A lot of people think I learned to speak French because I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris. It’s true that it came in handy later during my visits, but my desire to speak that beautiful language was triggered by something slightly more North American.
I’ve only missed a couple of the touring Cirque du Soleil shows even since they started coming through Chicago back in the early 90s. Back then, I remember bumping into some of the artist performers in the lobby of 233 East Wacker, which served as their temporary home during the weeks of their stay.
I was working as an assistant editor at Swell Pictures at the time. It was funny. They weren’t wearing, “Hello! I’m a circus performer,” name tags or anything. But they just had an interesting look about them. Well traveled. Inquisitive. Joyful. And the brief snippets of conversation I’d overhear. Sometimes heavily accented English. Sometimes something from much further away.
And often French.
When I began attending the touring shows, about once ever two years, I was in awe. Inventive humans doing the most artfully creative things I had ever seen. The skill and grace and storytelling ability. When I’d walk into the Big Top tent that I would watch go up every year just before the show opened, it was like being transported to another world.
And like anything I find fascinating, I wanted to photograph the performers. Desperately.
Cirque du Soleil is based in Montreal, Canada. And they have strong French Canadian roots with a decidedly international flavor.
“One day,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to ask them if I can photograph them.”
It would be a long shot. Many very talented photographers have had that privilege. Beautiful black and white images, as otherworldly as the performances are.
And for some reason, I decided if I ever did ask them, I would want to ask them in French. I know. A silly requirement, perhaps. But I had such respect for them and the entire organization that it would be good form to learn their language before approaching them with such a request.
Overkill? Most certainly. But it seemed to make sense to me at the time.
My French language skills over the years have varied between first person toddler French, at my best, to just plain out of practice French. I never really accomplished what I would call conversational French. Although when I spend a few weeks in Paris, it comes back enough to at least get by in a very limited way.
During one of their touring shows, one of my favorites called Allegría, back in the mid-90s, some of the performers made a visit to the Tower Records in Lincoln Park for a mini concert. It was my chance. Not exactly the way I wanted to photograph them, but still, until my French got better and I felt like I could properly request, it would have to do.
I remember sitting on the floor with a few dozen people as they played. A very strange bit of unusual in such a retail environment, with the band and Francesca Gagnon, The White Singer, performing music from that show. It was surprisingly moving considering where we were, in a record store in broad daylight.
I’m not sure if the Cirque performers were happy to be dragged out of their beautiful world to perform in a record store to drum up ticket sales, but I know I enjoyed it.
And hopefully it won’t be the last time I’ll have the opportunity to photograph them.
Bonjour! Je m’appelle Billy. Je suis un photographe de Chicago. Puis-je faire une photo de vous, s’il vous plaît ?