Before reading another line, watch the video, especially if you think you’d rather not.
One is hungry for a few facts now.
That was the French street theatre company Royal de Luxe in London last May. The show was The Sultan’s Elephant, created in honor of the Jules Verne centenary in 2005, and performed that year in Nantes. Founded in 1979 by Jean-Luc Courcoult, Royal de Luxe has since then made theatre in public spaces in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. The London engagement, years in the planning by the British production company Artichoke, was the debut of the Little Girl Giant, as she has come to be called, in the English-speaking world. You could probably just make out the Elephant – at least its trunk — hosing her down. At around 20 and 40 feet high, respectively, both were designed by a longtime Royal de Luxe collaborator, Francois Delaroziere . The video, shot by Mike Connolly of Electric Pig, is by far the best document of the event on the Web, and the place to start if you cannot in person see Royal de Luxe. Les Balayeurs du Desert, a French rock band that has worked with the company since the 1980’s, provided the music. The song is “Decollage” — their riff on “It Amazes Me” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, the vocal sample by a digitally remixed Blossom Dearie.
Those are the bits I would have found it calming to latch onto when I first saw the video last summer. I needed to be sure it wasn’t Photoshopped, as you do when you see a thing on the monitor that can’t be real. Attaching a name to the consciousness in control of the event became paramount, no less than had it been a towering crime I’d witnessed. But none of this helped, ultimately, for I still can’t take it in. And that, I came to understand, is precisely the point.
Royal de Luxe is both renowned and secretive. Based in Nantes, it has no Web site, doesn’t go in for ordinary PR, and if for artistic reasons the whole company needs to move to Cameroon or to China for many months at a time, then it does so, appearing there as in the West with permission but without fanfare. Gathering outdoors to make the small marionettes that have been their acting partners since long before the Giants, the actors casually attract local interest, which can at first be skeptical. By the time of leave-taking, however, the village is ensorcelled, the months-long interlude most often likened by everyone to dream.
Except in the United States, the fame of Royal de Luxe now outpaces its stealth. So precautions are taken that, despite high anticipation of an appearance, an audience remains in a condition to be startled by it. Jean-Luc Courcoult is far too much the man of the theatre ever to lose the advantage of surprise.
When Royal de Luxe next appears, at the Reykjavik Arts Festival later this spring, no one there but the functionaries who must know them shall have all the details in advance. The venue is simply the streets and open spaces of the city — by the lake, by the harbor and in the city center. Admission is not only free, but accidental, since the show may begin anywhere, even in two places at once, and will overtake its audience bit by bit, for they shall not have known where to assemble and wait for it. Once it begins, it will keep moving, and people will follow it or even try to run a little ahead of it en route to the next corner it seems bound for, where others shall have started to hear things and look up. No member of that audience, not even the most avid, will see the show in its entirety – like the London event, it will be structured to make that impossible. Courcoult has said only that a special story for Icelanders will be enacted, by Little Girl Giant and other familiar figures, that, on the morning of May 10, “something unexpected will happen in Rekjavik.”
Thus will begin the latest chapter in a Royal de Luxe narrative that spans three continents and fifteen years, The Saga of The Giants.
The Giant Who Fell From the Sky
The inaugural show, The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, was conceived for the people of Le Havre in 1993. Lying supine, his ribcage rising and falling as he exhaled white dust for his own cloudy atmosphere, the 38-foot carved wood sleeping Giant was laced Gulliver-style to the street. Baffled onlookers hesitantly prodded him, and he opened basketball-sized eyes in which blood vessels showed, taking on the look of terrible suffering nobly borne that would never leave him. To walk the city, he was hauled up into a scaffolding six stories high; red-liveried actors hanging onto ropes leapt from it to the ground, landing slowly, counter-weighting and lifting his sandaled feet. He swung his arms, he turned his head this way and that, he parted his lips and gazed down, sweeping the crowd with his eyes as he marched, looking as if he did not quite believe what he saw or the fix he was in, a haggard incredulity being one of his signature expressions. And the faces of the townspeople, from toddlers to the very old, lining the streets six or eight deep and leaning out of windows, were solemn and rapt.
Trucks figured in this — big ones — for here was serious tonnage. Apart from drivers, more than thirty liveried actors, in choreographed motion all over the scaffolding, were needed to keep the Giant groomed and on the move. One man turned a wheel the size of a helm to open and close his mouth, another hovered near his shoulder to brush dusty traces of respiration from his lips with a broom. It is one of the paradoxes of the Giants that, seeing an unbelievable thing, and seeing plainly the levers and ropes and pulleys and humans required to make it work – for none of this is ever concealed in a Royal de Luxe performance — you believe in it utterly.
The stories of the Giant, written by Courcoult, are always very simple – just a few lines long, with deep cultural resonances. To cite a feature that counts heavily with him, you could tell them to a child. Each is enacted over several days, nights included, it being of the utmost importance that the Giant abide with the town. During that entire time, the Giant is out in the open, his hair and face getting wet in the rain, sleeping by night in a chair the size of a cantilever bridge, breathing always — and dreaming.
On that first visit to Le Havre, the story goes, the Giant was frightening to the people of the town only when he dreamt; the morning after, cars were found impaled on trees, or pinned to the asphalt with a 10-foot fork, the work of his dreams. And so, on the second night a wall of light – motley thousands of battery-operated headlights mounted on a twenty by thirty foot frame — was erected to prevent his losing consciousness. Head dropping to his chest again and again in the painterly golden light, the Giant spent a wakeful night. A blonde singer, Peggy, wearing a long blue opera cape with a stiff collar, climbed out of a white limo and was lifted thirty feet onto the scaffolding to sing to him, the better to divert him from dreaming. Un bel di vedremo, sang Peggy, a few yards from his face, the anguished and sleepy longing she saw there finally making her turn away. On the morning of the third day, a hole had been torn in the wall of light, the immense scaffolding was torqued and knocked aside, flattening still more cars, and the Giant was gone.
He returned to Le Havre on two occasions between 1993 and 1998. In that time, he would lose a leg – causing middle-aged Frenchmen ordinarily nothing if not buttoned down to weep openly – acquire a son, a 20-foot black giant, on a trip to Africa, regain the leg, and, in 2000, send a crate of giraffes to Le Havre. The giraffes, a tender, tree branch-tearing mother towering delicately over the city, and her calf, all legs, were the crane-operated forerunners of the 46-ton elephant seen by more than one million people in London in 2006.
The Giant’s last appearance anywhere was in August, 2006, in the South of France. Looking as relaxed as his watchful countenance allows, he sat barefoot on a lounge chair anchored to the river bed by the Pont du Gard. Just as it is understood that the Little Black Giant is his son, Little Girl Giant, last seen in Chile in January, when she chased down and caged a rhinoceros, is his daughter. It is rumored she will face her father in Reykjavik in the spring, and that the meeting might not be friendly.
Telling a Story to an Entire Town
In a conversation with Odile Quirot, Courcoult tells how the idea of the Giants occurred to him.
“For years, I wondered how one could tell a story to an entire town. On a Plane to Rio, the idea of using out-size marionettes came to me… People have believed in giants since the year dot. Every culture on earth has stories about them. I find the giant more powerful than God or religion – because it is more make-believe yet more human.”
Interviewed for Les Cahiers du Channel, Courcoult discusses with Jean-Christophe Planche how The Saga of The Giants works its effects on the grown men who weep, the women of a certain age who lose their composure like maenads.
“Over three or four days I try to tell a whole town something intense which will be talked about everywhere, be it in the bakery or the bar, on the pavement or in the office… I have seen adults crying as the giant leaves. They have obviously lived other things, sometimes difficult, and yet this makes them cry. I don’t believe they are crying because [the Giant] is leaving but because of the loss of their imagination. Over several days, they have dreamt as adults and now it’s finished. Most adults have difficulty dreaming.”
Courcoult has not gone on record – that I could discover – with more theory-bound observations about his method than these. While he is almost always described as a visionary, even by people who mean no very good thing by that term, he is entirely direct in conversation. As an artist, he just wants to knock you down, and to see the look on your face when that happens. “How the public reacts is as important as the form of the show,” he says of the highly participatory experiences he creates for audiences. Music plays a big role in it. “I am constantly on the lookout for sounds from my era. Music…directly assails the emotions and feelings. I take great care with it. It must not crush feelings by crudely emphasizing the action taking place.”
The closest Royal de Luxe has ever come to an indoor performance is the Roman arena at Nimes. One reason for this is that Courcoult is a self-described claustrophobe. But he likes to blow things up and smash them to pieces, too. Open air allows for “poetic risk,” he says, and the light is right: “you can create explosions, hellfire.” A performance in an outdoor public space is by definition a free event open to all comers, and this is key. “By putting on the show in the public arena and free of charge I can reach people as they are, whereas in traditional theatres you only meet those who have dared to cross the threshold…I try to move people, and this ambition will not be restricted by [the audience’s] financial means or their culture.”
It was not wasted on the British that The Sultan’s Elephant came from France, and was many times more prodigious than any homegrown thing.
Julian Crouch, a maker of large site-specific images and co-artistic director of the company Improbable, writes of seeing the Elephant move for the first time. “The thing was real. It was alive and it was enormous and it was really there. And in the midst of my pure admiration I could feel something crumble inside me.” What crumbled, it turned out, was his notion of how unfeasible it was trying to get a large image to do many things at once instead of just one thing – a idea foundational to his twenty years of experience designing and making such.
With frankness, Crouch tells how it felt to be a maker of theatre watching Little Girl Giant hoisted from the time capsule that had smashed down onto the tarmac in Central London. “When they lifted [her] out of the rocket, the crowd just gasped. Of course I work in ‘the business’ so I tried to stifle my own gasp, but by the time her flying-hat was off and she blinked and shook out her hair, I was absolutely and completely lost. She was beautiful. But really beautiful. In a deep way… And [there was] a little voice in my head that said, ‘you could never, ever have made this.’ ”
Immediately following the event, LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) sponsored a day of discussion among British theatre makers, educators and arts administrators. Reading the papers given on this occasion, one appreciates both the tone of raddled admiration and the newly hatched catch-up strategies. A top administrator spoke passionately about “the next Elephant” – presumably an indigenous one – being inevitable. Some opined that the show had been “about money” or “about power,” as if the lack of those timeless benisons was all that prevented work of similar quality occurring routinely. Julian Crouch attended the conference, as did Helen Marriage of Artichoke, the company that produced The Sultan’s Elephant. That night, Crouch sent an email to Marriage, voicing these sentiments: ”I have no desire to see Britain grow a Royal de Luxe, and will be very irritated if we try. It was such an honour to see that work, and it is insulting to the company and their long history to suggest that it is in any way replicable.”
This is not to say a hard look at the conditions friendly to Royal de Luxe could never be instructive to the British or to any other people pondering the direction of public art in their lands.
Conceding that the success of Royal de Luxe is “due to the power of their work, its popularity with the public and their uncompromising attitude in presenting it,” Edward Taylor, a joint artistic director of the Whalley Range Allstars, a British outdoor theatre troop founded in 1982, writes about other factors that provided a crucial nudge. “The development of street theatre in France was helped no end by the levels of financial support in a system which demonstrates what is possible in the arts if you put serious thought into how to sustain the people who make it happen.”
Taylor argues that not only national, regional and local funding are necessary – and did, in the case of Royal de Luxe, unstintingly kick in – but also the setting up of various “regional creation centres (large workshops where companies can live and create work without unnecessary interruption).” And more: that the French national benefit scheme paying performing artists a wage when they’re not working is what enables large-scale groups to stay together during a non-performing period, taking the rehearsal time they need. It’s all to do, Taylor says, with whether performing artists are regarded as an important asset in a nation’s economic life. In any case, this is exactly the level of support that has led to “larger and more expensive French shows being created over the years.” Note, Taylor does not insist, superior ones. “Of course, big is not necessarily better,” he concludes, “but when a work of this scale [The Sultan’s Elephant] can convey such strong emotions to large audiences, it has an irresistible power.”
For A Few Good Pieces
Artists beset with frequent interruptions of their work, who live without medical care in poor housing and exhaust themselves with two or three dead-end jobs at a time to keep going until they are next paid to perform, may look on the French system as a Utopia greatly to be desired. Yet the same model is repugnant to anyone suspecting that money would only be wasted on cheap red wine, exorbitant rehearsals, and plain old hanging out. Everyone can agree, however, that The Saga of The Giants is no accident, and is anything but the product of social Darwinism in the arts.
The big question, then, is how, in making a policy decision for such as Royal de Luxe potentially to develop and flourish, can anyone be sure the result will not come artistically closer to synchronized swimming than to Royal de Luxe? To the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than to The Sultan’s Elephant? One answer is found in mulling over yet another question – why we would expect public funds spent incubating the arts to produce more precise results than like amounts spent on other necessarily speculative programs in the public interest.
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