One of the stereotypes that Americans foist on the French is that they're a sexier people than we are. That stereotype, it turns out, is completely accurate, at least as far as their trapeze artists go. "Kayassine," performed at the Kennedy Center by Les Arts Sauts ("The Jumping Arts"), presents near-sculptural images of the human body at its most fine-tuned.
Les Arts Sauts's show is kinetic, of course, with people swinging and twisting in midair. But its tone is oddly reflective. An American performance of trapeze mastery is likely to be just that--an exercise in mastery, the conquest of gravity, the transcendence of the body's limits. "Kayassine" is about display. What you take away from it isn't the stunts but flash-frozen images of the human form floating or in mid-swoop above your head.
There's only one woman in the 11-member troupe--Sara Sandqvist, who, during the first part of the show, slowly writhes in a translucent swing, so that certain elements of her body are highlighted. We see a lot of her strong, graceful hips and legs. The male sex then asserts itself in more conventional trapeze work, but the men are also objects of desire in costumes that emphasize their thighs and shoulders and astonishingly muscular stomachs. One fellow wears a flirty drapery around his hips like a skirt, and a couple of them sport haircuts that might be described as tubular-Mohawk.
Patrick Cathala's lights provide a misty atmosphere under a black dome--occasionally, wonderfully, aerialists literally seem to appear out of thin air to swing over the audience. These are the most traditionally exciting moments in the show, along with, of course, those heart-stopping instants when an aerialist is passed from one man to another and for a moment seems to hang, unsupported, 30 feet or so above the ground.
There are, in fact, one or two falls, but there is also a net. Arguably the most charming part of the evening comes at the end when each performer drops into the net in his or her own inimitable style.
With its female singer (Pascale Valenta) crooning Asiatic-Celtic-medieval melodies, a cellist (Benoit Fleurey) suspended above the audience (which reclines in special chairs), the deliberate beauty of the presentation and the state-of-the-art sound and lighting, Les Arts Sauts is self-consciously arty. Nothing could be further from the spangled vulgarity of the American circus. This performance is slow, meditative, open-ended. You can make up your own narrative to fit what you see, or you can just dream along.
Kayassine, performed by Les Arts Sauts, directed by Herve Lelardoux. Lighting engineer, Benoit Baillard. Sound engineers, Olivier Horn, Jocelyn Mistral. General technician, Alain Dessard. With Fabrice Champion, Arnaud Grasset, Jean-Francois Rogemont, Nehmatallah Skaf, Jean-Antoine Veran, Patrice Wojciechowski (who also plays Jew's harp), Germain Guillemot, Christophe Lelarge (who also plays double bass), Frank Michel, Stephane Ricordel and Olivier Merlier. In the Kennedy Center's Plaza Tent through Aug. 17.