As a young circus performer on the streets of Montreal, Quebec, Jeannot Painchaud learned how to attract a crowd.
“Being a busker was where I developed a sense of timing and a way of keeping the public’s attention,” he recalled, skills that have served him well as the artistic director of a contemporary circus troupe. Based in Montreal, Cirque Éloize brings two performances of its show “Cirkopolis” to the Cohan Center in San Luis Obispo next week.
“Everything you see onstage is 100 percent created by Cirque Éloize in our studios” located in an old train station, Painchaud said, noting that each production features original choreography, music, costumes, sets and video projections.
“We have a lot of fun developing and experimenting with new ideas,” he said. “This is our playground.”
Work and travel
While on a backpacking trip in June 1984, Painchaud caught a performance of Montreal’s most famous contemporary circus troupe, Cirque du Soleil, in Gaspé, Quebec. He enrolled at the National Circus School in Montreal three months later to study acrobatic cycling, juggling, unicycling and more.
“My goal in life was to travel around the world and have fun and do something related to show business,” he explained. “Circus school was a mix of those things.”
In 1992, Painchaud performed in Japan as part of the Cirque du Soleil show “Fascination” and competed at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de demain in Paris, where he won a bronze medal for artistic bicycle.
Upon his return to Canada, he founded Cirque Éloize with a group of friends in 1993. (The word “Éloize,” which comes from Painchaud’s native Magdalen Islands, means “flashes of heat lightning seen on the horizon.”)
For economic reasons, he said, “We decided not to play under the big top, but on the stage.”
So far the company, which started touring in 1995, has presented more than 4,000 performances in more than 440 cities and 40 countries. Painchaud, meanwhile, has built his reputation as a circus impresario, coordinating the acrobatic numbers at the closing ceremony for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
According to Painchaud, Cirque Éloize productions aim to achieve a balance between acrobatics, physical dance and the theater.
Whereas traditional circus seeks to showcase special skills such as clowning, contortion and juggling on their own, contemporary circus uses them in the service of storytelling — conveying ideas through actions.
“We pay a lot of attention to what artists can add to the production,” Painchaud explained. “We’re not into extravagance. We’re more interested in … that human scale where you can be attached to the characters and get involved emotionally.”
“People need to be amazed not only by the physicality but also the quality of the acting,” he added.
“Cirkopolis,” Cirque Éloize’s ninth show, draws inspiration from the work of German existentialist author Franza Kafka and the German expressionist film “Metropolis.”
The show follows a man trapped in an imposing factory-city that stifles creativity and individuality. Bored with his dreary day-to-day existence, he starts to dream of changing his environment by bringing humor, color and movement to this drab place.
Appearing in “Cirkopolis” are 12 multidisciplinary artists from Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Painchaud said Cirque Éloize casts team players, not solitary geniuses.
“In circus, traditionally, artists would develop an act (that lasted) five minutes and sell it to various (troupes),” he explained. “I want to work with artists that are ready to collaborate and use their bodies and their (experiences) in the service of a group of creators.”
Painchaud, for his part, spent his first five years as artistic director alternating between the office and the stage. He gave up performing because entrepreneurial life didn’t provide enough time for training, he said.
Painchaud said “Cirkopolis” depicts a passionate quest of self-discovery, one he hopes will inspire the audience.
“That’s always been my goal,” he said, although he doesn’t necessarily encourage kids to run away to the circus. “(It’s more) ‘I’m going to run away and do what I believe in and work with passion and be myself.’ ”
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Feb. 6
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$29.20 to $58
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.