Transe Express, a troupe of acrobats, musicians and comedians from France, recently concluded their debut India tour. Rishita Roy Chowdhury attended their Delhi show and spoke to the artistes.
Earlier this year, a troupe of French acrobats, musicians and comedians performed before a packed house at the Indira Gandhi National Centre of the Arts in Delhi. But this was no ordinary show, because the performance was being in mid-air, on a platform 55 metres above the ground. The act was named “Celestial Carillon”, which has made Transe Express, as the troupe is called, popular across the world.
The performance was a fine amalgamation of comedy, live music, and acrobatics. The entire show was organised under the banner of Bonjour India, an Indo-French cultural tie-up.
On their debut India tour, Transe Express performed in two more cities apart from Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai. Their creative goal is “bringing art outdoors and turning the city into a stage”. The group of artistes—bell-ringers and aerialists—have performed over 200 shows around the world, notably during the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games in Canada, Greece, Moscow and France. In India, they were touring with three acrobats, eight musicians and two actors.
In conversation with Guardian 20, the creator of the show, Gilles Rhodes, spoke about his fascination with open-air shows in public spaces. “The shows are free and held in the heart of the cities, so the common public can be part of these shows. They engage more and more public, random bystanders and passersby who can just stop and enjoy the performance.”
While recalling the idea behind starting this company, he said: “I am not a visionary but basically we are working. That work is creating art in the streets. It’s an initiative to go towards the public… That’s the heart of my work. It has always been so.”
What motivated him to dedicate himself to such an unconventional art form? He said, “It’s not conventional, but if you put it into context, things become clearer. In the ’70s, there was a big artistic and political movement in France that pushed artistes to go outside the conventional frame of their art.
This movement was supported by the Ministry of Culture and the regional government. With that support, we gained more means to work on their projects.
So, more and more public got touched by it. And I came up with the idea of suspending the artistes up in the air—so that more people can see the show.”
Now a well-established and popular “performance company”, Transe Express is set for a stellar future. Recounting the journey of this troupe, Gilles got nostalgic: “I started this company with my wife and it had a slow evolution. First, it was just the two of us and then we added drummers. We did our first show in the air and that was very successful. Then we participated in the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Athens, Canada, Greece, Moscow and France. The show gained popularity and we were asked to perform for a lot of big occasions.”
Giving a description of the spectacular show, Gilles explained, “At the beginning, the show starts on the ground level for 10-15 minutes. The comedians gather and climb on the structure and then it goes up. The entire structure gets lifted. The structure is like a lotus and it opens up. On the petals, there are musicians and they play together, bells or percussions.”
It isn’t only the main show that exhausts the troupe members.
According to Gilles, the whole setup for their act is mounted by the same team of performers. He said, “What is really tiring is doing the whole setup. They (artistes) do the setup themselves. It takes two days. After the show, we dismantle the structure, which is very tiring. But all of us constantly check everything and take part in the entire process from setting the crane to wrapping up the set.”
The artistic direction plays a crucial role in managing the act.
The choreographer, Hél ène Marseille, laid out the factors that need to be kept in mind while putting together the act. “We need to be aware of the public space. We set up the show depending on the venue. We always look for the best acoustics for the bells. If we have walls nearby, we try to play near them so that the walls reverberate the sounds. In terms of the dancers and actors, a lot of work goes into the kind of show we want to do. The interaction with the public is very important for us and once the performers are lifted up in the sky, everything is about music. But when they are on the ground, it’s acting and interacting with the audience. We try to create that contact with the public before going up,” Helena said.
She talked about how her work is made easier by the performers acting as a support system for each other. She said, “To lead a group, it’s important to create confidence in each other and Gilles and all the members have worked towards that. So, it makes everything easier and enjoyable.”
The group has been performing together for more than two decades now. A heartening detail about them is that they each have the names of their dear ones inscribed on a giant bell resting in the centre of the structure of the carillon. An artiste boastfully pointed to it and said, “My mom’s name is written on it. She is 92 and can’t attend my shows anymore. But before the performance, I always give a flying kiss in that direction thinking of my mother.”
The artistes come from various backgrounds, ranging from street theatre to circus. Talking about their pre-performance routine for Transe Express shows, one of the acrobats, Manuela, explained, “We practice before coming for the show. We practice all the time. We all have different projects and when we get to know we have to do this show, we prepare one or two weeks before to sync our performance to the specific routine required for this show. It depends on what we are doing at that time.”
Given the risks involved with the profession, a good amount of mental preparation is also required before each show. Manuela said, “We are well trained, so it’s just a question of concentration. We are working… this is our work. Once we are in the show, we are in the moment. When we are there, adrenaline or something kicks in and we just do it. The desire to do it is the most important thing.”
But not everyone in Transe Express is an acrobat. So for the group’s musicians, every show presents a different order of challenge. “The others, who are not acrobats, like comedians and musicians,” Manuela said, “they didn’t know how to be up in the air. At the beginning, when he [Gilles] created the show, it was such a big thing to be able to perform up in the air. It was difficult to be able to do that. So, it was not easy for everyone. We, as acrobats, are used to being in the air. But even for us, it is very high. So, for everyone, it wasn’t easy to be at ease with the show.”
On being asked about the safety measures put in place before every show, Gilles responded, “That’s why it is important that we do the setup ourselves. The performers check everything before a show. My job is to ensure that there are no risks… That’s my preparation for the show. The artists have security. There is a chord that provides safety, so even if they fall, they will be suspended in the air and won’t fall on the floor. Living together during the tour is also important because there is a sense of support that comes from each other. When we are up in the sky, there is cohesion in the group that keeps us motivated.”