Atrappe-Moi Credit: Flip FabriQue

To say the state of contemporary circus in America is dim isn’t to insult the discipline—it’s merely to point out that, with the exception of Cirque du Soleil, which is Canadian anyway, there’s yet to be a troupe that’s set the country ablaze. The first Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival intends to end this period of relative obscurity with an dynamite program—including eight world-class performances and five days of professional workshops—that will bring a broader contingent of cirque nouveau troupes to mainstream audiences. Earning the same recognition as ballet, Broadway, and opera won’t be easy—especially since “circus” remains synonymous with “freak show” in the American imagination—but the substance is there.

Unlike circus, which is a form of hell, cirque nouveau is a form of dance theater that appropriates circus skills such as trapeze to approach familiar and even mundane themes from the hell-bent rim of the physically impossible—with astonishing results. These artists create modern narratives and develop characters without resorting to the cheap stunts and unnecessary dangers typical of big-tent circuses.

The more-theatrical acts at CCCF tend toward theater of the absurd. Chicago comedian and mime Dean Evans (aka Honeybuns) dresses and acts like a lemon meringue tart, sweet yet mildly menacing, and he’s after personal revelation—the truths he seeks are the lesser secrets of audience members. Brian P. Dailey is a subtle juggler, with shy mannerisms and a habit of modestly placing a pin on his head midjuggle. Flip FabriQue’s Attrape-Moi (“Catch Me”) includes some of the most virtuosic hula hooping and two-man tennis-ball juggling I’ve ever seen, and the troupe’s rhythmic displays involving popsicles, red exercise balls, and lawn chairs reminded me of a version of Stomp for acrobats. In The Rendez-Vous, Krin Haglund’s waiting for a date, but he’s late—so she makes a mess of herself and the table setting, pours wine with her feet, does a glow-stick routine with her pearls, and in my favorite moment, dons the tablecloth and capers around with a candelabra centerpiece on her head.

The remaining troupes, while equally idiosyncratic, lean more heavily on contemporary dance. In Smoke and Mirrors the New Mexico acrobatic duo Ricochet turns mechanical contortions of the body into a metaphor for workplace scheming and the workweek grind; even a regular office chair becomes a contraption that can bind or cage. Laura Stokes is angular and dramatic and far from gentle with her body; she binds her ankles and knots them onto her shoulders from behind. She and her partner, Cohdi Harrell, arc past each other with the cleanness of filaments in a whisk.

Ricochet is paired with Ilona Jäntti, who performs Muualla/Elsewhere, a duet for rope dancer and animation more pleasing than Harold and the Purple Crayon—an extremity of praise. Jäntti plays with fantastical creatures, mimics their strange shapes, slips through rabbit holes, spirals leagues under the sea, and sleeps on furniture that isn’t there. Her spatial intelligence is exquisite, and I could watch her flirt her way through these imaginary landscapes for days.

The most minimal performance on the program is Andréane Nadère Leclerc in Cherepaka (The Death of a Turtle). Through contortion Leclerc becomes a turtle losing its shell, stretching her arms into shape behind her, then peeling them off into a warped quadrupedal position. The painful-looking slowness and the tremors produced by strain allow her to simultaneously evoke both the elimination of a life-giving rigid structure and the turtle’s death throes. The fascinating part is, well, she’s a dying turtle that’s sexy.