Engineering a circus

Canada's 'Machine de Cirque' comes to Stanford

"Machine de Cirque" creative director Vincent Dubé never thought that his hobby -- circus arts -- would actually become his career.

While studying to obtain his bachelor's degree in civil engineering, Dubé enjoyed working at a circus. Living a double life as a student and circus performer involved studying on airplanes and in dressing rooms and occasionally negotiating with professors when touring interfered with his studies. Finding a proper life balance was challenging, but he was determined to find a symbiotic union between his two passions.

"I was a circus artist for a few years after graduating with my degree in engineering and I felt that it was not enough for me," he said. "I wanted to combine my engineering knowledge (with) circus projects."

As an artistic director and company president, Dubé's performance and engineering backgrounds are aptly put to use in "Machine de Cirque," a humorous circus show about five apocalypse survivors: Ugo Dario, Rapha?l Dubé, Maxim Laurin, Frédéric Lebrasseur and Yohann Trépanier. The show is set in a computerless world, where the men find their way to other survivors through a strange machine.

Locals can catch two performances of "Machine de Cirque": Friday, March 16, and Saturday, March 17, at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium. Audiences can expect to see a display of acrobatics, dance, comedy, juggling and musical performance as characters manipulate various props: a bath towel, drum kit, juggling clubs and a teeterboard (seesaw) in a playful "spare parts" world.

The Quebéc City-based circus company founded by Dubé in 2013 as a collective of several artists and performers has performed globally since their production took off in 2015.

In 2016, company acrobats Maxim Laurin and Ugo Dario broke the Guinness World Record of most consecutive backflips on a teeterboard. The performance took place outdoors in front of a city hall building, before an audience in Sherbrooke, Quebéc. Though the duo had previously rehearsed their record-breaking act indoors, Dubé said, no one knew for certain that they would be able to perform 101 backflips outdoors without injury.

"I was there!" Dube said. "I was pretty excited about it (but) I wanted to make sure they wouldn't get injured from that because it's a small crew show. I was confident they would break the record but I was not expecting them to do that much."

According to Dubé, his prior studies in civil engineering have allowed him to push the limits of what could be done in a circus act with a set and props. He collaborates over calculations and design with an engineer who currently works with the Canadian Space Agency and produces sets for the circus company as a hobby.

Dubé credits his fellow artists as his primary sources of inspiration, considering them his concepteurs, rather than interpreters. As an experienced juggler with 22 years of circus experience, he admitted that he is picky about what he would like to see in a circus. He described three major factors that create the "signature" of a "Machine de Cirque" show, which stretch far behind the parameters of juggling and clowning.

"First, we like to have a live musician who is also a performer in the show," he explained. "He's not in the shade, he's really on stage performing (as) a character, being mixed with the other artists. They're all together as a group."

In addition to integrating musicians into the performance, the sets and props are used in multiple ways for different acts throughout the show. This multipurpose utilization of materials, he said, make up the second key component of his show.

"We do a lot of research on the relation with different objects and how they can be used, not just for one purpose but in different ways to be very creative," he explained. "I think it's just my engineering background."

A particular blend of comedy, dance and theater make up the third pillar of Dubé's signature modern circus style.

"A lot of contemporary circuses (move) all together but you won't feel every individual personality that much," Dubé said. "We're a little more theatrical. You will feel a little bit more of all of the individual personalities in the creative process and in the results we tend to have."

The trapeze act, he said, exemplifies the company's tendency to eschew expectations of what people expect to see in a modern circus show, as the act embraces tension and strangeness.

A comedic viral video of the performers dressed only in bath towels brought attention to the company's cheeky sense of humor. What began as one performer experimenting with strategic placement of props developed into an ever-changing improvisational act.

"I just told them, 'you'd better be good!'" Dubé said, laughing as he described the high stakes of over-exposure during the act. "So the first time it was just (Raphaël) and then he created another version with his partner, Yohann, of the duo 'Les Beaux Frères.' This version has been on T.V. and went viral, so it was very important for me that we were not doing the same thing with the towels in the show. It's with no music; it's just four guys fooling around. There are a lot of improv moments to keep them on their toes," he said. "Each of them doesn't know what's going to happen because they can react in different ways. With comedy, it's easy to get bored once you know the act. But this ... I still like to watch it."

Dubé is looking forward to their upcoming performance at Stanford before he debuts their new road-trip themed show, titled "Truck Stop," in which the company will actually tour and perform across Canada from east to west this summer.

"I create acts and shows for the general public, not just for people who know the techniques," he said. "I don't really care about that. I want to give a good show to move them, to make people feel something."

Freelance writer Chrissi Angeles can be emailed at chrissiangeles@gmail.com.

What: "Machine de Cirque."

When: Friday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 17, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Stanford Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford.

Cost: $15-$65.

Info: Go to Stanford Live.

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