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  • Time Out New York / Issue 635 : November 29, 2007 - December 5, 2007
  • Myth buster
  • Neocircus artiste James Thiérrée returns to BAM with a new take on Orpheus.
  • SOMETHING TO TUCK ABOUT Thiérrée lets it all hang out.

    Photograph: Mario Del Curto

    French director-performer James Thiérrée has circus, dance and physical comedy in his genes as well as on his résumé. The son of Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and Victoria Chaplin (herself the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill), he was raised in and around his illustrious parents’ multidisciplinary companies in France: Cirque Invisible and Cirque Imaginaire. His newest work, Au Revoir Parapluie (“Farewell Umbrella”)—loosely inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—opens this week as the final offering of BAM’s 25th annual Next Wave festival. Following comedy’s cast-iron rule of three, Thiérrée, 33, intends his physical-theater piece to “close the loop” on the blend of circus, mime, acrobatics and dance he forged in his previous Junebug Symphony (seen in New York in 2002) and Bright Abyss (which hit BAM in 2005).

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  • Your work follows dream logic more than narrative logic, so I was surprised to hear that Au Revoir Parapluie has a Greek myth behind it.
    It’s very subconscious, the way I put it together. I like to flirt with storytelling; in this one, it’s almost there. A man comes up to the audience and talks—actually, a violin speaks instead of his voice—and he’s apparently in trouble; he’s lost something or somebody, and we’re going to follow him. And that’s enough, in a way. But at the very beginning, yes, I was thinking of Orpheus, and how he overcomes all these things and goes to Hell and opens the gate and finds Eurydice. That was my bedtime story when I was in Paris, thinking about a new show.

    You flirt with a story, but you don’t commit.
    Because I come from circus, I’m a pragmatic person; I like silly ideas, tricks, magic. I like movement. It’s difficult to follow a theme or story line when you’re swinging in the air, and you just want to give raw material to the audience. It’s only a director’s personal satisfaction to know that he’s stuck to his subject. What’s important is that the audience is with us, and that we have communication.

    Playwright Tracy Letts recently said he has an absolute terror of boring people. Do you feel similarly?
    Yes, although I’m not as much a victim of that fear as I used to be. It’s limiting if you only fear boring the audience. I know that naturally I will want to speed up things and stick to only the clear effects, but I try to balance that with weird atmospheres—to destabilize the audience after a comic moment by going into a darker area. To bring movement into the spirit of the people watching is interesting, and that emotional movement inside the audience is a very delicate and refined mechanical system.

    A laugh tells you you’re funny, but how do you know you’ve moved an audience?
    When laughter is not involved, you are on an open ground. It’s pretty scary; there’s nothing to hold on to. But I’m more and more interested in this area. I’m trying to keep more of the moments that are not so reassuring, so as not to yield to the tyranny of being effective. Theater is an exploration ground, and the No. 1 enemy is routine. I’m convinced that with my shows, if you put routine into it, they don’t hold anymore. That’s why I change things regularly in the show, even things that work well, just to keep the artists edgy.

    Do you think an audience can tell when performers are going through the motions?
    Yes, even if it doesn’t become a concrete thought. I know that as an audience member I have this feeling sometimes: I see a show and there’s a weird chemical in my body that tells me, This is one of many performances they’re doing. I don’t like this feeling. I would like it to feel like it’s really tonight and never again! Sometimes in a play, there’s an accident, and an actor suddenly has to react to it. I love those moments, when you see the life that rushes in when things are not part of the routine. So I’m really running after that feeling. It makes it a bit chaotic, and it makes it fragile, but it’s worth it.

    Au Revoir Parapluie runs at the BAM Harvey Theater from Tue 4 through Dec 16.

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