The circus is truly a timeless industry, with generation after generation delighting in the skill and showmanship of acrobats, clowns, animals and dancers.
There’s no sign of interest in the big top waning in the 21st century, and we’re seeing only more and more troupes emerge to deliver excitement en masse, incorporating new music and techniques with traditional aesthetics.
Cirque Alfonse is one such troupe. Last seen in Sydney in 2013 with Timber!, the Quebec pioneers are returning to the Sydney Opera House with Barbu, a new production that explores the intersection of circus, cabaret and music. The French word ‘barbu’ translates to ‘bearded’ – an homage to the bearded ladies of circus acts gone by and a cheeky nod to the traditional roots of the show – and Cirque Alfonse co-founder Antoine Carabinier-Lépine explains the show’s origins.
“We created the show two-and-a-half years ago, taking three months to create the basic story of the show,” he says. “There was a fairground in Montreal at the turn of the century, with a big muscle guy, bearded lady, stuff like that, and we decided to keep that, the roots. The first part of the show is acrobats, the second part is clowns – kinky, funny and weird.”
If you’ve ever been to the circus, you’ll know that it’s fun for all the family, and that family spirit has been essential to Cirque Alfonse all along. “Cirque Alfonse ten years ago started for the birthday of my father,” Carabinier-Lépine explains. “We put together a show, my sister and father, and three years ago did a show in Parramatta.
“My father is not in Barbu as he’s starting to be old now – my girlfriend and brother-in-law are in it and it’s the same musicians in the show as the beginning of the company. The music is traditional folk music from Quebec mixed with electronic music. The influence of traditional folk music comes mainly from Celtic and Britannia – fiddle, guitar, and we mix it with electro vibes, and our fiddler is kind of a DJ at the same time, a DJ who pushes all those buttons while he’s paying violin.”
Cirque Alfonse is clearly built from a gene pool of ceaseless talent. Laughing, Carabinier-Lépine agrees they’re a talented bunch, and have married into even more talent. “My sister isn’t in Barbu because she was pregnant when we put the show together, but my girlfriend and I, we do a roller-skating act and she’s doing acrobatics. My brother-in-law [and I] are doing circus almost 20 years together, since the National Circus School of Montreal – one of the biggest schools in the world.
“My sister is here with us travelling with her two children and there’s four more on tour. We’re gonna do a new creation in the spring and my nephew will probably be in it. It’s always weird – no, not weird, but you need to be careful with [children in shows]. We don’t want to push them too much [in case] they don’t want to do it, but they really enjoy it at the moment and we’ll see how it goes. They like to get involved, otherwise they’re just backstage waiting and that’s just boring. It’s fun for us to play onstage with our family and kids.”
Indeed, the whole mantra of Cirque Alfonse is to have fun, not just as a performer but for the audience as well. But how does the circus migrate such a performance to a venue like the Opera House? It’s no big top, certainly, though Carabinier-Lépine is certain that Barbu will still be sure to dazzle.
“Not much will change because we’re used to playing in big tops and stuff like that, and the space at the Opera House is quite similar – not exactly the same, but we have a small space, central, with the audience all around us and a catwalk, so it’s not too complicated for us to set up the space in that place. We are used to organising ourselves and switch little things, things that don’t matter too much in the show when we’re performing.”
Barbu is all beards, bellies and beer, with a sexy soundtrack accompanying the juggling, skating and hula hoops, plus a liberal dash of nudity in what promises to be a show like no other – even by Sydney Opera House standards.
“We had the news we’d perform there and we were all surprised. It’s an iconic place in the world, and we are from a small village – we never thought when we created Cirque Alfonse ten years ago, we never thought we would perform in such a place. It’s really special for us to perform in such a great space.
“Be open-minded and come to the show without any expectations,” he finishes. “The show is really to have fun after the working day and to forget about life, enjoy yourself, have a drink, have fun.”
[Barbu photo by Idil Sukan]
Barbu runs Wednesday February 8 – Saturday March 4 at the Studio, Sydney Opera House.