• Les Colporteurs
  • Groupe Acrobatique de Tangers
  • Groupe Bekkrell

Biennale internationale des arts du cirque, Marseille

Martha Oakes and Rachel Clare from Crying Out Loud went to the Biennale internationale des arts du cirque in Marseille to see a performance of Race Horse Company’s Super Sunday  and as many other shows and events as possible in the three days they were there. Here’s Martha’s diary of the three days…

Friday 3 February

Up horribly early to catch the 7.01 Eurostar from London St Pancras. I meet Rachel at check-in and we’re off. We’re going to travel down to Marseille together and meet journalist Kate Kavanagh at the venue that night where Super Sunday  is playing.

Still half asleep but already in Paris Gare du Nord. Cross town on the RER to Gare de Lyon and Rachel decides we should go to the iconic art nouveau café there, Le Train Bleu. Cue a bit of a long wait and an expensive coffee – but worth it nonetheless for the stupendous murals of great French cities painted on the walls and ceiling.

In Marseille before we know it and jump in a taxi with our bags straight to Les Chapiteaux – the big tops – a couple of kilometres up the coast at Plage du Prado. Last time I was here (a long time ago) my then-boyfriend and I slept on the beach and dodged the gendarmes.

Four beautiful circular tents by a shining sea – suddenly a long way from a very wintry London. We ducked under a canvas awning and into a Circus Next round table about making circus happen in different countries. I’m trying to improve my French so turned down the offer of simultaneous translation headphones. There’s an interesting woman from Japan whose French is very good and clear, she’s talking about developing the artform from scratch in Japan.

Then to a meet and greet in the next big top along – Cocktail Les Anthologies du CNAC. There are speeches from the festival organisers and lots of people to meet. Rachel knows many of the delegates there from other circus festivals around Europe and introduces me. We talk quite a bit with the very charming and patient Elefterios Kechagioglou, director of Le plus petit cirque due monde in Paris. Crying Out Loud and his organisation are collaborating on a project linking Ethiopia, Havana and France and we get excited talking about that. We meet Jean-Paul Perez, council member at ONDA, the Office national de diffusion artistique, who promote French arts; and several young French circus artists, juggler Guillaume from DeFracto, trapeze artist Viola Grazioli from La Burrasca company and Tatiana-Mosio Bongonga, a funambule (tightrope) artist from Company Basinga. Luckily too, due to the absence of any food pretty much all day, there is also a buffet so we can eat and not faint. And feeling slightly dizzy from talking and listening to too much French, it’s a particular pleasure to spot Molly Nicholson and Daniel Pitt, former Crying Out Loud advanced trainees and now, several years later, working for the Roundhouse in London. They’re in Marseille looking for spectacular shows for its spring 2018 circus festival.

Time to leave and head to the hotel. The light is fading over the sea but it is mild and clear and a pleasure for our British weather-suffering bodies. Daniel and Molly saw Super Sunday  in London last year so we leave them to their own devices. Rachel and I are off to meet journalist Kate Kavanagh who has come to see the show and interview the company.

Rachel is quite gung ho about getting buses and besides, no taxis in sight. We work out which number we want but two helpful women waiting at the bus stop advise us to get the metro. Too late, our bus arrives, we leap on and sway along the sea front, past palm trees and tourist restaurants closed for the winter and rocky outcrops and islands guarding the old harbour of Marseille. Apparently the Greeks first developed Marseille as a major port and you can see why. It has fantastic natural defences of rocks and islands leading to a natural harbour, guarded by a tiny mountain (topped by the church of Notre Dame de la Garde) and a seriously heavy-duty fort (now a museum and cultural centre – we’ll be there in the morning).

We get off the bus in the old port, bristling with masts, surrounded by restaurants and a London Eye-type wheel. We need to get to the hotel by 6pm to meet Kate so we walk quickly up the side streets to our hotel Alex by the station. We have just missed Kate by seconds so I call her and she comes back to meet us. Rachel and I check in, a quick turnaround and off and out back down to the port with Kate for the show.

Super Sunday  is at La Criée, a large modern theatre on the harbourside. It’s full already, lots of families, young people and children and a real atmosphere of anticipation. A group of very young children in the foyer spontaneously perform in a children’s area with miniature furniture, striking sculptural poses and freezing for several seconds. It all adds to the mood.

Into the auditorium, rapidly filling. We sit next to a friendly chap who asks why we’re in town and recommends a very good restaurant for bouillabaisse. I google it later, it’s 80 euro a head so a bit out of our price range – plus, no time! We’ll have to look out for more buffets.

Lights, camera, action, the show begins…I too saw it at the Roundhouse last year and was blown away so am thrilled to see it again. It’s as ridiculously entrancing and frightening as it was before. I am in awe of both their extreme physical abilities and their transgressive flair. I’m reminded of Usain Bolt, slowing down and waving at the camera as he wins the Olympic 100m sprint. The audience goes wild for it, Rauli even had to ask for quiet at one point because they were so animated by the show.

Afterwards, we stay to say hello to Anna-Maria Rusi, Race Horse Company’s producer. Rachel stays to have supper with the company; Kate and I decide that it’s late enough already and we walk back up the hill to the hotel, this time sticking to the main streets.

Saturday 4 February

Up early to make the most of the hotel’s very good breakfast as I suspect that food is hard to come by with our rather crazy schedule. We head off back down to the port and round the harbour to the massive ancient fortress, now beautifully converted and renamed Mucem (Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée). We meet up again with Molly and Daniel for the whole day. We’re here for a panel discussion devised by ONDA to discuss the idea of ‘the popular’, in true French philosophical fashion. I am concentrating very hard, both on the French and on the ideas expressed. Much as I like to join in these kinds of things, I hold back in case my French comprehension has let me down.

And we have to move on, back round the harbour to La Criée where we are meeting Rauli Kosonen and Kalle Lehto, founder members of Race Horse Company. Kate will interview them over lunch (hurrah, food!). They are both warm, friendly and articulate and Kate gets them talking about circus in Finland, how the company started, Super Sunday,  broken necks and practicalities. Very good, job done.

Off to get the bus again, back to Les Chapiteaux for a show from Les ColporteursSous La Toile de Jheronimus. Rachel has inside knowledge and gets us seats at the top tier so we can lean back – otherwise it’s benches all round. The show is a recreation of Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, the vision of heaven, earth and hell. It’s a very theatrical staging with tightropes, trapezes, masks and tumbling and quite a lot of fire and brimstone.

So back to the hotel for a brief stop before heading out of town to a show that night. It’s in La Seyne-sur-Mer, slightly south east of Marseille. An expensive train drops us at a deserted station, no taxis and a long wait for a bus into the town itself, then a long-ish walk to the seafront to a long big top. But it’s worth it. It’s the four-woman company Groupe Bekkrell in their show Effet Bekkrell,  a riot grrrl power of a show. Not so much incredible skills but a punk feminist attitude that gladdens the heart. We talk to them afterwards while we wait for a festival coach to take all the professional festival visitors back into Marseille courtesy of the Institute Français. We’re dropped off in the town centre around 11.30 and make our way back to the hotel.

Sunday 5 February

Rachel and Kate both up early to get back to London. I’m staying for a further day to see Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger’s new show, Halka.  We worked on their previous show – Chouf Ouchouf – with Crying Out Loud which was an unforgettable glimpse of this company of generations of street acrobats from Morocco, whose training ground is the beach. Molly has also gone home but I’m meeting up with Daniel.

It’s raining in the morning but nonetheless (after breakfast!) I set off to walk up to Notre Dame de la Garde. My mother-in-law is from Marseille and told me how she walked up there every week with the children she looked after in her 20s. French rain seems to be more wet than British rain so I was thorough soaked by the time I got there. The hotel had lent me an umbrella but a ferocious wind turned it inside out.

Back to the hotel just in time to meet Daniel and a bit of a chat with the hotel receptionist about the best bus to get. We were going north this time to Le Merlan, part of a brutalist commercial complex away from the coast. We get there in good time and I eat a ham roll and apple compote I took from the hotel. I can’t seem to get food timing worked out on this trip.

Into the auditorium and there are loads of Moroccan/French kids and families. I love the show and so do they. It feels – although of course it isn’t – as though we in the audience could get up and join in. It feels organic and natural. The company’s tumbling is wonderful and very human. There are boys and men and two women who pretty much rule the roost. There’s singing and teasing and two fine musicians. There’s that sense you get at really good flamenco shows where the performance is spontaneous and instinctive – as far away from Cirque du Soleil at the BAFTAs as you could possibly imagine.

Back finally to Marseille, we pick up our cases from the hotel. I find out too late that the receptionist is as much into skating as I am. Daniel and I decide to have a last coffee at the café outside the station. All the guys around us look like they could be in Halka.  I eat all the peanuts the waiter brings us, Daniel doesn’t like the skins. It’s time to get the bus to the airport…

Back to Heathrow, Heathrow Express, North Greenwich. My husband comes to pick me up, Drake has been playing at the O2 and North Greenwich is crammed with glammed-up teenagers and cars picking them up. It’s late but there is traffic gridlock. Back to London reality.

Martha Oakes