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.
“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.”
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.
The terrible risk of falling short of the intended superb work is and has always been borne chiefly by artists, the very last people on earth to spare themselves or to value compromise. As the choreographer in Lorrie Moore’s short story, “Dance in America,” says, “I’ve burned up my life for a few good pieces.” But for there to be risk, the vision of the artist must be made real – air-guitarists risk nothing. And art that is real incurs real risk, including that of artistic and commercial failure. The only policy that could ever reduce that risk is the policy that, by default or by design, reduces the occurrence of art for public money; if there is no art, there is no failed or silly art. And there is no revealing – no dreaming – what an era is capable of, no discourse that can reach into the mind of the future, creating it.
The cost of nurturing Royale de Luxe from 1981, when the company did Roman Photo, its first show to tour widely and make a huge impact, through the premier in 1990 of The True History of France, its first show to make extensive use of the engineering gifts of Francois Delaroziere, who designed the 10-ton pop-up book from which asynchronous events in French history sprang, to the present, wherein the company is celebrated all over the world except in the United States, is not a figure that research into public information can produce. Starting in 1989, when the company moved from the South of France to establish a base in Nantes, the scope and ambition of its productions soared. Serious financial support from the French government and from the city of Nantes began in 1990. For the creation in 1993 of The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, Royal de Luxe was given money by the Theatre Le Volcan in Le Havre, led by Alain Milianti, one of France’s most important theatre and opera directors. Edward Taylor, who has followed for many years the evolution of Royal de Luxe, writes that this money came seemingly in the form of “carte blanche to do something,” but no figure attaches to it.
Here’s a telling figure, though. It comes from Helen Marriage of Artichoke. The cost of bringing The Sultan’s Elephant to London amounted to about one million pounds. “At one pound a head,” Marriage says, referring to the number of Londoners who experienced it, “I call that cheap.”
Trying Constantly to Find Our True Self
The work of Royal de Luxe as we are beginning to know it could not have found form without specific personalities igniting one another to prodigious feats. It is easy to cast Courcoult as the visionary, Delaroziere as the engineer. But close watchers of Royal de Luxe have noted that the young Delaroziere was performing in the early 80’s in Le demi-finale du waterclash, one of the first Royal de Luxe shows in which by now iconic images – smashed and flaming cars that somehow still run, and the trademark “transformed vehicles,” motor-scooters fitted out with toilets and tubs – began to appear. He is said these days to be the quiet type, donning the red Royal de Luxe livery with the rest of the actor-technicians when his creations perform.
In 2006, the productions of Delaroziere’s shop, La Machine, were exhibited in Paris at the Grand Palais. The show demonstrated the scope of his two decades of work for French street theatre companies, Royal de Luxe chief among them. In the book he authored about his creations, Le Grand Repertoire: Machines de Spectacle (Actes Sud, 2003), he somewhat uncorks his method. Inspired most of all by Leonardo’s drawings for gigantic never-built battle machines, Delaroziere has also taken a leaf from Dada, in particular the “useless machines” and “ready-mades.“ He cites, as well, Bruno Munari’s 1952 work, the Manifeste du Machinisme: “The machine must become a work of art — for us to discover the art of machines.” What unites the diverse forces in his work, he writes, is “the resolute will never to enter a norm or a system.” He conceives of his machines as artistes in their own right, endowed even with a sense of humor, to whom “nothing is truly important because it all weighs too much!”
In Courcoult, he met a man of the theatre who had long thought about where the machine – indeed, the technician — fit in. Before the time of the Giants, or even the 10-ton picture book in The True History of France, Courcoult was forging that unified vision of how theatre is made, the vision that would ultimately lead him to make theatre of how theatre is made, disguising no process that feeds into it. In his company, there are no principals and the technicians are actors. The audience, too, is an actor, as examining the decades-long documentation of Royal de Luxe performances and audiences by the photographer Jordi Bover will show. Hands extended to touch in order to believe, awe, tears, joy – all this is necessary for the total effect, the day-lit Dionysiad that is a true cultural festival.
Not that any of this is entirely original to Royal de Luxe. The Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of all the arts, goes back at least to Wagner, who, impatient with the fragmented nature of typical 19th Century opera, retrieved from the Greeks the idea of the music drama subordinating every part to a compelling whole. This put paid to the notion of opera as little more than a string of arias so occasionally thrilling that an audience would cease chatting to be enraptured, instead demanding that the audience give itself over to an hours-long spell. With Marinetti, Moholy-Nagy, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and others it became canonical mid- 20th Century avant-gardism to incorporate process into performance. Cunningham, for instance, redefined performance as what happens when dancers who have rehearsed their separate parts come together. That coming together is not the dress rehearsal of the piece, but its final form that is necessary or interesting — performance.
Roman Photo, premiered by Royal de Luxe in the early 1980’s, tells stories familiar from the goriest, most teen-aged Italian movies of the post-war era – car chases, narrow escapes, crimson-lipped white-gloved girls in big, big trouble, and mayhem. Edward Taylor, the British theatre director, observes that “like many of the subsequent shows of Royal de Luxe, [Roman Photo] features the dynamic between a small team of actors acting out a melodramatic or historical scene and a larger bunch of technicians using a variety of effects to bring that scene to life. The technicians are visible just outside a series of metal frames, which set the borders of the scene to be photographed.”
So everything that happens – that is, everything — becomes part of the overall narrative. Yet it isn’t a “happening” in the sense Allen Kaprow assigned to the term in the 1960’s. It is all choreographed and rehearsed down to the last detail, producing — exactly where you do not expect it — that heightened feeling of both spontaneity and inevitability associated with the Comedie Francaise, for instance, and not, particularly, with the arts of the street.
This light-handed, startling equation of all parts cannot necessarily survive the introduction of a 46-ton elephant, however, unless a transformative process takes place. Describing the Royal de Luxe method as profoundly non-hierarchical, and himself as an intuitive, Courcoult calls the whole company “a living organism.” A legacy to him from Jules Verne is “the encounter with the machine, which is a leitmotif” in his work. And the drama of that encounter — the towering machine brought into the fold to become a personnage, an artist in its own right with a unique and characteristic gestural language — is theatre that steps just outside the possible. “We try constantly to find our true self,” Courcoult observes. “…So we make an image that outstrips imagination.”
The Sultan’s Elephant
Created for the Jules Verne centenary in Nantes in 2005, The Sultan’s Elephant was both deeply fated and born by chance. Nantes is the birthplace of Jules Verne, for whom Courcoult has had affinities since boyhood. He tells Les Cahiers du Channel that “as an adolescent, his were the only novels I stole from bookshops.” It was Delaroziere who potentiated the show, however, by means of a drawing at first unrelated to it, a drawing that was a depth charge. “It happened that he had already drawn an elephant carrying a house on its back, with windows copied from the town hall of Calais,“ Courcoult recalls. “He showed me these drawings and asked me to keep the one I preferred. Six months later, I woke up and an incredible story came to me: a sultan traveling through time and through space, around the planet, on the back of an elephant.”
Like many of the stories in The Saga of The Giants, this one concerns dreams and their precondition, sleep. A sultan in India is haunted in his sleep by dreams of a time-traveling child. To obtain relief, he must find her. With a retinue of dancing girls, he sets off, sleepless in the splendid howdah on his best elephant’s back. Thundering through space-time, he senses his convergence with the girl who has so disturbed him. Their first actual rendezvous is in Nantes, where her time capsule has touched down in front of the Cathedrale St. Pierre.
John Gardner, events planning manager for London Bus Services, was in Nantes when this happened, invited there, along with representatives of the Metropolitan Police and other skeptical functionaries, to judge of the difficulty of maneuvering the elephant around London in a year’s time. “It was awe-inspiring,” Gardner said. “We English can be a little stuck in our ways.” A mind-boggled spirit of cooperation overtook the special events team for the City of Westminster, the executive director of Arts Council London, the Royal Parks manager and the office of the Mayor of Londion. It was agreed — endless impossible-seeming accommodations to the show would definitely be made. “That’s how seeing the elephant affects people,” Helen Marriage of Artichoke told The Times, “Suddenly instead of asking “Why would we do this?” the question became, ‘Why wouldn’t we?’”
Not to say anything was easy or fast. It would take Marriage and her partner Nicky Webb more than two years to negotiate the details, a labyrinth of red tape even if gob-smacked officials stood at the ready to snip away at it. And it was hardly as if Marriage and Webb felt they would be giving the public what it wanted, either, for their mission exceeded that. “Audiences in general can only imagine what they already know,” Marriage writes. “It’s the job of a programmer to lead that expectation, to produce work that surprises the public with its own pleasure… Our point was this – unless such work [is] properly resourced, taken seriously, given its rightful place in the range of events for which we British…are prepared to disrupt our cities, then audiences and artists are…shortchanged, their imaginations stunted and their sense of the possible curtailed.”
On the morning of July 7, 2005, the public’s sense of the possible was hideously expanded. Terror came to London, with bombs detonated at rush hour on three crowded trains and one bus. More than 50 people died, including the four suicide bombers, and more than 700 were injured. It was the deadliest attack in Britain since World War II, and why it is that some Londoners reported not feeling lighter, after that, until the elephant came is one of those mysteries that need pondering, both for its lessons about the unreasonable power of art, and about a people taking back their city, experiencing it not in fear but in joyful awe.
That the Elephant and Little Girl Giant were enormous moving structures could in nervous times have seemed sinister, for the Trojan Horse was such a structure, and neither the Elephant nor Little Girl Giant is exactly anodyne. They possess, rather, the uncanny quality that allows art to strike us deep and make us wonder, relieving us for a time of our formulas for understanding. People who like this effect tend to like it awfully well, but that’s not everybody.
“I’d hit that! I’d hit that!” reads one of nearly 800 comments about the YouTube video with which this article began, a video by now viewed well over a million times. And a MetaFilter member writes, “i am creeped out on so many levels by this…” They’re not alone, but they are the minority that lets you know you’re conjuring not with Dumbo but with The Sultan’s Elephant, one very sound test of the realness of art being that some people will take viscerally against it. An influential London theatre critic, Michael Billington, who blogs for The Guardian Web site, was one of those offended by the show, calling it an “appeal to the mood of infantilism that seems to be taking over… and a spectacular irrelevance to the business of theatre.” Among the comments on his post is one that reads, “He’s winding us up, right?” “Poor old man, ” writes another reader.
In 1970, Dr. Masahiro Mori of Japan, turning his attention to human-robot interaction, posited the Uncanny Valley – that chartable realm in which robots appear all too nearly human but not utterly human. It is precisely in the Uncanny Valley, he found, that robots repel us rather than inspire feelings of comradeship or cooperation. Thus, R2-D2 is cute and Data is forever and tragically Other. A 46-ton elephant as high as the Admiralty Arch, created of wood, leather and metal, making no secret of its sprockets and gears or of the scores of people needed to operate it, though it may curl its trunk and shower the crowd, pick up its feet and swing its tail, bat its lashy lids and cry out in that elephant way meaning joy or pain, treads nowhere near the Uncanny Valley of Dr. Mori, for we know it is Other – it’s an elephant. About the nature of Little Girl Giant, it is nothing like so easy to be sure.
Little Girl Giant
The tails of fifty horses were needed for her hair, her eyes are tea-colored glass, a motor inside her lifts and contracts her diaphragm night and day: she breathes. Like the first two Giants, she’s fond of sleep, and naps in broad daylight, her head thrown back. Every now and then, it’s possible to see her much commented upon tongue, for thanks to an accordion hinge in each cheek, she parts her lips. The tongue is an intricate, Leonardesque affair, giving her – almost – the appearance of licking and devouring her now famous lollipop. She pees, too, crouching to the street and actually making water, looking unembarrassed as the 18 liveried actor-technicians who operate her turn their heads the other way.
While it can all seem almost holy to the enthralled, there’s nothing remotely cute about any of this, especially not her tongue. ”Eow, that towngue,” as a wag on Metafilter writes. But are we in Dr. Mori’s Uncanny Valley? Oh, probably not – the kids lifted up to be rocked on her arms look her full in the face, so she must be okay. Still, it would depend on whom you asked, because she’s Other, all right. But also terribly convincing as a child waking up to see the world anew every day, regarding it all with sleepy wonder. Walking in St. James Park, as tall as most trees in her leaf green dress with white piping, she is every inch the child taking in what she sees. “IQ – just average. Height – just average,” Blossom Dearie singing her song assures us. The distortions in scale may stimulate a deep recall, too, as opposites can imply one another – once, we were small, with everything not ourselves too large, and still our job was to take it all in.
While the original Giant expresses uncomprehending sorrow at the world of people and things, Little Girl Giant has many modes of being. She is bemused, or cunning, or carnal. Never more believable than when, towering over familiar structures, filling windows with her face, she appears to know just too much, she is once in a great while illuminated by an almost Marian tenderness for whatever she sees. Considering that she has no special equipment – only, like many marionettes, eyes that orbit, lids that drop, lips that part — how can this be?
Looking closely at her face, it’s possible to see the minute asymmetries – her nostrils do not match exactly, for instance — and the traces of the chisel that give life to sculpture, endowing the sculpted face with the suggestion mood and variation. It ruins absolutely nothing to know that the sculpture’s changeability exists in the viewer’s imaginative appreciation of light and motion. Indeed, all art is participatory owing to a quality that art historians call “the viewer’s share”— the finding of meaning in what is seen. Partly, this consists in a viewer knowing or guessing the intention of the artist. She looks lonely, we might say of an image of the Virgin Annunciate, singled out, and in awe. How much we see because we know to look for it and how much an image conveys through the skill and inspiration of the artist is the mystery at the heart of imagery. Every image posits a viewer seeking meaning, and all art is — to at least that extent — performance.
Helen Marriage reflected that knowledge and culture – the background that prepares us for an experience of art – were not necessary for The Sultan’s Elephant, that the only decision anyone needed to make was whether to go see it. If you did go, you’d be gorgeously overwhelmed. “I have the strangest feeling today, something in between grief and joy,” a Buckinghamshire man up for the day in London said after the show. If you didn’t go, then you’d miss out on a life-altering event, a barriers-down experience you’d share with one million other people.
How much, then, does the story matter? It matters very much indeed if people tell it to each other all day for four days, trying to keep abreast of the simple tale, to know exactly where in London Little Girl Giant and the elephant are at any given moment, and exactly what they are doing. It is telling that people did not so much follow the elephant or the girl giant, as run ahead, the better to turn around and see them coming, or mass on corners, because corners made it all take longer to happen. This demand for investment, this huge claim on the life of the imagination, is the power of story, not spectacle.
In her four days in London, Little Girl Giant did ordinary things made extraordinary by her doing them, and doing them for all to see. Rising, shaking off sleep, dressing, peeing, walking in St. James Park and stopping to play with kids, passing rather than entering the National Gallery, sizing up Trafalgar Square – all the things a time traveler, or any other kind, might want or need to do. Julian Crouch, the image-maker, describes waiting in queue with his little boy, James, hoping for James to get a ride on Little Girl Giant’s arm. Crouch realized that might not happen, and the thought was a torment to him. He wept with relief when James got his turn.
There was mischief with automobiles, too – it wouldn’t be Royal de Luxe if there were not. Almost flattening the cars she saw parked along Pall Mall, right outside all the posh men’s clubs, Little Girl Giant sewed them tightly to the street with heavy-gauge cable, leaving them for everyone to find like that early one morning. At last meeting in space-time with the sultan, she appeased with her presence in the same coordinates his fevered curiosity, was lifted off her feet and high into the air on the elephant’s tusks.
Then, on the afternoon of the fourth day, a Sunday, it was time to go. At Horseguard’s Parade, Little Girl Giant was helped into her goggles and her Lindbergh-era aviator’s cap, and climbed back into her ornate 19th Century rocket. With its trunk, the elephant brushed her cheek – it was farewell, but having found her, the sultan intended to follow her, and was all set to go. Little Girl Giant took one more look around London, then the hatch went down and the engines were fired. There came an enormous explosion under the fuselage – the hellfire in broad daylight that is a Royal de Luxe specialty, and a mighty effort at a lift-off into another dimension.
Of course, the rocket went nowhere. But when the hatch was opened, Little Girl Giant had gone — hurtling through time without her rocket. So the sultan was launched once again on a fathomless quest, his bearings to be taken in dreams. And the red-liveried actors, their faces impassive, piled expertly onto the top level of a London sightseeing bus, to rumble away from all that they had wrought.
A NOTE TO READERS ABOUT RESOURCES. When, last summer, I started researching Royal de Luxe, I assumed that much would have been written about a theatre company making a unique and irreplaceable contribution to our times. I was wrong about that. So I set out to write the article I would have appreciated finding. To that end, several books and videos were essential. In English, Four Magical Days in May (Artichoke Trust, 2006) offers many points of view about the performance in London of The Sultan’s Elephant, with excellent photos. In French, Royal de Luxe, a black and white photo book by Jordi Bover, (Art Books International, 1997) is easily the best visual record of the company’s work up to the publication date, though out of print and hard to get. Also in French are Royal de Luxe, 1993-2001, amply illustrated interviews with Jean-Luc Courcoult (Actes Sud, 2001), and Le Grand Repertoire: Machines de Spectacles, by Francois Delaroziere (Actes Sud, 2003.) The films of Dominic Deluze, Royal de Luxe et le Mythe du Geant and Les Voyages du Royal de Luxe provide 320 minutes of documentation of Royal de Luxe projects since the early 1980’s, in particular, trips to the USSR, Morocco, Cameroon and China, and the performances in Le Havre, up to 2000, of The Saga of The Giants. These are available on DVD. Numerous Internet resources provide mainly photo-documentation, most notably the Royal de Luxe Group on Flickr, administrated by Kris Blomme (a.k.a. KrieBel), who has compiled an excellent list of external links.