Poised in the air in a traveling French circus, Clementine, the trapeze star, performs her ballet. She twists, flips and in a climatic moment, dangles by her toes. It's a long way from the exclusive Virginia prep school she attended not so long ago.
She grew up in the world capitals of Washington and Paris as the daughter of former Washington Star colunist Crosby Noyes, the second of four children. Now she lives on the road in a cluttered red-and-blud trailer with her husband, who is an acrobat, and their young daughter.
Why? Suffice it to say that "a circus can be something very magical," says Josephine "Zoe" Noyes Maisgre, known professionally as "Clementine" and another name she wouldn't take time to spell. The details of her enchantment, she implies, are for you to discover, not for her to explain.
Zoe's intentional air of mystery is only one of the spells woven by the Cirque Aligre, in which she becomes a different character with each costume change.
The circus of nine performers, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, was created 2 1/2 years ago in a bar in Frankfurt when Zoe's husband, "Paillette," and his friend Igor, a juggler, were trying to forget a bad day. "
They came up with the concept of a road show that would draw from their stunts in the informal "street theaters" of Paris and the intimacy of old-fashioned homemade circus spectacles that weren't too large and flashy.
In their sales pitch to passersby, the Cirque Aligre deliberately drives a contrast betweeen its home spun art and the "prunes" and "fluffs" of the typical "super show of l'Americaine." Apparently the French themselves are not sure what to make of this circus. Sometimes no more than 50 spectators show up.
You can escape with them in an absorbing two-hour fantasy of fire-eaters, romance and slightly off-color bufoonery in their 400-seat tent where you can always see their eyes. They do it without popcorn, plumed women or freaks. In place of savage jungle animal in tutus, they have substituted -- yes -- trained rats. The trouppe passes summers and autumns playing under a red-and-blue striped canvas, which they hoist themselves. In winters, they park the caravan of seven trucks on someone else's property, a necessity since they possess no land of their own. Then they revert to their street shows and live by passing the hat.
They are indifferent to newspaper articles describing their circus and turn an interview into a game of hide-and-seek. Ask too many questions, and they'll forget the details; if you're not careful, they'll change their names.
Zoe's husband is introduced as "Jacques," but he's known as "Paillette," the former name having disappeared a long time ago. "Paillette" means "secquin," and as to how he got it, well, "you'll have to find out," Zoe says. "
They talk rapidly in French because Paillette and their daughter Alice, age 2 1/2, know only a few words of English. After passing most of the decade in France, there are many expressions Zoe no longer can translate into her native tongue.
From infancy Zoe became accustomed to pulling up stakes frequently, yet in the comfortable milieu of a foregin correspondent's assignment in Europe, during their second tour in Paris, "I wasn't working very well in American school," she explained. "When I was 15 they decided to send be back to the states to a preparatory school." She pronounced "preparatory" disdanfully. Now Zoe has not figured out how she can accomodate her own daughter's education to the rambling circus tour. "Maybe I will tutor her, I don't know," she said as Alice rode a tricyle in a circle of caravans.
She wears leotards and tank suits which emphasize her blistered feet and broad, muscular shoulders. As she glides throught the air, the thin trace of makeup -- a faint blue-gray on the eyelids and red on the lips -- is hardly noticeable. Her long, light brown hair falls to midback or hangs in a chignon. At 32, except for her finely etched features, there is little left to suggest Zoe's origins.
She lived in Cleveland Park and had a coming out in 1964 at the Mayflower Hotel at the last Washington Debutante Ball.
She graduated from the Madeira School in Greenway, Va., then Bennington College in Vermont. After two years of dance lessions and subsistence living in New York City, the "auditioning crap" depressed the would-be actress. An ad for Marcel Marceau's mime school in Paris lured her back to France, where she had lived off and on for five years as a child.
But it was expensive, and "Marceau only came about twice a month to help you do a plie or something." She left after three months for the school of Etienne Decroux, the old French mime master.
Two years later he "threw me out" when he learned of her new fascination, the Palais des Merveilles, a Paris street theater troupe. "I was really in the street this time," she said with a careless laugh.
"We'd go out about 3 p.m. and play until after midnight, staying in our characters all day. We'd play at Les Halles, then parade to the quai, Rue St. Jacques and Montparnasse. It was all unauthorized. The cops would throw us off one cornere, and we'd move on. We made our money by passing the hat. I met Paillette in that troupe."
As if on cue, he walks into their home, the trailer painted in cardinal red inside and out. It is bivouacked for this week's show on a gravel parking lot in the Pais suburb of Sarcelles. With a bed, two cabinets, built-in kitchen and small table, there is hardly room for three adults at once. He moves to the mirror to dress for the perfomance.
Pailletee dons billowing black velveteen Cossack pants tucked into red lace-up boots. Across his muscular back, he streaks himself with sequin paint, the acessory that gives him his name. "My sole goal is for people to watch me," he says, his voice husky from cigarette smoke. "It's an intimancy, a communion, if you will."
Paillette, the circus director, comes from a family of French actors and technical specialists, but that life was too conventional for him. The circus he has created contains other refugees from the ordinary. There is Laros the Furious, a tightrope walker, who once was was a mechanic. Clown Nicolai studied for the priesthood, and clown Igor was a church organist in a previous incarnation.
They borrowed about $2,500 for the tent and equipment and subsequently paid off most of the loan and purchased higher quality gear. After hours, they go to films and drink wine with their friends. But in some small towns, they are jeered at as "gypsies." "They think we steal chickens," Zoe said with a frown.
It is her turn to perform in the two-hour program, and Igor and Nicolai take ringside seats to play her waltzes on the accordion and cello. In mesh leotards and a white tank bathing suit edged in gold braid and colored glass around the decollete neckline, Zoe mounts her trapeze 14 feet off the ground. Like a graceful gymnast, she executes her rountine, sometimes balances only on her thighs, her hands clear of the ropes.
The performance, which opens with "Les Freres Confettis" puppets, ends shortly in a finale of sparklers and somersaults. After wards, Zoe puts on slacks and a T-shirt and thinks about dinner.
"Sure, it's a very difficult life," she says matter-of-factly. "you're either too cold or hot, you're on the road a lot, and the trucks are always breaking down or the tires go flat. But you meet people all the time." And the goal is "satisfaction." "Yeah, I like it, I mean, obviously . . ."
She asked if there is anything about the States she misses. Zoe looks incredulous and responds flatly, "No."