My grandmother’s command of English was shaky at best. She knew perhaps 100 very well-worn words, and each of these words were forced to accommodate many meanings. Context was something you had to really dig for, preferably with a shovel. One of her favorite words was “circus,” which she pronounced “tseerkoos.” A tseerkoos could be many things: a prank, a joke, a mess, a commotion, an astounding feat, an infuriating disruption, a traffic accident, sex, a misunderstanding or any kind of assault on the senses.

When I found out that the French circus troop, Les Colporteurs, was coming to the N.C. Museum of Art as part of Festival Rodin, I remembered my grandmother’s idiosyncratic definition. I also recalled childhood encounters with Barnum & Bailey, three rings, the stink of elephants, the roar of lions, the antics of clowns (which I never found that amusing), and the obligatory death-defying exploits, what Deirdre Valente, producer of Les Colporteurs’ current tour, refers to as ta-da.

Who would not envy the life of someone with even the most incidental attachment to a circus? The Polish poet Wislawa Syzmborska once imagined the rival who had taken her place in her lover’s mind as “the cashier of a traveling circus with one lion.” However shabby the tent may be, however sad and toothless its single lion, circus means illusion, danger, travel, romance and a reckless tossing aside of our most mundane and therefore most oppressive obligations. And the joy with which the acrobats, dancers and musicians of this circus perform confirms our most jealous suspicions; they are living our fantasies.

Filao, this particular production from Les Colporteurs, found its inspiration in the novel The Baron In the Tree, by Italian surrealist Italo Calvino. In the book a young boy is literally driven up a tree by his infuriating family, discontent with his life and a particularly disgusting dish of snails that his spiteful, dolorous sister brings to the dinner table. Once in the treetops, the boy finds himself at first unwilling and then unable to come down to earth again and lives the rest of his life from his roost. The upside is that he gains a totally different perspective on his life and the events of his time; the downside is, of course, the precariousness of the perch, not to mention exposure to the elements. The performers in Filao wrote 12 short poems using the novel as they would a high wire or trapeze, a device from which their interpretations dangle. The program is separated into 12 movements based on the poems.

From a distance, Les Colporteurs’ circus tent is a far pavilion, a striped confection of white and caramel. Inside the rigging is sparse, some wires, platforms and trapeze. All the way at the top of the tent, where it narrows considerably, is a cat’s cradle of rope. Brought in during the course of different movements, tree limbs serve as ladders and tightropes and conduits for water and balls to be juggled. By the end of the show the stage, initially bare, is forested with them.

The music, a combination of jazz, swing, gypsy organ grinder and carny hip-hop, is acrobatic in its own right. The composer, Carl Schlosser, was a soloist with Claude Bolling’s Big Band, and the influence is obvious. There are saxophones, flutes, recorders, a steel band, vibes and various percussion devices. Those who play them move across the stage, up ropes to platforms overhead, and occasionally appear sitting nonchalantly on the tightrope. It is hard to differentiate the musicians from the saltimbanques; all move deftly from perch to perch. At one point they join together in a parade across the stage while a trumpet solo is performed by the tightrope walker balanced on the high wire.

Moments of daring intersperse with whimsy and gentle satire. A brief balletic crossing of the stage, the dancer intent on keeping a feather or butterfly aloft using only the breeze generated by a dainty fan, is followed by a completely boisterous romp on the trapeze. The powder used by the performers to keep their hands and feet dry swirls around them like snow. They flop comically onto a thick mat placed beneath the swing and then race back up ladders to catch the trapeze again and fling themselves crazily into each other’s arms. As the spotlight swoops over the bleachers, following the performers, I glance down at my program and catch the words “Memories of Flight” and feel a little thrill of significance. Realistically, I know the acrobats have trained for years to perfect their art; in the program their pedigrees are listed exhaustively, including associations with famous schools and circuses. But there is something preternatural in their ability and their ease. Fleetingly, I suspect that at one time it was possible they might have been able to fly.

Filao is not the traditional American idea of circus. There are no trained animals, no one is shot out of a cannon or suspended by their molars. There are some of the components of circus that we know–slapstick, bravado and sinewy human tricks. But there is also a kind of lyricism that belies the special-effects-ridden notion of entertainment that has become common here. And there is a fallibility and vulnerability in the performers that makes their feats of daring that much more intrepid.

At times during the performance, a kind of ghost-mummy acrobat appears, a sheet encasing him like a shroud. In direct opposition to his stunt-poet counterparts, he roars blindly across the stage, bellows with effort as he pulls himself gracelessly along the wire that the tightrope walker nimbly and beautifully danced across only moments before. The shrouded figure is bereft of the freedom and surety apparent in the acrobats as they play out Calvino’s anarchist fable. He is like us, the spectators, a flightless bird, unable to mediate between earth and sky. EndBlock