Cirque breakers

Compagnie 111's aurally acrobatic production defies definition and gravity alike.

“There are only three cubes onstage, and an entire universe comes out of them,” says Aurélien Bory (left, with Anne De Buck and Olivier Alenda).

“There are only three cubes onstage, and an entire universe comes out of them,” says Aurélien Bory (left, with Anne De Buck and Olivier Alenda). Photographs: Aglae Bory

Describing a Compagnie 111 show is a challenge: You could call it theater, though there’s no dialogue—but it’s not mime! On the other hand, there’s juggling and acrobatics but, um, it’s not circus, or maybe it’s circus with dance elements thrown in. Scratch that: It’s performance with high-tech sound and light design. That’s not quite right either.

“I’m trying to create something you can’t describe or summarize,” explains Aurélien Bory, the French troupe’s artistic director, not helping matters at all. “It should be something you need to see, to experience, live.” Fortunately, New Yorkers are getting a chance to come up with their own definitions: Nearly four years after making its local debut with Plan B—in which physical, optical and video tricks constantly made viewers wonder if they could believe their eyes—Compagnie 111 is back with IJK (instant de jonglage en kit, i.e., “juggling moment in a kit”), running at the New Victory Theater from Friday 16 to June 1.

This time around, the group is messing with another of the audience’s senses. “Like Plan B, IJK is about illusion, especially the way it creates discrepancies in perception, which themselves generate humor,” Bory, 35, says. “But it’s also very musical: It’s about volume, both as a three-dimensional element and a sonic one. Everything makes a sound—the actors do a kind of aural juggling.”

IJK and Plan B form the first two installments of a trilogy, in which the Toulouse-based company explores the idea of space through movement and stage design. In terms of scale, IJK (which is actually the series’s first entry, chronologically) is the smallest; the last, More or Less, Infinity, is the largest, and unlikely to travel to the U.S. for budget reasons. “In IJK, we wanted to do a lot with very little,” explains Bory (who also performs in the show). “It’s based on economy: There are only three cubes onstage, and an entire universe comes out of them. We like to use all the technical tools at our disposal—set design, light, sound. Of course, we also use actor techniques, like juggling or acrobatics.”

Bory (left) and Alenda defy gravity.

The latter elements are what draw Compagnie 111’s work toward the circus, particularly that field’s emphasis on the wow factor and pure, unabashed fun. Bory confirms that IJK “is also about playing—playfulness in all its gratuitousness. There’s an interesting interaction onstage between adults who suddenly are involved in a kind of useless activity. It’s also about a quest for levity, for things to be less heavy on earth.” He laughs, then adds, “It’s an attempt to create an alternative to Newtonian gravity!”

Compagnie 111’s genre-crossing approach is rare in America, but much more common in Europe, where the borders between artistic disciplines feel more porous (film directors work on operas, visual artists design theater sets, etc.), and generous public subsidies allow creators the luxury to explore and take risks. In addition to the trilogy, for instance, Bory has conceived two pieces with dancer-choreographer Pierre Rigal (one of which, érection, came to New York last year), and he recently spent several months creating a show in China with performers trained in Peking opera techniques. Les Sept Planches de la ruse (“the seven boards of cunning”) is based on a popular Chinese visual puzzle known as qi qiao ban, which once again reflects Bory’s interest in transforming geometry into stage poetry. Significantly, Bory says that his trilogy was inspired by Oskar Schlemmer, an early-20th-century Bauhaus artist and designer who pioneered the use of flat lines and planes in stagecraft.

But the best part about Compagnie 111’s performances is that they never feel like dry exercises in abstraction, despite their theoretical underpinnings. “Abstract can be a funky word—sometimes it puts people off, as if it was referring to something dense or impenetrable,” says Phil Soltanoff, a 54-year-old American director who worked on Plan B and More or Less, Infinity, and who is helping prepare IJK for its New York premiere. “Aurélien and I are interested in what we call ‘naive theater,’ which you don’t need a trained eye to appreciate. Our work is not meant to befuddle audiences in the least.”

So, about this pesky taxonomy problem: Maybe we should simply say that a Compagnie 111 show is really, really cool. Yes, that just about nails it.

IJK is at New Victory Theater Fri 16–Jun 1.