The first Lebanese circus comes to town

01May11
By Emily Holman

Without a second thought, fearless kids take risks that their parents would balk at. They ski backwards, jump out of windows and dangle their bodies out of speeding cars.

This is one reason child performers are so appealing: youngsters throw themselves entirely into their practice; they are ever keen to push their act that little bit further, to take that extra risk. Add to that the fact that there is something mesmerizing about “mini-humans” doing things we, as adults, cannot, and you have a fail-safe recipe for performance success.

The recipe is something Izhac Abu Sari, 25, and Thierry Antonios, 23, seem to have taken into account. Performers themselves, the pair are the founders of the “Cirque du Liban,” Lebanon’s first circus entertainment company, this week performing “The Mystery Show” at Jdeideh’s Sagesse Theater.Comprising 25 of CDL’s multi-talented entertainers, it is no coincidence that the show’s performers range in age from 7 to 25, with the heaviest concentration in their early-teens.

Backstage before the show begins, a 12-year-old boy, clad in a baggy clown outfit, smiles cheekily and then falls in a dagger-straight collapse to the floor. If it wasn’t for the lack of attention the other young performers pay him (such jests are clearly commonplace) you might have feared some bodily attack; as it is, you know that he is simply priming his shocked, aged spectators for what is to come.

This zestful, mischievous sort of energy was exactly what made “The Mystery Show” successful.

Though called a “circus,” the Cirque du Liban is more a group of talented entertainers. Abu Sari and Antonios saw a gap in Lebanon’s entertainment sector and, with the help of performer-friends, brought together a group of individuals worthy of public performance.

The company was founded in 2006 and has been performing at venues across the Arab world since 2007. Though a private troupe for hire – they customize their performance according to occasion – CDL decided last year that it was time they put together a show.

The decision was one determined by more than aspects commercial. As the show’s organizer George Zughbi pointed out “this is the first time circus in Lebanon has been a form of art.”

Thus while CDL generally offers a variety of shows, parades and kids or adult entertainment, “The Mystery Show” is a coherent, sequential piece. “We wanted to put a show together, all together” explained Antonios.

“[In Lebanon] we like to bring people from abroad to perform for us, but it is better to have our own,” continued Zughbi. “Performers from Tripoli, from Beirut, from the south – all have come together here with one dream: to perform in the circus.”

“The Mystery Show” is aptly named; as a member of the audience, you are never quite sure what is coming next. The show is an extravaganza of Cirque du Liban specialties – a sort of catalogue of talent – set to pulsating music.

Acrobatics, juggling, stilts, fire-breathing and -dancing, body contortion, ballet and plenty of slapstick comedy well worthy of Charlie Chaplin, are all included in the Cirque du Liban roll-call. In pride of place on the show’s billing is local celebrity illusionist Amine Jabbour, whose guest role dominates the second half.

But it is the spicy eagerness the youthful troupe bring to their parts that lights up the show.

Gymnast Zein al-Koubasi’s routine, for instance, was kept visually stimulating because of the tantalizingly teasing nature of his performance. Essentially an exhibition of his athlete’s strength and phenomenal muscular power, the piece was made successful by Koubasi’s use of his props: five chairs he used to build a tower.

The slow, drawn out introduction of each new chair elicited gasps from spectators, as did the apparently magical way in which he constructed them: They were balanced at angles increasingly unstable. Such hand-tingling tangents thrilled onlookers and vitalized the set.

Likewise a trampoline-and-gym-horse routine was livened up by the performers’ comically sized clown gear and vividly orange wigs. Though they were obviously keen to display their skills, the boys’ act centered around comic timing and seemingly painful landings.

Impressive shows of physical prowess were, throughout, made subordinate to this ambience of fun. Juggling was mixed with exaggeratedly seductive Arabic dancing; a mimed motorbike sequence was interrupted with a blast of Celine Dion’s “Titanic” just moments before a crash.

Even the act of Freddy Kachoua, a 15-year-old contortionist, was spiced up with slapstick. Given a spot in the limelight in order to dazzle the audience with a body that seemed to be made entirely of fluid, Kachoua then played the clown in a gym-routine, ending up pushed over mid-contortion.

Every member of the ensemble delighted in interacting with and provoking the predominantly under-12 audience. A clever variation on the pie-in-face theme came with the dangling use of a basketful of eggs that managed to find its way into the audience.

Music was central to the show. Songs were constantly blasted to keep the audience at an incredible level of hyperactivity; they were jumping about as much as the onstage performers. And unicycles were even used as guitars.

Though not a seamless show, and at times more akin to variety than circus, the excitement of the audience throughout was proof of the success both of “The Mystery Show” and the Cirque du Liban.

This talented cast of young performers are sure to continue their triumphant formula: Comedy, rousing displays of daredevilry, and above all, roguish tomfoolery.

“This,” emphasized Zughbi, “is the first time ever in Lebanon that a Lebanese people have performed together as a circus.” It won’t be the last.

Cirque du Liban perform “The Mystery Show” at the Sagesse Theater in Jdeideh daily at 5 p.m. until May 1, with a special show on Apr 31 at 11 a.m. For more information and reservations, call 01-999-666.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2011, on page 16.