This is so long! This is supposed to be an account of the company history, not a novel!
I would have liked open like Albert Cohen: "Oh my unicellular ancestor, small solemn receptacle of this very ancient life, life that is now mine and legacy of which I am the beneficiary after millions or billions of years..." But chances are, that would be pretty long.
“What did you do, what happened?” you ask. “How did it happen?”
Fast. It happened fast. A little like it has for you, I imagine.
The real beginning is in our minds. Each person has his own beginning, and his own foolish dreams, denials, sanctuaries.
What are we going to do with our Utopian dreams? Celebrate!
The spirit of celebration is everywhere.
We celebrate because desire and life are stronger than ideology and consumption.
"La fête, cette hantise", translated loosely as "Celebration, this obsessive fear", was the title taken by the magazine "Autrement" in 1976.
Today, we remember those happy and lively times as an enchanting interlude.
Of all the desires that fill our world, and God knows there are many, the desire to change our lives is a powerful driving force.
It all started in Besançon, five years before the birth of Cirque Plume.
Four of the founding members (all still part of the company) met in a band on a small boat.
They all had a passion for street performance and circus, spurred further by "L’atelier du marché" (a former cultural space in Besançon) and by a juggling book for children.
In 1980, everyone who would later create Cirque Plume took part, along with several other companies, in a mythical festival in the Jura, "La falaise des fous." The festival was centered on the revival of street theatre, was followed by street shows combining music, circus techniques, stunts, theatre, and dance. These were performed at rural festivals and fairs, on city streets, and in small theatres. In the summer, we supplemented our modest earnings by passing a hat around the crowds who came to watch us at public squares, as we filled our heads with romantic visions of the nomadic life.
In 1983, we called ourselves "Fanfare Léa Traction," "La gamelle aux étoiles," and "Le magicien de balle." We rehearsed in a barn in Chay (Doubs) and in the hallways of a youth and culture center in Besançon-Palente. In December, we employed all our skills and know -how to create the show "Amour, jonglage et falbalas" which we performed in a big top owned by the “Théâtre des manches à balais" in Besançon.
We had opened up circus chests and inside, we had found a treasure.
1984 - 1990
Faced with the ruin of political hope — after Sartre, Guy Debort, L.I.P., the Larzac parties, the Bread and Puppet Theater, Gong, Soft Machine and the Grateful Dead, mind-numbing pot, the Grand Magic Circus, protests, the beautiful years of the sexual revolution, friends who left us too early — those who were never able to fill their lives with enchantment and who passed over to the other side — we were looking for a less-travelled path.
There were nine of us: Hervé Canaud, Michèle Faivre, Vincent Filliozat, Jean-Marie Jacquet, Bernard Kudlak, Pierre Kudlak, Jacques Marquès, Robert Miny, and Brigitte Sepaser.
1984 started with a meeting in which Bernard Kudlak suggested creating a circus — a project that would bring together the spirit of celebration, politics, dreams, vagabond angels, journeys, poetry, music, and the human body, all with a grassroots, non-violent kind of brotherly love. The Cirque Plume.
We already had the tour outlined. The show, "Amour, jonglage et falbalas" was fragile, amateurish, and innocent. Half the troupe was working "on the side" elsewhere, while the other half was doing “just this.”
It was imperative for us to connect with "real” circus performers, so we hired artists outside of the founding group.
We were living in Franche-Comté: a land of forests, cooperatives, and utopia, steeped in the myths of the Vouivre. After a first meeting, we immediately obtained the support of the Regional Council.
We purchased equipment that would give any safety inspector nightmares. We painted, glued, welded, and nailed. Our heads were filled with dreams. We trained a little, but not enough.
We became producers, riggers, drivers, poster-hangers, administrators, grant writers, coordinators, circus coaches, lighting engineers, directors, musicians, and circus performers. We took turns cooking. Two young children and a few dogs completed our group.
The first time we set out on tour, the trailer tent was immobilized on the way back and was no longer drivable. We ordered a new trailer and our first truck at the same time.
Cirque Plume was indistinguishable from any other small travelling circus, except that we looked much poorer with our badly installed big top, our "Nottin" caravans and our 3-speed, extended, and revamped Citroen "Tubes" painted the color of the sky on the horizon between two white clouds. Like gypsies, we found ourselves being followed by a dark blue van whose occupants constantly wanted to check our identities. Many long discussions!
In 1986, our participation at the "Off" festival in Avignon marked our entry into the circle of recognized professional companies. Two years later, at the same festival, our big top was set up for the very first time by a proper crew, while we hid in our caravans filled with shame, peeking out the windows, not knowing what do with this lack of activity, our minds spinning. We soon got over that!
Later, the eight associates decided that each person would do work according to his or her skills and would focus on what he or she did best. Although this change did not seem to be much, it was, in fact, a major revolution.
During that period we bought four big tops in a row, three sets of tiered seats, and quite a few vehicles. We became independent in terms of the show’s sound and lighting equipment.
Meanwhile, back at the office, we introduced administrative methods adapted to our situation until we hired an administrator in 1988.
Following our first big top show "Amour, jonglage et falbalas" (which we performed mainly around our local area), in 1988, we created "Spectacle de Cirque et de Merveilles", which toured all over France, as well as in Tunisia, Morocco, Belgium, and in Switzerland (where we were behind a change in a protectionist law forbidding non-Swiss circus performances). We put together some new acts and polished our staging and costumes. Everyone become a "professional" and we started to pay ourselves regular salaries.
From that point on, Robert wrote the original music for all of our shows. Brigitte created her first tightrope number, set to Michèle’s singing.
In Paris, we were being talked about in the national press. We still divided our time between busking and performances in the big top, but we soon decided to abandon the first in favor of the second.
Our big tops were relatively small and could fit into ordinary venues: Cardinal Granvelle’s palace in Besançon, the Corderie Royale in Rochefort, the town hall square of St. Gilles in Brussels, the Saline Royale (Royal Saltworks) at Arc et Senans.
In December 1988, we pitched the big top in the Arènes de Lutèce amphitheater. As night fell over Paris, the waxing crescent moon appeared in the sky and a tawny owl up a tree next to the campers broke the relative silence of the park. What a warm welcome for us hillbillies! Thank you, Paris.
I remember one city where we invited an old man who lived in a beat-up caravan next to our camp to see our show. In "Spectacle de Cirque et de Merveilles" one of the characters spends his time hunting for a ball of light without realizing that it is right behind him all along. The children in the audience chanted, "Behind you! Behind you!" The old man got up from his seat and yelled, "You damned jackass, it’s right behind you. Idiot, this is the tenth time I’ve been here and every night it’s the same thing!" and sat down again.
In 1989, Bernard and Robert created a two-man children’s show called "Le jongleur de l’arc-en-ciel" that was selected at the Festival of Bourges. A Moroccan tour marked the end of that period. There were now as many as twenty permanent staff members, we had just won the "Grand prix national du cirque 90" awarded by the Minister of Culture, and we were preparing for a new show. The troupe became a company, with a board of directors made up of eight of the founders (Hervé did not want to take part in the adventure). During this period, we gained expertise in circus and musical skills, administrative tasks, truck driving, management, and construction. Above all, we learned how to communicate with each other.
Then came the mature years.
1990 - 1998
The idea of nouveau cirque was firmly established by 1990. We were members of the board of the National Association for the Development of Circus Arts (A.N.D.A.C.). During this period, the Franche-Comté region continued to help us, the national government gradually increased its contribution, and the city of Besançon and the Department of Doubs also helped a little. These grants represented about 15% of our operating budget. Meanwhile, artistically speaking, we distanced ourselves from traditional circus acts, which had served as a basis for our first shows, and we asserted our own style. More than ever, we were a troupe. We were doing what we had always dreamed of: performing for audiences from all walks of life without sacrificing our artistic integrity, all in the spirit of public education.
But as you no doubt suspected, things were not always easy…
We were taking a gamble, but it was no bigger a gamble than the one we’d taken when we decided to start a circus in the first place.
We bought a blue big top second-hand that seated 850 people, which, in a previous life, had been used by a large theatre, now abandoned, in southern France.
We went into rehearsals for our production "création 90" in Meylan (Isere). Bernard wrote the show with Vincent’s help. In terms of the notion of authorship, we progressed from a joint creation directed in a collective style to a project involving all the artists but led by an individual director.
The number of external artists increased, and, for the first time, Nadia created and made all the costumes. The show, for which Bernard created his first act based on shadows and light, opened with a white line drawn on a black background and ended with an explosion of every color in the rainbow.
It was a time for us during which circus reflected what we were living.
The start was rather shaky, with the first show being cancelled because the new seats for the tent were not ready on time!
We performed the next day. The premiere was a mess, with enormous technical problems involving the sound and props.
However, the next day, our second show reassured us that, in artistic terms, we had won.
We gave our all to get people talking about us and it worked: programmers from France and Europe wanted to book our show, the press was enthusiastic, and we were full of energy and raring to go.
So, life was great? Not too fast. Let’s look at the numbers: we had spent 3 million Francs on the operation, including rental fees for the space, publicity fees, technical requirements, and salaries, but... we had only made 2 million!!
What do you do in such a situation?
We closed up shop and hoped for a miracle. And can you believe it? There was a miracle.
It came in the form of a booking for a Christmas show at the Omnisports arena in Paris Bercy, which would attract some 240,000 spectators in ten days.
This encouraged our bankers to lend us some money to help us to keep going. We were crippled by debt, but we had the prospect of several years of work.
It was time to give our expanding operation some structure, without renouncing our desires. Communication, cooperation, and a platform for discussion were more important than ever. That was in 1992, which was also the end of the "No Animo Mas Anima" tour (a total of 223 shows in front of 125,000 spectators).
In 1993 we created "Toiles". In an abandoned big top (the one we had found in the south of France), characters came together with boxes, veils, and giant shadows. We were not telling one story, but several stories. We delightedly and hungrily jumped into rehearsals.
Among the founders, Jean-Marie created his first magic act and Jacques trained Zippo the dog. Vincent left the artistic team but remained on the board.
Bernard received a grant from the "Fondation Beaumarchais" to write the show, and Robert’s music was commissioned by the government.
It was a huge success at La Villette.
In August 1994 the documentary, "Les Plume font leur Cirque" by Christophe De Ponfilly was broadcast on prime time television. According to the ratings it was the flop of the week, but that evening,1,555,000 TV viewers heard about Cirque Plume. We were amazed.
Fourteen children were born to Plume members in 1995, and we produced a second version of "Toiles". The women were having babies, so we had to change the show. Some performers were injured and others had grown weary. We finished the "Toiles 2" tour with six new people. But, despite all that, the troupe was surprisingly stable.
With "Toiles" (350 shows to 265,000 spectators), European festivals opened their doors to us (Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Britain, Ireland, Holland, Portugal, Sweden).
In June of 1996, we created "L’harmonie est elle municipale ?" in Salins les Bains, Jura under a brand-new yellow big top with 1,000 seats. The big top was an original prototype of our own design. Our artistic and technical investment was in line with our ambition. Bernard wrote and directed the show but had stopped performing. The idea: a band of six men meet a group of six women in the big top. As the scenes unfold, they search perpetually for happiness and harmony.
Michèle and Brigitte returned from their maternity leaves, while Jacques left the show (although he remained on the board).
The official (worldwide!) premiere was in Munich, and we then took to the road for a two and a half year tour. Reviewers loved us and the big top was packed.
"L’harmonie est elle municipale ?" closed magnificently in Lyon in December 1998 after 278 shows in front of 250,000 people.
The next project, "Mélanges (opéra plume)" was underway, with the casting and artistic decisions already made.
At the same time as all of this, in 1997, Bernard directed a show inspired by Victor Hugo, "La plume de Satan" and, in 1998, he resumed his work on the idea of "Le jongleur de l’arc -en-ciel" with Robert working on the music.
The work became an opera for three jugglers, a soprano, a tenor, a children’s choir, and an orchestra, and was presented at Cannes Festival Palace and Nice Opera in June that same year.
1999 - 2008
In 1999, the last year of the millennium, a new chapter in our history started with rehearsals of "Mélanges (opéra plume)" in Salins les Bains (Jura).
We wanted to combine all the arts of the circus ring — after all that was our trademark — but we also ventured into other areas, such as dance. After a few months of rehearsals, the show was not artistically ready when we presented the preview in Salins les Bains. Despite that, we received a very enthusiastic response during the premiere in Recklinghausen, Germany. Jacques Schneider, who played the angel, injured himself in Portugal in July, meaning that we were obliged to present a shortened version. The show must go on!!!
However, reviews in the Netherlands were lukewarm, even negative. It was an ordeal we had to get through. In order to be ready for the shows in autumn at La Villette in Paris as planned, we had to replace the injured angel. Two days before the dress rehearsal our trapeze artist, Sophie, injured herself as well, and we started to think that the show was cursed... but we fought back! We found a replacement for Sophie, and pulled the show together for the Parisian premiere, getting closer to the Plume spirit than we had during the original research. We received rave reviews. Even a few high-minded circus critics who had previously shunned us started taking us seriously. The storm of December 26th struck during the night. All the big tops in the Parisian area suffered, but ours resisted valiantly, mostly thanks to our technical set-up. We watched as the roof of the Grande Halle flew past us.
That was how 2000 started, the year we had been waiting for since childhood. Contrary to popular belief, the post did not have to be distributed by helicopter. We were working with performers young enough to be our children.
The earth continued to turn!!!
2000 was a year just like any other (we’ll spare you the details on all the crap going on across the planet): the tour schedule was full and the team changed again. Jacques and Sophie (the performers injured in Paris) returned. The tour continued. Bernard took a six-month sabbatical to finish writing the script for a musical show, do some sculpture, and think about the future of the company. The opera was never performed.
In 2001, we toured in France, performed in Madrid, and, in July, after a year and a half of hard work resolving technical problems, we finally crossed the Atlantic for a series of shows in New York at the Lincoln Center Festival. We travelled with ten containers packed with equipment and a special plan for setting up the big top in Damrosch Park, next to the Metropolitan Opera, which did not require us to drive any of the normally indispensable 360 stakes into the ground. Find out more in Bernard’s New York Diary: http://www.cirqueplume.com/le-journal-de-new-york-juillet-2001.html
On the night of the premiere, Jacques injured himself (again!) as did Fanny, another one of our performers. This had never happened before! We cancelled the performance in order to adapt the show (our angel now had a crutch...) and it was a success (a very good review in the New York Times). In September, less than two months after our visit, the Twin Towers fell. The world was in shock and so were we.
In tandem with his work with Cirque Plume, and following a meeting with Raoul Lay (the musical director of Télémaque Ensemble), Bernard directed "Variété", a show that combined circus and contemporary music set to a score by Mauricio Kagel. The creation was performed in Nice and the show’s tour included a stop at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, where, for two evenings, the delighted composer was present in the audience.
We closed the tour of "Mélanges (opéra plume)" in Le Mans in December. We threw a big party to celebrate the 301 shows performed for 274,000 spectators.
The losses incurred during our series of shows in Madrid had weakened us financially and posed a problem for the creation of the next show. In turn, Bernard suggested that we create "Récréation" a compilation of the best acts from our previous shows. The choices made for this mainly theatre-based tour allowed us to devote time to essential research for our next creation.
2002: The rehearsals for "Récréation" started at the end of January.
We were delighted to have the opportunity to hunt through our treasure chests. We decided to add a seldom-used element to the show: text. Our friends from the "Théâtre de l’Unité" helped each performer write a personal text, words of truth, that they would recite during the course of the show.
We welcomed over 14,000 spectators for the opening run of "Récréation" in Besançon, which coincided with "1,2,3 Cirque," a national event to mark the "Year of Circus," a national operation under the initiative of the Minister of Culture.
During this tour, many of the artists from our past shows came to perform for one or two nights, and it was a great pleasure to be able to share the stage with them again in front of our warm and welcoming audiences.
As planned, we allowed ourselves plenty of time between tour dates to work on the research and development of "Plic Ploc", the next creation scheduled for spring 2004 (you can find Bernard’s journal entries on this creation period at:http://www.cirqueplume.com/carnet-de-creation-de-plic-ploc-ecrit-par-bernard-kudlak-et-robert-miny-de-juin.html).
In the autumn, under our small big top pitched at Salins les Bains for the preparation of "Plic Ploc", several of Bernard’s intuitive ideas were put to the test including metronomes, transparent tarp, and ceiling and floor water jets. At the same time, in September, the show "Variété", with music by Mauricio Kagel, opened the international music festival in Besançon ("on our turf" as we like to say). It was not a Cirque Plume show, but our director was still very pleased!
When we resumed the "Récréation" tour in November, we performed in a theatre for the first time in eight years, and were very happy to do so. After the first six months of 2002 spent in the big top, the next few months of shows were held in theatres. Each venue had its advantages.
At the start of 2003, with the sun shining over the port in La Rochelle, we performed on the main stage of La Coursive Scène Nationale La Rochelle (La Rochelle’s National Performing Arts Centre). We loved this venue, which had the perfect sized theatre to accommodate our show and to establish just the right rapport with the audience.
Back in Salins les Bains, we set up our big top and continued research and development on the new show. Throughout the entire month of March, we held auditions for new performers. We organized these auditions as a meeting of minds, and included candidates in the research in progress. Even performers who were not selected expressed their appreciation for this unconventional audition method. All the candidates were talented, but we had to choose. By the end of March, the cast of "Plic Ploc" was set.
Elsewhere in the world, George Bush Jr. had decided to go to war. We were very distressed.
In April, "Récréation" started up again. In Brussels, looking at all the empty seats before the show at the Cirque Royal, we dreamed about Sitting Bull presenting the "Buffalo Bill Show" there.
In Salins les Bains, we had a bug in the lighting console and had to cancel the premiere — the worst thing that could happen! The next day though, what a welcome (thanks guys!) in Nantes in the immense "Cité des Congrès." One of our audience members wrote that she had cried during the show. At Recklinghausen Festival, we were on the receiving end of a massive thunderstorm that flooded the tent during the show. "Plic Ploc" had already started.
In July, amidst the cancellation of many summer festivals, Bernard wrote a text about the "régime des intermittents de spectacle" (a special status for French performing artists), which made the round of General Assemblies around the country. He asked, "Why is it private salaried employees alone who fund performers, and as a result, the culture of our country?" An interesting question, but no one wanted to answer it.
In August, a heatwave killed many people in France due to negligence and a lack of resources. It was a studious summer for Jean-Marie, who was planning the set for "Plic Ploc", a set that would spout and capture water during the show.
In September and October we were on tour again. In Caen, a new city for Cirque Plume, after having seen the audience’s reaction, the theatre director told us, "It is as if all these people who have never seen you are impatiently awaiting your return." This re-création was pure recreation for us!
Once again we set up our big top (essential for our creative work since we were still without a permanent venue adapted to our work), inaugurated our water system, and rehearsed with almost the entire cast. The pace was serene and the momentum was high. We made headway just as we had planned.
It was November and we watched the total eclipse of the moon over the big top. It was beautiful.
In 2003, we finished our tour in style. "Récréation" was performed 137 times for 130,000 spectators happy to discover or rediscover our company. We were satisfied with our new work method, which involved combining theatre and big top shows in order to leave time for research. "Plic Ploc" was ready to enter the execution phase.
It was 2004, and "Plic Ploc" was on its way! We put up the big top for the fifth time in order to work on the show and we set up camp for three months in Salins les Bains. The team was very motivated and the work progressed well in a studious and calm atmosphere. But at the beginning of March, there was an accident (accidents, actually): Martin, one of our Quebec acrobats, tore the ligaments in his knee (misdiagnosed after a previous injury) and could no longer continue rehearsals. Since he worked with a partner, we had to replace them both, two months into the creation. At the same time, our clown and drummer developed shoulder problems and had to rehearse with his arm in a sling for several weeks! Was "Plic Ploc" jinxed?
Not a whit! The show continued to come together.
The production was put together step-by-step with much attention and laughter.
(All the details can be found in the online creation diary at: http://www.cirqueplume.com/carnet-de-creation-de-plic-ploc-ecrit-par-bernard-kudlak-et-robert-miny-de-juin.html, and on the DVD "In Progress", a bonus documentary filmed from the wings during the creation.)
Three days before the premiere, for the first time in our twenty-year history, the show was ready: the new artistic method really was what we needed.
We went on tour and were delighted to be back on stage and under the set’s waterfalls. We rounded off the year in the sun in Lisbon, on the main stage of the Centro Cultural de Belem theatre.
Meanwhile, Jean-Marie published his first novel, "Le rire du pendu".
2005: We returned to Besançon, where we had already performed "Plic Ploc" in October 2004 in front of 16,000 spectators. In response to popular demand, we played there once again in April, as more than 27,000 people shared our joy!
We performed twenty shows in Namur, Belgium, then fifty shows in Paris at La Villette, to nearly full houses.
Audience members told us that the show allowed them to rediscover the essence of Plume’s shows, and that they were surprised by a new breath of inspiration after more than 20 years of circus productions.
A structure for the Cirque Plume
In January, the President of our Regional Council once again launched the idea of a permanent venue for our company (a research and training center where we could work and pass on our skills) by offering to build a structure alongside the new Franche-Comté Frac (Fond Régional d’Art Contemporain), an architectural project where contemporary art and circus art would come together. This was followed by a meeting with the Mayor of Besançon who agreed to support this ambitious project.
However, after a short period of reflection, we decided to turn down the offer made by the President, Raymond Forni, as the venue proposed did not meet our needs in terms of space (the land was too small).
Despite this, it renewed our interest in finding our own structure, where, at long last, we would have the perfect infrastructure for preparing our shows.
We started to look for other sites in Besançon, as well as in the township of Salins les Bains.
We dreamed of a simple and environmentally friendly building.
On tour in Le Havre, Maëlle suffered from an injury. It was not serious, but she was replaced at the last minute and with great skill by Hugues ("Pedro"). It proved to be the start of a lasting collaboration.
The production notes for "Plic Ploc" by Bernard, illustrated with photos by Anthony Voisin, appeared in bookshops n April (Editions du Layeur).
Jean-Marie’s second novel "Au nom de l’esprit" was published in May (Editions Aréopage).
In the summer, we performed in the beautiful city of Bruges, Belgium. Then we headed to São Paolo, Brazil, where the city reserved for us a very warm welcome. The Brazilians were friendly, kind, and considerate towards us. São Paolo is huge. Posters announcing our performance were posted everywhere.
We toured in France in the autumn.
In December, Robert’s first book was published: "Petite poérésie à l’usage des vents et marées" (Éditions du Vendredi).
A structure for Cirque Plume (continued…)
In January 2006, the city of Besançon offered us a dream site to build our new workplace: the site of the former amphitheater in Besançon, where we were had often set up our big top when we performed in our city.
In February, the President of the Doubs Department offered us the opportunity to use one of the buildings at the Saline Royale (Royal Saltworks) at Arc et Senans as our base.
There were now two sites in the running.
As far as Besançon was concerned, we were worried about problems with the site listing. But the Municipality’s Technical Director reassured us that there were no obstacles in that respect. On the strength of these guarantees, we decided to work with the city of Besançon and decided to abandon the Departmental Council’s project at Arc et Senans.
A big mistake.
At the Avignon Festival, Bernard, along with the Mayor of Besançon, met with the Minister of Culture to discuss some of the points to be resolved.
October 10, 2006: architects from Bâtiments de France (national heritage authority) informed us that they were completely opposed to any building work on the site of the amphitheater because it was listed for several reasons.
We felt that we been had tricked.
When asked, the Doubs Departmental Council did not wish to renew the proposal that we had turned down.
The project for our own structure was abandoned.
We would be nomadic. It was an end to any dreams we had of a fixed structure. Our Artistic Director was very down.
We refocused our energy on research for our next show and on the "Plic Ploc" tour. We performed 107 times that year, including a run at the Maison de la Danse in Lyon in December, all completely sold out several months before the premiere. Michèle, the general secretary, told us that she was overwhelmed by the fervor of the public, who had started queuing in the early hours of the morning in the hope of getting a seat. “I thought that this type of thing was only for Johnny Halliday!” she exclaimed.
That made us laugh. Yes, our audiences are really great!
2007: We started the year touring once again in France.
In April, at La Chapelle sur Furieuse, we started a research and audition phase in a small studio that we had fitted out for the occasion (because it was too expensive to put up the big top for this preliminary phase, and we had no fixed place to work — see above!). Our next show would be called "L’atelier du peintre".
In June, we were in Marseille for a series of twenty performances, all sold out, in our big top along the J4 (the former port’s pier) facing the sea. Every day, the ferries setting sail for Corsica were a sign that the performance was about to start. The white sails of a three-masted ship sat beside the yellow canvas of our six masts. Pierre captured the evocative image on film and it became the picture for our greeting card the following year.
In September, we were in Epinal for the start of the first season of a new cultural organization (Scènes Vosges), and at Roubaix Theatre in October.
We resumed research work on "L’atelier du peintre" in November, still in the same studio in La Chapelle, and we continued to meet with performers in order to complete our team.
At the same time, Bernard wrote and created "Le cabaret des valises" with the Télémaque troupe.
In December, we performed at the Auditorium of Dijon, which normally is a venue for classical music and is magnificently luxurious.
2008: During tours we found ourselves in many towns and cities — it would take too long to mention them all!
At each location, whether for a week, a fortnight, or more, we met new people, and visited new venues, bars, bookshops, restaurants, museums, cathedrals, and coastlines. Over the years, each one of us built up our own personal geography of France and Europe.
We installed the big top at Salins les Bains in May to resume work on "L’atelier du peintre". Pierre took advantage of the opportunity to make a short film there called "Tempus Fugit". This was followed by a series of local performances of "Plic Ploc".
Summer was quiet. Bernard set up an artist’s workshop at the studio in La Chapelle and took up painting, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the task (it’s not useful for the actual show per se unless it is the painting used for the poster!).
Our ten semi-trailers set sail across the Baltic Sea, as we had been invited to bring our big top show to the Helsinki Festival. We received a wonderful welcome from the Finnish public. We took advantage of this Nordic adventure to enjoy a sauna.
"Secrets" (Éditions du Vendredi), Jean-Marie’s third novel, was published in September.
In November, we spent three weeks working at the Commanderie in Dole (Jura): it was the first time in our history that we had a permanent venue of the right size for our creative work (the first 25 years are the hardest!).
We performed the very last "Plic Ploc" shows in Clermont Ferrand.
Champagne for all!
Unlike previous tours, this one remained a mainly French tour. Times were a ‘changing.
"Plic Ploc" was performed 398 times before 395,000 spectators.
2009 - 2012
2009: Year of the creation of "L’atelier du peintre".
We set up our big top again in Salins les Bains for four months in order to create "L’atelier du peintre".
Our performers, stage managers, costume designers, chefs, set designers, sound and lighting designers, and the director would often all come together in this manner once every three or four years, to work, exchange and create. It was, as always, a meeting of generations, skills, and personalities. We got to know the newcomers and established trust within the group.
In total, a team of 92 people worked on this production.
We performed the preview shows here and then set off in June to play at La Coursive Scène Nationale La Rochelle — our sole co-producer — and, in July, at the "Printemps des Comédiens" festival in Montpellier: our official theatre and big top premieres.
After several performances at the Commanderie in Dole, we set up our base and our big top in Paris, at the Parc de la Villette. By then, we had performed for Parisian audiences here at la Villette for many years: we worked out that the oldest members of our team had probably spent a total of more than two years here, if we added together all of our stays.
The first audiences were demanding. The show wasn’t yet at its best.
Unlike the summer press, the autumn and the Parisian press did not let us off lightly. Much of what was said in their criticisms was true. They were useful for us: We returned to our drawing boards, with the help of our friends from the Théâtre de l’Unité. By refocusing ourselves on our company’s artistic essence, we cut twenty minutes from the show.
The big top was sold out for the longest run (60 shows) ever to take place at the Parc de la Villette.
2010: The new century was already ten years old. In the spring, we returned to Besançon, the ancient Spanish city, and to our beloved Franche-Comté audience for a month of performances. Playing in Besançon had become triennial event that we loved: pleasure of performing in front of family and friends and bothlong-standing and new audiences. 19,000 people attended our April run.
Meanwhile, Actes Sud/CNAC published "Cirque Plume," a collection of interviews with Bernard edited by Gwénola David.
The economic crisis resulted in the cancellation of shows in Lisbon and in Athens, but not in the Netherlands. We completed a magnificent French tour.
At Rezé les Nantes, we reworked the show to integrate Diane, who had arrived to replace Chelsea in the artistic team. With our maestro having been the victim of a road accident in September, it was Benoit (his stand-in) who arranged Diane’s music.
In December, in Voiron, the premiere proved to be difficult, owing to an accumulation of events: sometimes not much is needed to destabilize a show’s subtle balance. But, the following day, thanks to the professionalism of all the troupe members, everyone found their marks and we rounded off the year as we had started out.
2011: At the start of the year, let’s summarize: Benoit became the proud father of a baby girl, Dom and Myriam were expecting a boy, Tibo and Caro were awaiting a girl, and Laura and Mark were expecting twins (a boy and a girl).
In Amiens and Rueil-Malmaison, Laura was replaced by two performers, Babé for hand-balancing and Osmar for "trampo-pétales," both of which were acts Laura had created.
After much discussion, we decided to perform at the Geneva Arena, a large (too large?) venue. It was our first time back on neighboring soil in twenty years!
Bernard started writing our next show "Tempus fugit ?" based on themes of memory, transmission, and passing time. We drew on elements from our repertoire and on a new generation of performers who would make these their own, working with variations of Robert’s music. “With its passing, time is starting to want to make us older,” he said in reference to "Plic Ploc".
It was at this point, with many of us already having celebrated our fiftieth birthdays, that we started to think about the company’s future.
The tour continued in France up until the summer. Everything was going well and that was good news.
Summer: holidays for everyone!
September: due to a lack of a rehearsal venue, we found ourselves out on the streets. The director of Théâtre de l’Espace - scène nationale de Besançon
lent us its main stage for three weeks before the start of its season. We worked there on our initial ideas for "Tempus fugit".
In the autumn, we presented a project proposal to our institutional partners for the installation of our big tops in Besançon for a period of 18 months, a project that would house two new productions and would bring together a cabaret, meeting centre, and a host venue for troupes from elsewhere. All of this, with a view of a more permanent base in our city.
But yet again, this project, which was so well received, fell by the wayside owing to a lack of funding.
At the end of the year, we performed in Lyon in front of 35,000 people at the Grand Parc de Miribel Jonage, a venue without any public transport in the winter. The crowd turned up regardless. A big thanks to our audience.
Delighted by this great success, the troupe’s members suggested continuing the tour beyond the final date in São Paulo next summer: unanimous agreement!
2012: Dominique got on the phone so that we could continue the tour: after a few ideas which fell by the wayside, we decided to return to Paris in October, November and December, and to join Cirque en Chantier at Ile Seguin, Madona Bouglione’s structure.
The year looked difficult.
In January, we continued our research for "Tempus fugit ?" (the Latin expression is emphasized with a question mark, to get the imagination working). This process offered many rich and enjoyable moments. We worked on audio and musical elements.
During that period, Robert composed three new pieces. He was very present and very creative.
Bernard launched a workshop with Yan, the juggler and handyman (he was the one who made the metronomes for "Plic Ploc"). Ideas, models, cardboard boxes, bottles, pieces of string: the set started to take shape.
At the beginning of this year, Bernard simultaneously published" L’atelier du peintre Charles Belle," a small book about Charles Belle’s studio, a place where Bernard had spent time thinking and chatting among friends during the preparation of the show "L’atelier du peintre". The book was published by Virgile, in the ‘Carnets d’Ateliers’ collection.
On Thursday, March 1st 2012, Robert Miny took his own life.
The Cirque Plume lost its composer.
We had to take time to grieve. The time was marked by a sense of loss, by mourning, by the support of friends and spectators, by pain, and by anger.
At La Grainerie à Balma (in Greater Toulouse), we performed a run that felt inhabited and beautiful: we dedicated the premiere to Robert and to Isa, one of the founders of La Grainerie who died the same week.
We decided to continue the Cirque Plume adventure with a creation on time and transmission, a show we wanted to fill with celebration and joy.
At Bernard’s request, Benoît (Robert’s replacement since the "Plic Ploc" tour) took over the musical direction, arrangements, and composition.
We continued the research and development work in the theatre for "Tempus fugit ?" at the beginning of Autumn 2012, at the same time as the end of "L’atelier du peintre" tour, which turned out to be difficult financially (see below), despite the enthusiasm of our audiences and an average attendance rate of 90% of capacity.
After a trip to Brazil in summer, we ended the tour on the Ile Seguin, in Paris.
"L’atelier du peintre" was played a total of 346 times in front of 319,846 spectators.
On a financial level as well, 2012 proved itself to be a testing year: in fact, to keep going (subsidies and grants only represent 15% of Cirque Plume’s operating budget), we had to use three-quarters of the sum provided by the first years of "L’atelier du peintre" tour, a sum which was supposed to have been used to finance the next production.
After almost 30 years of success, all it took was a single weak year to find ourselves once again in a difficult period.
2013 - 2016
2013: Year of the creation of "Tempus Fugit ? une ballade sur le chemin perdu".
We were nearing 30 years of existence. Our new show spoke of the passing of time, and of the way in which we were handing our world over to a new generation of artists, some of whom had not even been born when our adventure began.
The title was lengthened, its second part inspired by a clock-making term, the "chemin perdu" (sometimes translated in horology dictionaries as “backlash”) being the gap between the tick and the tock of the movement of a Comtoise grandfather clock.
This moment between the lock and release of the escapement lever is called "le repos et la chute" in French. Here we are! Circus is precisely and eternally here, between "le repos et la chute" or "the rest and the fall."For the Franche-Comté circus folk that we are, the revelation of this miraculous convergence, at the very moment of the creation of a show about the passing of time, was incredibly exciting!
That February, we’d pitched our circus tent in Besançon, the French capital of watch making, and Cirque Plume’s home town. There, on land cleared by the city between the Citadel fortress and the Doubs River, we rehearsed for almost three months.
But this last creation and production phase of "Tempus Fugit ? une ballade sur le chemin perdu" was no vacation!
Due to difficulties of the year 2012, we were short 400,000 euros at the time of realizing the creation. We asked for exceptional help from the Ministry of Culture. Meanwhile, despite this lack of funding, we decided to create the show with the firm intention not to make artistic concessions.
This creation period began right around the anniversary of the loss of Robert. We were grief-stricken. The presence of his absence haunted the big top.
Bernard was experiencing a waking night mare, attempting to direct a show while feeling amputated of a part of himself, a part that had died along with Robert.
30 years of complicity. Then immense solitude.
Solitude. "There is only one tomb: the heart of a friend," wrote Tacitus.
The theatrical research periods of 2011 and 2012 had been pleasant and largely effective. Thanks to them, almost fifty minutes of the new show already existed (the middle part was never changed).
But when we came together again in March under our big top, under these very particular conditions, the artistic fusion between our veteran artists and our incoming team did not happen naturally. We searched inside ourselves for answers; we sought to understand our differences.
Cyril, the unforgettable polymorphic acrobat of "No Animo Mas Anima" visited us a few days for an "animality workshop" with our new artists.
Despite this period of acclimatization, Bernard still felt blocked. He spoke to the troupe about the hard time he was having working "as before" when things had become so different for him. He asked everyone to help him pass this painful course.
So, each member of the troupe “grabbed the oars.” Yan Bernard was particularly effective in his role as assistant and more. The technical team took to their tasks and held the ship in these stormy times.
The group began to assert itself and to come together.
Musically speaking, the work progressed tremendously. In a difficult context, Benoit handled the transition perfectly.
So, a lot of work. But also grief, doubts, uncertainties, anxieties.
During the first complete run-through, we realized that the show needed major reworking. We analyzed the work at night and restaged it the following day. In the next run-through, the poetry of the show appeared: Everything was there!
We were reassured, but time was running out. There were still modifications to make. We needed to tweak a few moments that were still too long (thanks to Hervée De Lafond and Jacques Livchine, of the Théâtre de l’Unité, who both graciously lent an objective eye—invaluable in these moments of doubt). Did we have time, would we be ready? We knew the answer during the first public dress rehearsal, playing before 900 people, all close to the company. The show took off, and was warmly received.
"Totally Plume," we were told.
On May 18th, the premiere in Besançon reassured us. The theatre programmers who came to discover our new creation during the 20 sold-out performances that followed spoke to us of a "bon cru."
We carried on with 31 evening shows (also sold-out) at the Nuits de Fourvière Festival, with a superb opening night in Lyon.
This renewal was brought forth by the new artists. The magic worked once again. But what a trial, this passage!
The show held all the emotions of its distinction creation. The poetry really was there, inside the sensitivity of each person.
We went on the road with "Tempus fugit ?" for a mainly French tour with over 300 dates booked. With great pleasure, we found our audiences in these cities (Caen, Roubaix, Voiron, and La Rochelle between October and December), wherein some cases, loyal theatre programmers had trusted us before the show even existed (as they had done in some cases for several decades).
The new tour began as the company blew out 30 birthday candles in December 2013.
30 years already? Tempus fugit...
2014: The tour of "Tempus Fugit ? une ballade sur le chemin perdu" had us traveling, playing in our big top as well as in theatres, from Amiens to Epinal, passing by Cergy-Pontoise and Rezé-les-Nantes.
At the beginning of the summer, French cultural life was marked once again by social unrest, with highly publicized protests denouncing the reform of the “régime des intermittents du spectacle, "a French status allowing performing artists and stage technicians to practice their profession in good conditions.
We were scheduled at the end of June at the "Printemps de Comédiens" Festival in Montpellier, one of the first festivals of the summer season. It also happened to be at the center of the protests. Festival technicians on strike prevented the performances of the scheduled shows.
While affirming our opposition to the reform, we confirmed our intention to perform (for us, missing an encounter with the audience is always a failure of the creative act).
But a few days before the scheduled dates, several of the artists and technicians of our troupe decided to position themselves among the protesters. De facto contract canceled.
It was a first for Cirque Plume. But it would have been more difficult to handle this impediment to perform had the show just been created, as productions are most fragile then.
Meanwhile, Brigitte and Molly had to be replaced due to physical problems. Replacements of artists during a tour are always sensitive moments to manage. But the replacement process went well, and artistically, the show was at its best.
After playing in Heerlen, the Netherlands at the end of the summer, we set up our camp on the Espace chapiteaux at the Parc de la Villette in Paris for a strong autumn run of 66 shows.
This presence in the French capital was an occasion to highlight our 30 years of creation. An outdoor canvas covering 25 meters in length and an exhibition designed by Bernard were presented under our big top in the reception and bar area.
The anniversary also served as the moment to publish the "Abécédaire du Cirque Plume," a collection of Bernard’s texts written throughout the troupe’s 30 years, accompanied by a hundred photographs.
We felt reassured: everyone in the troupe—both new and old members—grew together. This beautiful dynamic was reinforced by the public, critical, and commercial success of the show, albeit a show that had had a painful birth.
After a difficult period, the tour of "Tempus fugit ?" marked the return to a calm operation of our company.
2015 : A great year of touring. We played mainly in France, with long-time programing partners (in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Le Havre, Blagnac, Rueil-Malmaison, Elbeuf, Belfort, Chalon-sur-Saône, and Clermont-Ferrand), as well as with several cultural agents who had never programmed us before (in Brest, Auch, Marseille, and Perpignan).
Summer brought the occasion to return to São Paulo, Brazil to perform, the only escapade outside of Europe for "Tempus fugit ?" Unlike in the 1990s, we were performing abroad much less at this time.
In early July, Bernard was named Officier des Arts et des Lettres of France, and was handed a medallion by the Préfet de Franche-Comté. The whole company rejoiced with him! During the medal ceremony at the prefecture, Bernard invoked the memory of his grandfather, who immigrated to France from Poland. Bernard shared his wish that in these times of so-called migrant “crisis," our country could remain a land of welcome for those whose descendants may one day receive honors and medals from the Republic.
2015 was also the year during which we began writing and researching for our 11th creation, already titled "La dernière saison" (“The last season”). The next and last show, since we decided to end our artistic, human, and entrepreneurial adventure at the end of this future season.
But we were not there yet! The creation and production period was planned for 2017, and we had two years before us to prepare for it calmly.
In January, we put out a call to recruit the future artistic team. We received 470 applications (39 French artists as well as 431 artists of 28 other nationalities), and held auditions under our big top during the tour. At the end of this process, six new artists were hired, along with two "old" ones.
The creative team was set up around Bernard. The composition and the musical direction were entrusted to Grégoire Gensse (who was already part of the troupe as a musician in "Tempus fugit ?").
In December, we worked on staging various scenes at the Théâtre de l’Espace de la Scène nationale de Besançon. Bernard was really pleased with the implementation of these first ideas.
The foundations seemed solid and already gave a sense of an exciting project.
At the same time, our administrators were hard at work. The world changes, and the means to communicate with our public change, too. Our online presence (cirqueplume.com) got a makeover, in order to adapt to new digital uses.
It was worth it: since 2002 (the year the previous version of our site had gone live online), our website accumulated over 3,000,000 (three million) visits.
At of the end of the year, the French Ministry of Culture and Communications created a new status called "compagnie nationale" ("national company"), a program to support companies of international rank not acting as directors of institutions. Cirque Plume was one of about sixty structures to be listed under the new status.
The information was communicated to us on December 30th: a beautiful end to the year! We welcomed this recognition of our work and our place in the landscape of live performance.
On New Year’s Eve, we recapitulated our year: a super tour of "Tempus fugit ?";enthusiastic pre-production and preparation of "La dernière saison"; the benefit of a formalized national status; even a medal from the French Republic for Bernard. It was “all systems go.” Champagne for all!
2016 : We attacked the year in full form, between the last bookings of the "Tempus fugit ?" tour (in France and in Belgium) and the preparation of a long period of research for "La dernière saison". Touring a successful show while creating a new production—a process we’d been undergoing every four years—gave us great energy.
In March, we set up our big top a month early in Illkirch-Graffenstaden (a suburb of Strasbourg), taking advantage of the time before the April bookings of "Tempus fugit ?" This first long period of research was an opportunity for members of the troupe, both old and new, to meet for the first time and to begin working together.
This is what happened during the first four days: there was an immediate group spirit, a creative energy of the highest level, and the time and means to work serenely—everything we had set up worked perfectly.
But this dynamic was broken on the evening of Thursday, March 31th, with the suicide of Grégoire Gensse, the composer chosen by Bernard for the musical direction of "La dernière saison". Grégoire died on April 24th after several weeks in a coma.
The week before, Grégoire had directed a week of work with the musicians of "La dernière saison", in a studio graciously made available to us by La Rodia (S.M.A.C. of Besançon). The musical project had started to take shape, with nothing foreseeing such a catastrophe.
The tragic event obviously put an immediate end to the month of work and development planned in Illkirch.
But after a short period of shock, despite the pain, everyone in our team quickly took the decision to come together beyond the tragedy: to continue to perform, to keep the bookings in Illkirch, and to go on with the rest of the tour.
And above all, to continue the artistic project under construction, the creation of "La dernière saison".
And so, in June, we once again came to the stage of Théâtre de l’Espace de la Scène nationale de Besançon for two weeks of set design research and tests.
But beyond the musical compositions themselves, the loss of Grégoire profoundly altered the artistic plan that Bernard had originally laid out. The months that followed therefore called for are structuring of our future creation.
In early September, we pitched our tents in Besançon for ten months.
The last run of "Tempus Fugit ? une ballade sur le chemin perdu" was held there, effectively closing the tour in the very city where it had started back in May 2013.
In total, the show was performed 377 times for a total of 364,711 spectators (often playing to full or nearly full houses, with an average 97% capacity utilization).
From the fall through mid-December, we spent nine weeks working on artistic research and development for "La dernière saison".
But 2016 hit Cirque Plume doubly. Spring came with the announcement that Alain Mallet, an artist and musician who joined the troupe in 1989, had been diagnosed with cancer. Audiences remember "Jimmy, "the electric guitarist and trampolinist of "Mélanges (opéra plume)" and the flying violinist of "Tempus fugit ?" Our dear friend battled the disease all year. He left us on December 14th. The end of the year was marked by sadness.
2017 - 2020
2017 : The year of the creation of "La dernière saison"
After a two-month winter break (during which we lent our big top to artistic friends: the singer Aldebert and the acrobatic company XY), we began working in February on the production aptly titled "La dernière saison".
We were approaching the final straight — even if we knew full well that creating a show and then touring it for several years is never a straightforward process. So it goes with live performance! During this creative period, the casting was modified several times, with adjustments made up until a few days before the opening. The troupe ended up going from 13 performers in "Tempus Fugit ? une ballade sur le chemin perdu" to 14 in "La dernière saison", bringing together several nationalities (Argentine, American, Spanish, and French), and mixing longtime collaborators, recent returning artists, and newcomers.
Finally, after working together for 36 weeks over the course of three years, "La dernière saison", Cirque Plume’s final opus, was born on May 19, 2017 in Besançon.
A show about the seasons, the natural elements, the mystery of the forest, and the invasion of plastic — above all, a show about joy, and a goodbye without nostalgia, shared with our audiences. And those audiences responded in an amazing way! The 20,000 tickets for the opening shows in Besançon sold within ten days, more than three months before the premiere. In each city we came to with our final tour, we witnessed the same phenomenon, the same frenzy. We already had the sense that our company would perform "La dernière saison" more than any other show, and that we would play the piece before more spectators than any previous production.
Just as we’d done with "Tempus Fugit ? une ballade sur le chemin perdu", we kept right going, and went on to a series of 30 shows at the "Nuits de Fourvière" festival. By the beginning of August, we had already played the show more than 50 times.
The show was off to a flying start, and the critical response was excellent. The only trouble: we had done “too good a job” announcing the fact that we would be definitively putting an end to our long artistic adventure as the tour came to its close. As a result, journalists and audience members questioned us on one subject alone: “But why are you stopping?” To which there was only one response: “Because we only grow older, because finitude is a part of life, because one most know how to stop at the right moment, at the best moment, and this the moment we’ve chosen.” It is a luxury to able to close a magnificent artistic adventure of over 36 years while we are all still smiling. Is that not the most beautiful way?
The many poignant testimonies we received on a daily basis on the subject went straight to our hearts. Thank you to our warm and effusive audiences!
The first curveball came in September, with the knee injury of one of our new artists. The following two months of touring with several different replacements temporarily weakened the show — the live, living show.
It was during the beginning of the tour that an album of the show’s music was recorded live in its entirety. Public recordings are always a perilous exercise – a round of applause for our orchestra of seasoned musicians!
After beginning our tour under our big top, the second part of the year brought us back to theatres in Amiens, Roubaix, and Le Havre. Then we ended the year 2017 in the renovated performance hall of our friends from La Coursivein in La Rochelle. The cultural programming at La Coursivein has been a beautiful, loyal partner to our company — we have played absolutely all our shows there since 1992.
2018: After 16 shows at the Théâtre de Caen (with so much success that we already booked a date to return in 2020, making for an anticipated total of 30,000 spectators in this city!), we returned with glee to our beloved yellow big top in Rezé-les-Nantes and in Épinal.
The artist who had been injured came back to the tour at the beginning of the year, but left permanently a few months later. Bernard decided to replace him with two dancer-acrobats, to enhance the show with an additional person on stage. And so the troupe of "La dernière saison" went from 14 to 15. We hadn’t had this number of performers on stage since 1995 (in the last 20 years, we had made a choice that was both artistic and economic to cast 12 to 13 performers in our productions).
In early 2018, we finished the parallel projects we’d started at the beginning of the tour in 2017: a music album and a double DVD of our "La dernière saison". The last audio and video releases of our adventure. Our “last times” were still not over! But we experienced each one with a distinct mix of emotions.
The double DVD joined the "Notre histoire" collection, thus becoming the final chapter in our video component. We marked this completion by presenting all the videos in a collector’s box created specially for the occasion (for our internal communications, as usual). We placed the box on the table… 35 years of our artistic work, captured and enclosed in a small palisade-colored parallelepiped with Plume’s signature “l’ombre du nez" enthroned on the cover.
In September, after a rehearsal period needed to integrate three new artists into the troupe (the two new dancer-acrobats and a replacement for an artist on maternity leave), we charged ahead with an extended run of 64 shows in Paris that unfolded during the last three months of the year. Our "La dernière saison" spent the entire autumn in Paris. We set up camp (another of our “last times”) on the Espace chapiteaux at La Villette, the same spot where we’d to hold our ground in 1991 against the wishes of La Villette’s administration at the time! Not only were we the first circus company who’d wanted to play there, but the setting up of big tops on-site had not been anticipated (a nomadic venue, so by definition, disreputable!): the architects had declared that our big top would disrupt the harmony of the site!
Since then, things have changed: l’Espace chapiteaux is the most important institutional venue for contemporary circus in Paris, and the 25 years we have now worked at this significant cultural institution are a sign of true partnership. Pierre has calculated that if we put together the time we have spent there since 1991, it amounts to two full years! Thank you, La Villette, for allowing us to present our different works to the Parisian public during all these years, under excellent conditions.
And so we ended 2018 in Paris. With 121 shows done, our company had performed more shows that year than we had in any other year in the last two decades. Since the creation of the show, in all cities where we have played "La dernière saison" have been 100% full, always selling out, sometimes several months before the show opens. A beautiful tour!
2019: After an intense year in 2018, the troupe was finally able to take a breath in January 2019, only to start again in February with a tour of 99 dates. We were booked to perform with longstanding cultural partners (in Blagnac, Brest, Chalon sur Saône, Saint Quentin en Yvelines, Clermont-Ferrand), but also in cities we had never played before (Lieusaint in France, Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium) or had not played for a long time (Chambéry). From our beginnings to the very end, we have been able to form new partnerships. Thank you to all these cultural organizations for allowing us to present our shows.
It was also at the beginning of this year that two of our artists expressed a desire to blossom under other artistic skies. With relatively short careers due to the physical demands that are entailed, four years of intense touring with the same show can seem long.
So here we were again, searching for artists with an international level who would be quickly available for almost two years to complete the end of the tour. It seemed almost impossible. But we had to believe that a fairy was watching over Cirque Plume, because thanks to our active circus network, we were able to welcome two exceptional artists. They even chose to abandon other projects to join our troupe. We were touched by this.
We rehearsed with the first of the new artists in June in Chambéry, where her aerial hoop act and her take on the woodland elf character worked wonders from her first performance. This artist had stood out during her audition, and the grace she brought to the show confirmed our choice.
Meanwhile, the selection of the second artist was not easy. The dancer we were considering offered something completely different than the comic contortion number she would be replacing — an act that had been part of the show since its creation. There was a lively debate within the troupe. But Bernard made the artistic choice, and her presence ended up bringing a new dimension to "La dernière saison." In September in Châlons-sur-Saône, we worked with her on a hypnotic dance we would call "La fleur." Nadia created a “dress of petals” and Benoit composed a new piece for the scene (watch the video).
Phew! The change of artists was a success! The performances in the autumn of 2019 confirmed that this new version of the show worked. For the audience above all, but also for the troupe members, who were revitalized by this fresh blood after a period of insecurity.
Alongside the 2019 tour, we were busily preparing for the year 2020 — an important year because it would be our last. We wanted it to be exceptional, festive, unforgettable.
Several events were being prepared for the upcoming year in partnership with the team of the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans. Bernard was curating a large exhibition that would look at the memory of the 37 years of our company. Titled "Le Cirque Plume, l’éternité du saut périlleux," the extensive exhibit was set to take place in the immense "berne ouest," one of the former saltwork buildings on the site’s grounds. Filling the space of this immense "cathedral" was a real scenographic challenge. Bernard dove into our photographic archives (nearly 30,000 images, all of which we had catalogued thanks to several years of painstaking work) to bring to form what he considered his "last Cirque Plume creation."
We were thinking about the period after 2020, at which point our company would be closed. We knew we had to plan for it. This extended to many different areas, including our equipment, which was not the simplest! Beyond the materials used in our touring shows (tent, scenery, sound and lighting equipment, machinery, and so on), over the decades we had stored tons (in the literal sense) of material. Sometimes this was imposing, sometimes it took the form of an incredible junk shop. Now we had to start clearing out our warehouses to be ready by the closing of our adventure. Jean-Marie, assisted by Jean-Philippe, started sifting through things: cataloguing them, putting some on sale, and throwing others away.
We knew that the hardest part would be selling our big top, a beautiful canvas theatre that had been designed specifically for our needs, adapted to the large number of spectators we welcomed during long runs of shows in the same city. For Cirque Plume, it was perfect. But it its huge, imposing size made it heavy to transport and to set up — we sometimes saw it as an economic and logistical aberration! What cultural organization could it serve after us? There wasn’t another circus company performing frontally (the tent was designed with the seats facing the stage, like in a proscenium theatre) with a "volume" equivalent to ours. We thought it might be used by a theatre needing a temporary structure while their permanent space was being renovated. So we looked into this.
We had a number of visits and interested parties, but nothing that came to fruition. And the months were going by quickly.
December 2019. After three days of rehearsals to replace our wire walker, who needed a break, we ended the year with a series of 12 performances in the grand Comédie de Clermont-Ferrand theatre. The revisited show (with three new artists) turned out really well, and we were feeling on top of things.
Let’s go 2020!
2020: At last! This was it — the cusp of the year that we’d decided five years ago would mark the end of our story.
With 108 shows, including 50 self-produced performances in Franche-Comté (our home!), the end of the tour was looking full. Everyone in the team, those who were touring as well those at home, were full energy for this final round.
This exceptional year for Cirque Plume also marked the coming together of a partnership with the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans after two years of planning. A series of events entitled "L’année du cirque à la Saline royale" ("The year of the circus at the Royal Saltworks") or Bernard’s favorite phrase, "Le cirque, c’est la nostalgie du paradis" ("Circus is nostalgia for paradise"), were scheduled to open to the public in 2020. We were involved in three major projects as part of this. Among these were two exhibitions that Bernard was curating and that we had been working on for a year: "Le Cirque Plume ou l’éternité du saut périlleux" and "Destins de cirque."
"Le Cirque Plume ou l’éternité du saut périlleux" was an extensive, memoir-like exhibition. Over the course of several months, Bernard went through some 30,000 photographs in our archives and selected 300 of them. He then had these reformatted and printed on panels averaging 12 m², filling the immense space of the Saltworks, designed in the 1770s by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
To complete this photographic series, Bernard planned a wall of costumes, along with installations that would allow visitors to listen to music from our shows. Also in the plan were emblematic pieces from our sets, including an automated reproduction of water juggling from "Plic Ploc" as well as the pendulum which had so magically animated the final scene of "Tempus fugit?"
In the second exhibition, "Destins de cirque," Bernard paid tribute to a subjective selection of circus artists (men and women) — figures who have poeticized and fascinated the world since 1768. To stage "Destins de cirque," he was granted access to pieces from the exceptional collections of Dr. Alain Frère and of the MUCEM in Marseille.
The third component of our participation in "L’année du cirque à la Saline royale" was a series of 20 performances of "La dernière saison" scheduled for the month of August.
If we had already presented one of our early shows (“No Animo Mas Anima”) within one of the Royal Saltworks’ buildings at our quasi beginnings (1991), we were now about to realize a very old dream: to set up our tents within the very semicircle of this incredible architectural landmark, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place very dear to our Franc-comtois hearts. Our tent in front of the emblematic Director’s House: the image made us shiver with excitement!
However, the cohabitation of our troupe within these historical grounds visited by several thousands of people every day was not easy. Our set-up was complicated by the fact that we were confronted by the multiple constraints and prohibitions of the venue, while our acrobats were used to feeling "at home" under and around our tents. Long meetings with the Saltworks team, all in a beautiful spirit of mutual listening, gradually allowed us to find a middle ground for all aspects of our imposing presence, including even the most trivial details of daily life.
Two exhibitions and 20 performances of our show: we were overjoyed to be so present at the Saltworks for the year.
In January, we landed in Marseille with the support of the Entre-Deux Biennale organized by our old friends from Archaos. What a pleasure it was to hug each other after so many years — with our greying hair, but also with happiness to see that our energy and our love for live performance remained intact! We were back in the giant Cepac-Silo Hall with its great team who had hosted "Tempus fugit?" in 2015. Through our run there of 14 shows, over 21,000 spectators in Marseille came to cheer on “La dernière saison.”
At the very beginning of the year, the media was starting to talk about a "mysterious flu" coming from China to Europe. We all remembered the episode of H1N1 in 2009, which seemed to have been a big fuss for nothing.
In Marseille, on the day of the last performance, one of our artists learned that his father had just died with symptoms of the Coronavirus. The virus was taking more and more space in the news.
We felt, like everyone else, that the fuse of the bomb was starting to glow.
Doubt and uncertainty began to creep into our minds. But on the day after our last performance in Marseille, all the troupe members said to one another, "See you in Caen next month!" We all wanted to believe it was true.
In fact, the countdown had already begun. We don’t know it yet, but on February 9th in Marseille, we had just performed the last show in the history of Cirque Plume.
We still had 94 performances in our touring calendar that we believed were set in stone. But in reality, the troupe would never play in front of an audience again.
But we’re not there yet!
In February, we were urgently at work on the two exhibitions, both of which were scheduled to open at the end of June. The timing was increasingly tight, and the team at the Royal Saltworks had some cold sweats! Together, we set a schedule so that we would meet our deadlines. Everything was launched for the implementation phase.
The days went by, the pandemic continued to spread, the government began to talk about a lockdown, but nothing was officially decreed when we left on March 9th to install our equipment on the stage of the Théâtre de Caen. On the evening of Thursday the 12th, we did our traditional run-through with the whole company. Business as usual.
The next day, the musicians did their sound check, like every morning before a premiere. We were still doing things "as if"...
But at 2pm on Friday the 13th, while the whole company was in a meeting, anxious and tense, the director of the theatre informed us: It was official, public-access buildings had to close that very day, and the French population was to go into lockdown the following Tuesday.
It was foreseeable, but the shock was hard! We took down our show with a heavy heart and everyone went home to go into lockdown.
At the office, it was all hands on deck. Like all companies, we had little time to set up an efficient teleworking arrangement. Everyone was home, hooked to computers and phones: a long and difficult period began for our administrative team.
Without any clarity on the future, we spent our energy during this period making and unmaking plans, keeping the company upright in a mess of regulatory documents coming out in dribs and drabs, sometimes modified from one day to another.
During the following months, in a state of total uncertainty, we were forced to cancel our contracts one after the other: after Caen, it was the turn of Illkirch-Graffenstaden, then Elbeuf.
When the lockdown was finally lifted in June, we still didn’t know how to manage the second part of our year, the one that was to take place entirely at home, in Franche-Comté, the one in which we planned to welcome 50,000 spectators (more than the Parc des Princes stadium, as we liked to say).
Amidst this general slump, there was one cause for satisfaction: the exhibition "Le Cirque Plume ou l’éternité du saut périlleux" opened on June 20th as planned. More than 400 people wearing sanitary masks and greeting each other from a distance attended this almost unexpected opening. The exhibition was scaled down, without the
possibility of listening to music from the shows (the planned device was incompatible with the sanitary rules in place) and without the water juggling (due to lack of time and financial means). But the pendulum, animated by its automatic launcher, majestically filled the center of the space, its uniqueness reinforcing its hypnotic beauty.
Meanwhile, the sanitary crisis took away the joy of inaugurating the two exhibitions as initially planned: Because of the lockdown, our partners did not have the means to provide us with the desired pieces from their collections, and the opening of "Destins de cirque " was postponed to October 25th. (It would remain open for only five days before what was called the second lockdown. The exhibition would later be extended to remain on view until 2022.)
As far as the tour was concerned, after the lockdown, it would be possible to welcome audiences again, but with a reduced capacity due to the strict sanitary measures in place: Out of the 1,000 seats in our big top, we could only welcome 160 people (canvas structures did not benefit from the regulations applied to permanent theatres). A guarantee for an atmosphere of sadness in our deserted rows and a financial abyss!
But the government was suggesting a potential easing of these measures, albeit without saying which ones and when. The uncertainty undermined our planning because it prevented us from taking decisions, while our events demanded several months of preparation.
We decided to open the ticket office for Arc-et-Senans and Besançon, betting on the possibility of maybe being able to perform rather than cancelling right away. Holding on to this hope, while knowing that the energy put into this preparation (in an anxious climate) might be spent for nothing was complicated to manage!
Despite this uncertain context, we sold more than 10,000 tickets within the first month of opening the box office (thank you, audience!). But the date we had scheduled to set up the tent at the Saltworks was approaching, and although we had waited as long as possible, nothing had changed in terms of the conditions imposed by the government. Sad and disillusioned, we were forced to cancel all the performances in Arc-et-Senans. 20 more shows into the dustbin of the health crisis!
It was now July, and only the last 30 performances scheduled on our calendar could be considered as maybe being possible: those planned in Besançon, "our" city, the one where we had started 37 years ago and where we had always stayed, where we kept our head office and administration. Besançon is our home! These last performances held a double symbolic value.
We knew that all our friends wanted to be there to joyfully say goodbye to us and to join us in celebrating the closing of our company. (The audience also seemed to want to say goodbye in their symbolic way: our last date sold out instantly as soon as tickets went on sale).
Not performing in Besançon, not truly closing our story — this seemed unthinkable.
Capacity could now be increased to 740 spectators. It was still too little, but we wanted to direct all our energy towards the prospect in spite of the list of sanitary requirements, each one more restrictive than the one before: a complete reworking of the entrance and exit of spectators, modifications of the public entrances in the tent to allow a longer queue with physical distancing, and total closure of our “bar tent” (not even a possibility of having a drink, a total absence of pre and especially post-show conviviality). In spite of all these conditions, all of which went against the festive spirit we so wanted for these final shows, we told ourselves that we had to try everything to be able to perform the show.
We went to the Prefecture to present our new dossier demonstrating the conditions under which we would be performing. It received a favorable opinion (beyond the ways we described to manage the public during shows, the fact that it would be possible to "trace" potentially infected persons thanks to the information collected on our online ticketing service seemed the most important point for the authorities).
The days went by, but the situation only grew more uncertain.
Tensions rose again as the dates scheduled to set up the show in Besançon grew nearer. It was imperative for us to make a final decision — what would symbolically be the most important one we had ever made.
Our board of directors met on September 15th and 16th for two full days of discussion, of constructing and deconstructing arguments, of sifting through questions, of analyzing the favorable, the unfavorable, and the very unfavorable. All this in order to make a decision, and then to make another one. To never perform again, or to perform one last time? It was without a doubt the most difficult, the most eventful, and the most emotional meeting of our entire adventure.
At the end of these two days, we reached our decision. We would not perform in Besançon.
Cirque Plume would never perform again.
What happened next proved to us that we made the only right choice. We would not have been able to perform in any case, because of the second lockdown.
In total, 94 shows were cancelled. 94,000 spectators were deprived of “La dernière saison.”
On September 18th, we issued a final press release written by Bernard, "Lettre ouverte d’un grand vaisseau qui part dans la nuit" (Open letter of a ship leaving in the night...) that made a lot of waves: Through our Facebook page alone, more than 366,000 people were reached.
We felt deeply sad that the health crisis had deprived us of the joy we’d anticipated in sharing our farewell with audiences and friends. But these long months of hell and uncertainty hurt us so much — months during which reality seemed to slip away, months of not being able to control or foresee anything and of undoing everything we had patiently built — and after them, at least we had the feeling of finally reclaiming our present. And our future.
That future meant permanently closing the SOACD (Société Artistique de Création et de Diffusion) under which Cirque Plume was run, putting an administrative end to our adventure. Liquidating a company like ours turned out to be almost an adventure in itself. It would keep us busy for about another year.
A first important task, and one that had been planned for a long time, was to take care of our archives, following the guidelines of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s Department of Performing Arts. After four months of full-time work sorting through and selecting our documents, several hundred boxes containing our entire history were sealed and sent by truck to be catalogued, scanned, and stored at the BnF. This mass of information, a trace of our history, is now available to students and researchers.
It was the same for our costumes: Dozens of pieces were sent off to join the collections of the Centre National du Costume de Scene (CNCS) in Moulins.
Our big top had still not found a buyer until our general manager (with five associates) finally decided to acquire it along with its equipment. Jean-Philippe knows this beautiful travelling showroom better than anyone. Our good old tent was going to good hands! We felt satisfied and relieved that the big top would continue to host shows.
At the end of the year 2020, two distinctions rewarded and consoled Bernard and, in turn, Cirque Plume:
The 2020 SACD Grand Prix, awarded by the Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques for the "entirety of his career."
Knight of the French Legion of Honor (“Chevalier de la légion d’honneur”) on January 1, 2021.
2021 is the year Cirque Plume closed.
It is also the year Bernard created "L’après Plume," an organization whose purpose is to manage Cirque Plume’s heritage for the years to come.
The company no longer exists, but the lights of its ship will continue to shine into the night.