Long before Bluetooth, it took only a coin to create the magic of music. Gilles Rhodes cried when he inserted a coin into a music box and heard Edith Piaf’s soulful song La Vie En Rose wafting out.
Long before Bluetooth, it took only a coin to create the magic of music. Gilles Rhodes cried when he inserted a coin into a music box and heard Edith Piaf’s soulful song La Vie En Rose wafting out. “I was a little boy then,” recalls Rhodes, the co-founder of Transe Express, a French circus act organised recently in the national capital as part of the four-month-long Bonjour India festival. Their show, Celestial Carillon, which was organised at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, is a throwback to the days of music boxes and church bells. In an era of electronics, it combines music with mechanics to bring out memories in a spectacular fashion.
The high point of Celestial Carillon is a breathtaking display of art by three trapeze performers and nine musicians, all of whom are suspended 100 feet above the ground. The artistes and musicians hang from a lotus-shaped cable and aluminium structure, held in the air by a giant industrial crane that rises to the sky. At the top of the structure is a big church bell, sounded in concert with the artistes and musicians, who use drums and a bunch of smaller bells, which also hang from the structure. “In old times, church bells were the centre of the life of the community,” says Rhodes, who works in plastic art. “The bells woke up people… they sounded again when it was time to sleep… bells celebrated weddings and also announced deaths,” says dancer and choreographer Brigitte Burdin, also a co-founder of Transe Express. Set up by Rhodes and Burdin four decades ago, Transe Express borrows its philosophy from commedia dell’arte, a popular form of comedy in 16th-century Europe, and the street theatre of France in the 1980s. Transe Express was launched into the big league in 1992 when they performed at the opening ceremony of the Albertville Winter Olympics in France. The audience was mesmerised by the performance of drummers hanging in the air. Celestial Carillon, the second aerial show of the company, traces its origins to the music box with a set of bells, which is called ‘carillon’ in French. The drums used in the act are from all over the world. “We found a new way of using percussion instruments from Africa and other parts of the world,” says Rhodes.
“When we formed the company in the 80s, it was a period of the beginning of street theatre in France,” recalls Rhodes. A decade later, when the company was chosen for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Winter Olympics, it was a “big moment” for street art and street theatre in the country. The group wanted the audience to see and hear its performers better, a thought that led to the creation of an aerial structure to lift the musicians. “If they are in the air, everybody can see and hear them,” says Burdin. They were also looking for an instrument that could be heard from a distance. Enter the church bell. The art of lifting artistes in the air is inspired by famous American sculptor Alexander Calder, who made moving sculptures. “We were attracted by Calder’s technique and spirit,” says Rhodes. The harmony between art and music achieved through spectacle is also characteristic of Calder. “Our show conveys emotions through simple things and big bells,” says Transe Express artistic director Helene Marseille. And the emotions are derived from the childhood memories of the group members. “There was an element of emotional security in hearing church bells in the mornings and evenings,” says Burdin, who grew up in central France.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer