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Nouveau Cirque Theater comes to Maine with Bowdoin College’s Harrison Bergeron

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by Ramona du Houx. This article first appeared in Maine Insights

Harrison Bergeron Escapes from the Zoo was a theater in the round production with aerial dance and multimedia messaging— using iPads. No matter where you looked something was happening from the ceiling to the floor and in the balconies above the stage. This nouveau cirque production incorporated aerial silks, dance, original music, seamless choreography, theatre, clowning, visual art, and media design all into a high impactful story of forty-two minutes.

For Maine, Harrison Bergeron Escapes from the Zoo was the first true nouveau cirque play.

Adapted by the cast from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight-page story, Harrison Bergeron is a social satire, set in the future where citizens have been rendered equal by having their talents handicapped. The thought provoking show, put on by Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance, Kathyrn Syssoyeva, and her class at Bowdoin College, enticed and delighted as the audience witnessed the resilience of the human spirit and an iron fist that controls— by restricting creativity.

The show was devised over the course of a semester by Syssoyeva’s theater class “Interdisciplinary Performance-Making.” The students created a world taken over by cooperation’s and their media networks. The compelling story line portrayed a future where everyone must conform or suffer. The students saw the opportunity to use some symbolism of recent world uprisings around the room as backdrops for the story.

With Harrison Bergeron ones senses pick up the story through dramatic visuals and music overlaid with announcements, so much so, someone in the audience could understand the performance without speaking English. That being said, successive viewings of the show brought out the different layers with more clarity so that the narrative rounded off the experience.

A dancer in a pod in the play Harrison Bergeron. photo by Ramona du Houx One sitting on the north side of the performance might have missed part of the story that took place on the opposite side of the stage but both viewers would have come away excited by the production, with similar takes on the themes and a clear understanding of the story’s intent.

Throughout the play, one is never sure exactly where to look. There are prerecorded videos playing on overhead screens and iPads. At one point the Bergeron’s watch a video of themselves being interviewed and a single solitary tear streaks down Hazel Bergeron’s face as she learns of her son’s apparent death.

Noah Bragg ’15 is studying theater and his acting abilities were put to the test with his portrayal of Hazel. All the work paid off as his performance captivated.

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“I think the amount of collaboration that happened with this production was amazing. We all worked together. Kathryn knew how to bring out our talents and really fine tuned this production, that may appear chaotic at first but really works as a whole,” said Bragg.

For the first half of the production the dancers are trapped in cocoon silks hanging from the ceiling, while face-painted militants marched around the stage working for the overlord who appeared, in white, ridding a unicycle. As the storyline progressed and rebellion took root the dancers burst from their cocoon prisons and expressed their love and freedom as they twirled in the air.

Near the end of the show the mythical Harrison Bergeron, identifies himself. Eventually, everyone on stage declares himself or herself to be Harrison Bergeron, as they rip off their handicaps. That’s when the possibility of disaster becomes amplified as the authority has been brought into direct conflict with creative citizens.

The stage is filled with action appearing chaotic with song, and dance on the ground and seemingly wild aerobatics take place overhead, while George Bergeron wonders around dazed and his wife confronts the broadcaster. The chaos is beautiful.

“In the second half of the show we all let our creative energy out in chaos,” said Amanda Minoff, a dancer, co-leader of Bowdoin’s jazz band, and part of the school’s ballet group.

“The process was about coming up with our own creativity and in our groups. So as dancers we brought out some numbers on the ground. Then we put everything together and saw how it worked. We choreographed each piece separately and Kathryn organized it,” said Minoff.

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Being on silks in the air was an entirely new experience for Minoff.

“When we’re all spinning around up there it’s exciting. They hired an outside teacher to come in to choreograph, condition us and teach us how to stay safe up there. Janette (Fertig) was awesome,” said Minoff.

During the last scene Tom Peabody serenades a dancer on the silks with his saxophone, with such emotion it’s easy to assume Peabody is a professional musician. But surprisingly, the last time Peabody played his instrument in public was in high school. He’s a history major graduating this spring.

“I had no idea what we’d produce. Every single person did such a great job. There wasn’t a weak link in the group— which was incredible,” said Peabody. “I’ve done a little bit of theater and I sing but this was new for me.”

The musicians composed most of the score, as they play progressed during the semester.

“It was scary until the very end because you couldn’t see the whole until later on. We all came in with different styles, and with a strange grouping of instruments— two cellos, a saxophone and a guitar. We started out with free form improvising and we came into some modes we liked. Sheng (Ge), our cellist, wrote down all the music, he’s a fantastic composer. He set everything in stone. It’s incredible that we got such a talented group of musicians who came together because there was no audition process in the class. It just happened,” said Peabody. “It really was a collaborative process and it was so exciting seeing it all come together.”

That collaborative spirit was key to the success of the play and a possible answer to some of the questions the play posses the audience to think about.

The students who chose to take the class filled the roles based on their own skill sets and talents, which the play brought out in unexpected directions of discovery. This organic creative process led to an expanded text with new themes, original music, and students that put themselves into their roles with energy and intensity. The choreography made it all gel into a work of art.

The students in the class all heralded from multi-cultural backgrounds, as did the personalities they inhabited on stage.

“We all come from different backgrounds and we all came together. Without this we would not have met,” said French teaching fellow Gaelle Jaouen, who played George Bergeron. “The collaboration was great. We were separated into small groups, and then we came together at the right times. That was interesting because you may think that coming together from separate groups would make it hard to work together but that wasn’t the case. Everyone was going along really well with everyone else. It was really amazing. And to see what the others did was fascinating.”

Teaching fellows can take a few classes at Bowdoin and Jaouen really wanted to know more about theater.

“At the beginning you’re a bit shy and then you get more comfortable and than you can actually have fun and that’s what happened. That’s why it was changed with every performance, it got better because it became more natural,” said Jaouen. “It was a process of discovery in every way possible. It was awesome.”

Jaouen and so many others of the cast credited Syssoyeva with making it all work and inspiring such a diverse group of students.

“Kathryn is amazing. She makes all the pieces of the puzzle go together. She can see the many layers. She had the vision for it,” said Jaouen. “It’s pretty hard when you are working on your own to understand how it all fits together. She knew what was the best thing to do so we followed her direction and discovered that, ‘oh yeah, it worked.’”

Exiting Bowdoin’s Wish Theater one student remarked, “This is the coolest performance the college has ever done.”
Portland-based aerialist Janette Fertig, internationally renowned clown Avner Eisenberg , unicycle specialist Steve Spaeth of Brunswick WOW, and Canadian interdisciplinary conceptual artist and media designer, Jamie Griffiths, all were hired to train and teach the students.

The Nouveau Cirque movement was founded in France, in the late 60’s, and has become an accepted an art form but has taken it’s time crossing the Atlantic. Many recognize Cirque du Soleil, which is a ballet circus in the air, but the layering of full-length plays into aerial productions, as Harrison Bergeron has done, has only recently started in the U.S.A.

Cirque du Soleil will perform in Bangor this summer, and in Portland this spring ground was broken for a new school that teaches the techniques of aerial acrobatics and clowning. Peter Nielsen, president of the Circus Conservatory of America, said that the planned 48,000-square-foot training complex at Thompson’s Point would open its doors in September of 2015.

The school’s first bachelor of fine arts program will kick off in September of 2016. Maine College of Art (MECA) will provide conservatory students with access to core classes in literature, anthropology, history, business, natural science, plus art and design.

Syssoyeva said plays like Harrison Bergeron are the wave of the future, as the medium is already established throughout Europe and is beginning to be appreciated in New York City.

And Maine is setting the stage for this exciting theatrical development to take root in New England.

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