Anticipation was high as we headed down to Club Nokia to meet with members of Cirque Berzerk, the dark and wonderfully twisted circus troupe that won praise and scores of new fans in 2009 when they performed at L.A. State Historic Park. After seven weeks of rehearsals, they were now a little more than twenty-four hours away from the first night of their run at the L.A. Live club. They were taking their big top journey into the underworld to a proper nightclub, tweaking the performance to fit a wildly different setting.
We arrived during the cast and crew's lunch break. All across the venue performers were working on technique; stretching and jumping rope in the hallways, practicing trampoline moves on stage. Others were trickling into the dressing rooms to change into their costumes and begin the make-up application process for that night's dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, we met up with the co-founders of the successful group to discuss the new show.
Cirque Berzerk's roots are in Burning Man, where Suzanne Bernel and Kevin Bourque had performed and were looking for a way to create an indoor venue in the desert, someplace where they could perform with less interference from the elements. They thought a circus tent would work. Joined by fellow co-founder Neal Everett, they got together a group of friends and fellow artists, began fundraising and brought the show to the desert festival in 2004.
Bernel, Bourque and Everett form the core of Cirque Berzerk, leaders of what Bernel described as something like “a band of misfits that get together and create their own family.” Each one is a performer, but they are also involved in other tasks. Bernel, whose background includes dance, theater, photography and sculpture, works closely with the set designer. Bourque writes the music and has a hand with the video work. Everett helps with casting and costumes. Together with their friends, they've created a grown-up world that evokes the childhood familiarity of a day at the circus. It's a dark, occasionally surreal world that is as challenging as it is entertaining.
“It comes from a bunch of different things,” said Bernel of the storyline that drives Cirque Berzerk, “the idea of what it is to be an artist in today's world, in America.”
She continued, “You give up a lot to do what we do. We live with a lot of risk.”
Cirque Berzerk follows the journey of a young woman into the underworld. It's what Bernel calls “a metaphoric death,” the idea of giving up security to explore “what she has the potential to be.”
“She's forced to confront all these things that she didn't confront in the aboveworld,” said Bernel. “In the aboveworld she was emotionally dead on Prozac, now she's underneath and she's experiencing love and eroticism and friendship and isolation.”
Their underworld is a sexy, mysterious place filled with acrobats, singers, contortionists and clowns whose look cannot be attributed to one specific time period.
“Our costumes come from different eras, but they all have a slight twist,” said Everett. “Everything is worn and torn and aged and distressed. These people are stuck in this world, doing this for eternity.”
The look of Cirque Berzerk points to a style members of the troupe have described as “circus fabulous.” David Berrent, CEO and Managing Partner of the group, caught his first glimpse of their unique edge at Bernel and Bourque's tent wedding.
“I realized that this wasn't a dress-up night, this was how they roll,” said Berrent, a TV producer who had previously worked with Bourque. “It was authentic and it was real.”
Smitten with the idea of the circus, Berrent said that he was developing a reality show about Cirque Berzerk, but the concept– “cool people doing cool stuff”– wasn't quite the reality fare networks had in mind.
“If I had to fail,” he said, “it was a good reason to fail on a project like that.”
Berrent soon realized that “the show is the show,” not the premise for a TV program. After Cirque Berzerk's 2008 run, he stepped in as a partner, helping the group find funding. Since then, the show has grown in size and popularity. Their 2008 L.A. run brought in about 2400 people. The following year, they attracted roughly 30,000 people to Los Angeles State Historic Park.
This month's high profile engagement is the next step for a local outfit poised for bigger things. The co-founders indicated that they may have some future plans in the works, but wouldn't elaborate on what those might be. Right now, the concentration is on Club Nokia.