For French-Canadian readers, this feature is peppered with the equivalent of f-words. Rest assured though, Tabarnak—*puts a penny in the swear jar*—is a family-friendly show. Filled with all the acrobatic prowess and warmth we’ve come to expect from Québécois mavericks Cirque Alfonse, Tabarnak—*clink*—is a celebration of tradition, heritage and congregation that flits between the pious and the profane.
Finding circus inside a church is increasingly common. Training centres and circus schools often repopulate disused churches with aerial acrobatics and physical feats, repurposing the vast, high spaces for communities whose rituals come in physical form. Cirque Alfonse, however, are tipping this convention on its head. They’re bringing the church building inside the circus tent.
"In Québec, the church has been central to our culture," explains company co-founder Antoine Carabinier Lépine. "We started from this point of view. Not on the religion part, but on the place. The space. The building is a centre, the heart and soul of a village. Like in the UK, churches have been recycled a lot in Québec. Their role has changed, but they are still places to bring communities together."
Lépine, who also performs in the show, explains its creation was inspired by contemporary use of local churches for bazaars, bingo and wrestling matches, alongside their more traditional uses. "We are six acrobats and three live musicians, and we’re all on stage the whole time, interchanging roles. There are no solo acts, everything is performed as a group to honour this idea of a meeting point, both before and now."
Despite including exotic routines such as Russian swing and Chinese meteors, Cirque Alfonse have rooted all their shows deeply in Québécois heritage, even naming themselves for their home village. Their electro-cabaret, nightclub-vibed Barbu, which appeared on the Meadows in 2015, was based on regional fairground traditions, while their smash hit debut Timber was a glorification of all things lumberjack. Tabarnak—*there goes my last 10p*—is a return to the image-based theatricality of their first show.
The title translates simultaneously as the holy tabernacle, and the worst swear word you can use in Francophone Canada. Lépine admits that he wouldn’t say it in front of his mum and that venues back home have refused to book the production because of its name. Not so in Europe or Australia though.
Underbelly’s head of programming, Marina Dixon, knew she had to book the show when she saw a performance at the Adelaide Fringe: "It’s hugely original, innovative and unique in the subject matter it tackles. You can't help but love the cast, and the joy they project when performing together is infectious."
For Cirque Alfonse, enjoyment of life is sacred. Now we’re all invited to worship at their shameless altar of togetherness.