Dancer Kathleen Reynolds takes flight in the current Les Colporteurs production of "Filao" at Lincoln Center.
By Joseph Hurley
In an elegant, Moorish-looking tent, pitched in Damrosch Park as part of the ongoing Lincoln Center Festival 2000, an intimate France-based circus called Les Colporteurs is presenting "Filao," an 80-minute show with which the group of 10 performers and musicians has been touring Europe since debuting in 1997.
One member of the troupe is a vital, articulate young Irish-American woman who is billed as "dancer," and who claims not to possess traditional circus skills, although she quite clearly has acquired them in relative abundance in the four years she has been a member of the company.
Kathleen Reynolds was born in Alabama because her father was in graduate school there, but soon moved to Buffalo and then to New York City, where she spent her adolescence, and where she acquired her extensive modern dance and ballet training.
With Les Colporteurs, Reynolds has played in, among other locales, Germany, Austria, Spain, Belgium, and, of course, France. The troupe is currently making a three-pronged U.S. debut, having played the American Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and then a few performances in Raleigh, N.C., before moving on to New York and Lincoln Center, where they opened on July 12 and where they will play every evening this week at 7 p.m., with their closing show scheduled for this Saturday.
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Les Colporteurs, whose name may be translated as "peddlers who carry their goods on their backs," describe themselves as "a Pan-European group of like-minded circus artists.
On a rain-washed afternoon, a few hours before the evening’s performance of "Filao," the red-haired, blue-eyed Reynolds sat at a folding table a few yards from the gleaming, still-wet 49-foot tent and recalled the pathways that had led her to a somewhat itinerant existence as a member of a French exemplar of a European movement that has come to be rather widely known as the "nouveau cirque," the new circus.
"I started dancing when I was 6 and I was very serious about it, and very devoted," Reynolds said. "When I was 16 here in New York, I started going to job auditions. They are looking for maybe one or two people, and they line you up and put a number on your chest, and then they look at you and they say ‘you can stay,’ or ‘you can go home,’ and I was always asked to go home. The first elimination is always on body type, and you may never be allowed to dance."
Reynolds, at 36 with a full slate of performance accomplishments to her credit, can laugh about the rejection, which is a part of every dancer’s life, but it wasn’t always so.
"When you’re 16 and an adolescent, it’s very difficult," she said. "I lost heart with classical dance entirely, and I stopped.
That’s when Reynolds began to travel, arriving in France in 1982. "In Paris," she recalled, "I began to see some examples of the new dance movement, very different from anything I’d known before, and I started studying again. It was no longer a question of body type, but more having to do with the individual and what you have to bring to the choreography. That was when I really found my place in the dance world."
The circus became a part of Reynolds’s life when she met Antoine Rigot, who, with his wife, Agathe Olivier, founded Les Colporteurs in 1996, devoting the first year to recruiting the company and creating "Filao," a title that on one hand refers to a variety of tropical hardwood found in the Caribbean, and, on the other, is a pun on "fil-a-haut," the French term for "high wire."
"What I really like about the nouveau cirque," Reynolds said, "is its flexibility, and its openness, and the way they bring people from all different kinds of backgrounds and they take what’s rich from the talent and experience of each person and make use of it. It’s very open to the theater and other artistic disciplines."
After slightly more than 18 years in France and on tour with mainly French companies, including Les Colporteurs, Reynolds admits she now dreams and thinks in French. She now speaks English with a slight but discernible French tone. One of her goals associated with the American tour is to regain some of the English fluency she feels she’s lost over the years.
Reynolds and her companion, Frederic Richard, the troupe’s lighting director, and their year-old daughter, Yona, live in Brittany, and one of the reasons they do is that it’s relatively close to Ireland. The dancer’s mother, Paula, lives in Sligo, and Reynolds visits whenever she can. As it happens, she travels on an Irish passport.
Circus people travel, generally, in house trailers drawn by automobiles, but Kathleen Reynolds put a decidedly Irish spin on the situation. She acquired an ancient, beautifully detailed horse-drawn wooden wagon of the sort generally associated with the Irish Travelers. That’s how she traveled in the first years of Les Colporteurs. Now, however, things are a little different.
Lately," she said, since we had the baby, the wagon has become a little bit too small for us." The dancer has decided to speak to her daughter in English, so that the child will grow up bilingual.
Reynolds’s Irish ties are strong and deep, due, at least in part, to the fact that her mother’s grandmother, whose name had been Guilfoyle and who had come from County Kerry, worked long and hard to retain her Irishness.
"My great-grandmother always lived with my mother," she said, "and she made sure that the family in America maintained contact with the family in Ireland. My mother went to Ireland as often as she could, because her grandmother, who had wanted to return, but never did, had filled her with endless lore about the place."
When Reynolds’s parents separated, her mother moved to Ireland, choosing Sligo because it was a place that the family had no actual links. "She felt, as a divorced woman, that there would be too much pressure and too much judgment if she settled in the exact area where her family was located," Reynolds said. "She wanted a fresh start."
The dancer’s father, David, lives on Long Island and came to Damrosch Park last Friday night to see Les Colporteurs for the first time.
Reynolds has the highest regard for the people with whom she has come into contact through her time in the circus world. "They get a bad rap because it’s very showy, because it’s popular, and because it’s not necessarily very artistic or very profound," she said. "But I think, maybe especially in this group, the quality and integrity of all the people, regardless of the background from which they came, is very, very high. It’s a group that’ s very rich in its diversity. The connection between these performers’ life and work is very tight and very close. You’re always working on something, refining something, helping something to evolve."
Certainly, it must sometimes seem to circus people that there is a gap between them and the audiences for whom they play. Reynolds is aware of great differences in the response. Les Colporteurs received in different countries where they appeared.
"In Spain," she said, "particularly in Seville, it was very odd. We became gypsies, in a way. If a dog was lost, people would come to us and accuse us of feeding their pets to our lions. We pointed out that we didn’t have any animals, let alone lions and that we don’t eat dogs. If a goat went missing, the owners would come along and accuse us of eating it. They would come to the circus tent, screaming to see the director, and accuse us of all sorts of things. The police, particularly in Spain, would come and investigate the campgrounds. It was really amazing to all of us."
After New York, "Filao" will play Venice in September. It will take four weeks for the show’s equipment to get there by sea. Venice was always projected to be the site of the final "Filao" performances.
The future of Les Colporteurs is somewhat in question, since Antoine Rigot, the artistic director, was injured during a performance and has had to return to France. If it should be that the group is forced to suspend operations for a time instead of starting work on the show that was to follow "Filao," Kathleen Reynolds will miss the life she’s lived since she joined the troupe.
"It’s a great life," she reflected. "It’s not always a very easy life, but there are a lot of very special moments when you’re living and working in a show like this. Yes, I admit it, if this all comes to an end, I’ll really miss the circus."