Picture a classic circus strongman and the thought of him lifting a heavy barbell isn’t far behind. Quebec-based circus “Barbu” is bringing the strongmen, but in this show, they’re the acrobats, too. In fact, the strongmen play all the parts. Described as electro-trad cabaret, this show presents traditional circus performance and then turns it on its head into what organizers describe as a “cheeky and exuberant circus rave.” As “Barbu” is part of the 2019 Ann Arbor Summer Festival lineup on Thursday, June 20, BTL caught up with founder Antoine Carabinier Lépine to learn more about the show’s boldness, its modern take on traditional performance and its unapologetically sensual aspects.
“Barbu” means bearded in French; is that a nod to the historically inspired strongmen in the show?
Yeah, exactly. We created that show after a show called “Timber!” and we were bearded during that time, so we decided to call that show “Barbu” because it reminds us also of all the bearded guys, the strong guys who were starting the circus in Montreal in the fairgrounds. So, for us, it was kind of a concept that it was suited for the show. And, you know, there was a lot of fairgrounds back in the day in Montreal, back in the beginning of the 1900s.
“Timber!” was about lumberjacks and now Cirque Alfonse is taking audiences to a rave. That’s quite a shift.
Yeah, a really big difference. We created “Barbu” to be more like an androgynous show. It was really to bring people to the edge of their seats and “Timber!” was more about the classical, but “Barbu” is more about [the] impressive and stuff that you won’t see anywhere else. It’s like a reminder of a freak show, kind of.
In the description of the show on your website you say that political correctness has no place in “Barbu.” Could you expand on that?
Yeah, exactly. The show is divided into two parts. So, the first part, it’s more traditional skills like normal circus skills. We decided to do that really traditionally, but the second part is more weird and freaky and we’ve created acts that you’ve never seen before, and you feel the difference that makes it special. At first, people arrive and they’re like, “Oh, that’s weird, we didn’t expect that” — there’s a lot of circus skills but it’s more traditional. But when the second part arrives, they’re blown away, they don’t expect that at all.
Do you think that the LGBTQ community will be able to relate to the show, too?
Yeah, for sure. It’s always worked great with LGBT people because we’re all big, bearded boys (laughs) and there’s also girls with us, but we’re really open with our bodies even though we’re bigger and there’s no censor about us. And like, we’re really LGBTQ-friendly because it’s a kind of a vibe that you can see in a Pride festival and it’s really more adult as well. The vibe is a party, like a rave show. So for sure, you’re going to love it.
I’ve read that when people see “Barbu” they’re often surprised that you can do the acrobatic elements of your show because you’re really strong, bearded men. Do you like breaking expectations like that?
(Laughs) For sure. It’s part of our company to surprise people. For example, when we’re in a bar or a restaurant people will ask us what we do and people never expect that we’re acrobats. They always think that we’re the technicians or musicians because we’re quite big. So, for us, it’s pretty nice to surprise people by doing stuff that they don’t think we’re able to do because we’re bigger and a bit older as well. But yeah, we try to keep it up just to amaze people (laughs).
How do you continue to push the limits beyond what you’re taught in school?
We’ve all pretty much been to the same school in Montreal. Twenty years ago all of us were there and we’re still working together for 20 years, so we know a lot of stuff, we’ve been through a lot of circus shows — new acts and stuff like that — so we really know well what we can do and what we cannot. That’s how it’s been easier for us to do new stuff even though normally people train like a couple of years before they’re able to do those kinds of things. Us? We manage to do them faster because we know each other so well. And I think that’s a part of why we manage to push ourselves more and more and we never stop thinking about new things. When we’re on tour and we’re doing new stuff we’re like, “Oh, let’s try that.” And we try to figure out also, all the circus skills that have been forgotten. So, we try to do the stuff that people don’t want to do or that they’ve forgotten about.
Your touring company is very family based and on your site it says that Cirque Alfonse is focused on looking back to the past and making time for family and friends. I know you toured with family on “Timber!” Is it the same here?
Yeah, with “Timber!” We toured with my dad, my sister and my brother-in-law. But in “Barbu” my sister is still with us and my brother-in-law as well and my girlfriend, it’s just my dad now is retired because he’s a bit too old now for that (laughs). But otherwise, it’s still really a family company and we still are a family working in the circus.
Was circus performance always part of your family dynamic?
No, actually I did the National Circus School and after that, I went on tour with many other companies like The 7 Fingers and Cirque du Soleil. And after a while, we decided with my sister to create a show for the 60th birthday of my dad. So, my dad started doing circus when he was 60 years old and he never did circus before. And now it’s been like 13 years that the company is running and “Barbu” is our third show. So, we never did circus before with my family, we just started with the company.
What drew you to circus performance? Why did you find that to be something you wanted to pursue professionally?
Actually, it was my parents who brought me to see the National Circus School end-of-year show. And I went there and I fell in love. I was 14 years old and I just was blown away and said to them, “Oh, I want to do that.” And they really supported us doing arts and circus and dance for my sister and it’s why I decided to create a show with my dad, to thank my parents who supported us.
To find out more about Cirque Alfonse visit cirquealfonse.com. Find out more about the Thursday, June 20, show at the Power Center in Ann Arbor online at a2sf.org.