HUNGRY FOR FRAME Thierree puts himself in the art.
Photograph: Richard Haughton
Acrobat, clown and magician James Thiérrée walks on stilts, does backflips, plays the violin, crawls on all fours, spins in pirouettes and dangles from precarious structures. He can do just about anything onstage…except, it seems, speak, as words are superfluous in his thoroughly visual spectacles. So one cool, sunny morning, when Thiérrée arrived at a café on rue du Faubourg St. Denis in his hometown of Paris, we were happy to find that the 36-year-old artist relishes talking about his very silent and poetic work.
Elegantly handsome, with curly gray hair, pale blue eyes and a distinct resemblance to his grandfather Charlie Chaplin, Thiérrée pauses between sips of tea to discuss Raoul, opening this Friday at the BAM Harvey Theater. Raoul, he explains, is a solitary man, who fears that another creature has invaded his body and soul. As the protagonist wrestles with his identity, he questions whether he is fish or fossil, interrupted occasionally by otherworldly species. “Raoul is his own worst enemy and his own best friend,” Thiérrée explains, “trying to find his relationship to time and space.”
Anyone unfamiliar with Thiérrée’s work might suspect the show of being terribly serious, but its creator treats even the most profound emotions and ideas with sly humor. Swiss-born, Thiérrée grew up learning several languages—including that of the circus. His father, classical French actor Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, and his mother, Victoria Chaplin, a dancer and daughter of Chaplin (and granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill), founded two circuses popular in the 1970s and ’80s. The first was Cirque Imaginaire, which dispensed with traditional sawdust and trained animals, followed by Le Cirque Invisible. (Charlie Chaplin died when Thiérrée was three, so any influence must be chalked up to genetics.)
Thiérrée began performing with his family at age four, and by his twenties he’d branched out with acclaimed performances in venues from Sadler’s Wells in London to the Sydney Festival in Australia. He describes his performances as “strange mixtures, conversations with theater, that don’t include text. I work with the unconscious a lot. Adding words would be an ego trip.” Raoul marks Thiérrée’s third offering in BAM’s New Wave Festival, after Au Revoir Parapluie (2007) and Bright Abyss (2005). “James fills the stage with energy and vitality,” notes Joseph Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn institution.“He just disarms audiences with his charm and physicality, which he pushes to the nth degree. His work is a completely magical, visual feast.”
In the past, Thiérrée created productions with his troupe La Compagnie du Hanneton. But two years ago, he felt the urge to craft a solo piece. And yet, in Raoul, he’s not exactly solitary, sharing the space with a huge, intricate and collapsible set made from billowing sheets and fantastic fabric creatures (built by his mother). These include a giant elephant made of cotton, a jellyfish of antique silk and a wading bird of frayed string—all manipulated by unseen company members. “These surreal beings,” the performer says, “give me something to interact with. It’s important to convey Raoul’s human qualities through visual effects.”
However, spectacle isn’t the only theatrical quality that Thiérrée values. After his previous engagements, he knows the BAM Harvey well and loves its size and striking, weathered beauty. “But I have to make sure I don’t disappear in it,” he cautions. “People have to see my face, to have something to connect with. I use my body as a verb. I gave this show more structure than usual because there’s no one with me. My character takes the audience on a journey. You see how Raoul deals with fear and how he deals with joy. I hope people will feel differently after seeing it. I guess you might say the story is really about James. I’m opening a new door.”
As if on cue, Thiérrée’s lovely girlfriend enters the café, wheeling a baby carriage. “This is my son,” the artist says, leaning over a cherubic bundle and smiling tenderly. “Look how alert he is at only two months. I want to cut down on touring because of him, maybe establish a theater here, so I can watch him grow. It will be interesting to see how his birth changes the way I perform Raoul. I am not the same man I was now that I’m a father.”