Antoine Carabinier Lépine is one of the founding members of Cirque Alfonse – the circus troupe known for their beards, bellies and beer-drinking abilities.
They're back in Adelaide with TABARNAK, a show which turns the strong traditions of the Quebec church on their head. "The church has a strong influence in Quebec. This show looks at where church was and where it is now," says Carabinier Lépine. "We want the audience to feel the Quebec feeling when they see our shows."
This Quebec feeling Carabinier Lépine describes is of familiarity. "[Cirque] Alfonse is about family," he says. "We are a family and we have the same people perform with us. When we perform we like to perform with people we know, perform with friends and family. It creates a feeling of friends and trust."
The title of the new show is perhaps recognisable as a foreign spelling of tabernacle; the sacred, locked box which stores the Eucharist. In the French-Canadian language, however, it takes on a whole new meaning. "'Tabarnak' is one of the biggest swear words in Quebec," says Carabinier Lépine. "It’s the first word foreigners learn when they come here."
Understandably, "[the title] was a big problem in Quebec, but we think it defines us." Furthermore, Carabinier Lépine sees the usage of the vulgar as something that sets them apart. "It’s only used in French-Canadian language and it’s important for us to keep the French. It’s only in Quebec, like us."
Meanwhile, Flip FabriQue are heading to Australia for the first time this year with Attrape Moi! (Catch Me!). Co-founder Bruno Gagnon is excited to be coming to Australia for the first time. Gagnon theorises that "we [Canadians] are good at trampoline, I think it is because we are not afraid to fall in the snow, doing snowboarding or skiing. Canadians are natural acrobats."
Attrape Moi!... is a nostalgic meeting of old friends. "We go into our memories,” says Gagnon. "A kid might burst out laughing at us in a sleeping bag, but a grandma might cry at the straps routine because of the music and the nostalgia." This nostalgia is heightened by the powerful use of music throughout the show. Gagnon recognises that music alone can evoke strong emotion, "but add this to the performer who is actually living something on stage – out of breath because he’s pushed himself – it’s even more powerful."
Music is also an important part of TABARNAK. On stage is a live three-piece band who perform electric renditions of classic French Canadian folk music. Carabinier Lépine explains that the music in TABARNAK plays a stronger role than in their last show Barbu. "TABARNAK is more cabaret – more of a musical and theatre show. Music is a very strong and important part of the show."
As both companies tour the world extensively, their work needs to be accessible for various ages and all languages. "All Flip FabriQue shows are exported," says Gagnon, "so they need to be able to touch any country and any culture." In the case of Attrape Moi!..., "we’re playing on stage, it’s childlike and there’s no cultural barrier to understand this. It’s suitable for all ages in the way it’s directed, in the way it’s produced, in the way we actually are on stage."
The formation and success of circus in Quebec is not an accident. International superstars Cirque du Soleil originally received assistance from the Quebecois government, which allowed them to tour and make their name a brand. And still today the government helps circus companies. Flip FabriQue has been able to produce a free circus show in Quebec for the last three years with financial support from the government.
Carabinier Lépine states that Cirque Alfonse, however, "doesn’t want to go in the same direction as Soleil – Soleil has become a huge company, a business." The size of the Cirque Alfonse troupe allows them to stay together while touring. "We always travel with our families, our children, our girlfriends, boyfriends, and partners," says Carabinier Lépine. "We’ve always been more than happy to travel with children and include them."
The success of Cirque du Soleil, however, was key to the current success of Quebec touring circus acts. "Soleil reinvented circus – before them there was only traditional styles with animals," explains Carabinier Lépine. "[Their success] opened many doors for touring and travelling with circus. We were also heavily influenced by Les 7 Doigts (Seven Fingers) and Circular Walls." One of Gagnon’s major influences was a street performer. "I was at a parade and I saw a man do a standing backflip – I thought this was impossible," he recalls. "He did it like it was nothing and that’s what made me passionate."