had just about stopped checking my map to find the performances that were scattered around town. The two clowns interacted like an old married couple, in an awkward balance. Like a pair of Greek theatre masks: she was jolly, he was glum; she was fat and he was thin. Bibeu talked in gibberish and shrieked with laughter, while Humphrey’s voice was low and clear. They were wonderfully old-worldly and charming to watch. Their show had no story line and they made no progress; it was just an absurd little moment in their lives.

H B

Bibeu and Humphrey weren’t the only clowns performing in Saint Leu that week, but some were not for children: Cedric Paga performed his show Que Sommes-Je? (Who Are I?) as his alter-ego Ludor Citrik but only after dark when the children had gone to bed. Citrik is a clown character that Paga developed back in 2000 and has been experimenting with since. Now this is just hearsay, but here is what they say:

Cedric Paga is an interesting man. Trained as a dancer and performer, his interests lie mostly with the world of the clown. He is a method clown: in Que Sommes-Je? Ludor Citrik (Ludor “acidic”) is born on to the stage in plastic wrapping, naked and naive. But Paga had to know how it felt to be able to act it. He spent days in nappies with a carer to change him, he breast-fed, he was disciplined, he prepared. In the show we watched him form childish obsessions with the things he found: when he rips out the cotton padding from his nappy he tries to eat it then plays with it as though it were snow; fascinated by a mirror he shows his own reflection his genitals and is amused to find that the reflection and the real match.

watchman

The only other character to appear is that of a watchman, a discipliner in a suit who enforces the world of conformism on him, rewards him for ‘good’ behaviour and punishes him for anything too free-spirited. It was an exceptional performance, strangely psychological and brilliantly funny.

Apparently Paga runs workshops (like ‘The Laboratory on the Extension of the Domain of Playfulness’) in clowning. The application form runs for pages and if you are accepted you are given a location to meet and from there you are taken, blindfolded, to secret places where he teaches you his craft. Though the workshops only number 10 or so people, I’ve heard few make it to the end. Many find Paga, and the things he makes you do, too unsettling. But that’s just what I’ve heard.

When he washes off his face paint he’s quite a gentle looking man, barely recognisable in fact. We sat near each other one lunchtime, and there he was, just a bald man with a single silver hoop in his left ear. Every so often he’ll look up and grin idiotically and he assumes the high-pitched tones of his alter ego. It seems Ludor Citrik does not live on a stage… Citrik and Cedric live on either sides of a mirror plane.

Paga

But then again, we are all wearing masks.

There were two other journalists staying in the hotel with me, both from France. He was short and she was shorter, neither reaching much above my shoulders.

Julie has smooth skin and wide eyes. Her hair was thick – maybe thickened by the humid air – and held back behind one ear with a child’s clip, which struggled to restrain her ample mane and, though she had no wrinkles creasing her face, her hair was streaked with grey. She smoked cigarettes rolled thick between her fingers and her teeth were stained from the tobacco and the coffees and the wine. She chatted to me often and when she couldn’t think of the word in English she’d whistle to fill its place. Nicolas was thin and had bad posture. He wore dark glasses with dark rims, which he swapped for dark-rimmed spectacles when he moved into the shade. He had paper-pale skin and black hair and a large Adam’s apple that pushed out through his stubble. His voice was nasal and low and when he moved his mouth the words made ripples up his cheeks to his ears.

Julie kept her press pass in her huge handbag and Nicolas kept his in his pocket. I wore mine around my neck like a uniform, like an apron in a kitchen, like it gave me a reason to be there next to them with my extra inches and lack of experience.

If some of the acts in the Leu Tempo had collaborated the island could have seen a full-blown circus to rival any in Moscow. Without the animals. The only animals on the stages were Paulette the poulet (chicken) who wanted to learn how to fly, and a puppet owl.

Arcane by Les Philébulistes, a street-theatre company from France, featured two men who appeared like traditional strongmen: a pair – one large, one small, both bare-chested in trouser that laced high up their backs like girdles. They used a 5-meter-high wheel in their act: the larger of the two strapped himself into the centre and became almost part of it, like a bionic man, whilst the other acrobat swung from his arms. It was a marvellous show; perhaps they need a lion and a ringmaster.

Arcane2

The first performance I saw that week was called Ieto: two acrobats using wooden benches that they balanced using ropes and clever angles. It was slow, with minimal music and the pair had a silent, comical relationship: sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative. The stage for the performance was in a deep gorge behind the town, and though they were light on their feet, each footstep rumbled around the Ravine.

Then Collectif AOC did some stunning acrobatics on the promenade with the waves breaking against the wall behind them: a seductive duet on trapeze, an artistic solo on a high pole, and an inventive number on a trampoline.

AOC trapeze © KDK

Throughout the week of Leu Tempo the artists and journalists ate together twice a day under a stretch tent in the festival park. Without being able to talk much in French I would often find myself watching the way the others moved around each other, watching the expressions they made when they talked and the way they gestured; the wordless communication.

One of the most powerful performances that week was in Creole and I barely understood a word. But the power of the performance came through regardless. The piece, Kok Batay, was performed by only one man – Sergio Grondin, the story teller. He sat on a stool on the stage in a pool of water and I listened to the noise the words made and the noise his shoes made in the water. I watched how the light fell against his face and glinted off the chain of his necklace and how the smoke he released onto the stage made images in the light. It was very bare, there were no tricks or costumes or flowers.

Kok Batay told a life history that was not Grondin’s, but one he strongly relates too. “This is not my life, but it is my story,” he says. It told the story of a Reunion kick-boxer called Johnny Catherine (in the play he was referred to as John le Rouge). He was and underdog that made it to the top and then was brutally murdered in his Reunion home. His neighbours attacked him with machetes and baseball bats, cut off his leg and took it as a trophy. It was a story of a violence that is often hidden. The truth behind the postcard; a fiction that is woven through with fact.

In the theatre we are a credulous bunch; believing almost always what we see and hear. But we trust our eyes, I’ve heard, more than our ears. Tell us something, we may trust you, but we nearly always believe what we see. In the theatre and out I was listening with my eyes.

Strange thing it is that had got me so far from home. People keep telling me that writing is a job that is going nowhere but I was really feeling like I was somewhere. British girl writing about French clowns for a South African magazine on an island that is actually the southernmost point of Europe. Funny’ol world innit.

Part three, in which we look at puppetry and dancing (on stage and off), here.

Read part one here.

* Images © Le Poulailler except where marked.

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