When feathers fly: the story behind Place des Anges

An immense, joyful fresco – that’s how Gratte Ciel director Stéphane Girard describes the French company’s feather-fuelled aerial show unfurling across the night skies over Botanic Park during this weekend’s WOMADelaide.

Mar 10, 2023, updated Mar 10, 2023
Gratte Ciel's 'Place des Anges' – first presented at WOMADelaide in 2018 – culminates in a huge feather storm. Photo: Jack Fenby / Supplied

Gratte Ciel's 'Place des Anges' – first presented at WOMADelaide in 2018 – culminates in a huge feather storm. Photo: Jack Fenby / Supplied

Gratte Ciel was invited back to Adelaide to present Place des Anges (place of angels) in 2023 after a one-night-only show at the 2018 WOMADelaide that attracted some criticism for its liberal use of feathers but held several thousand festival-goers in thrall as the cast of “angels” performed their high-altitude ethereal ballet.

A total of 32 artists and technicians,  ranging from climbers and paragliders to dancers and circus performers, are here for this year’s show – and there are no soloists, says Stéphane Girard, co-writer and director (with Pierrot Bidon) of Place des Anges.

Here, Girard shares the story behind the show, while also offering an important piece of advice for audiences who experience it at WOMADelaide: “Turn off your cell phones and open your eyes wide.”

Tell us about the origins of Gratte Ciel and Place des Anges… I believe it’s inspired by traditional French street performance.

In the 1970s, circus and street arts in France undertook an aesthetic and cultural revolution that had a worldwide impact. Royal De Luxe and Archaos were among the main actors in this revolution ­– they inspired new generations of artists around the world.

Our paths crossed with Pierrot Bidon, inventor of Archaos. In the ’90s, we were a group of young climbers who lived in the cliffs to create a high-rise acrobatic theatre made of crazy pendulums and phenomenal ziplines. We ran on the ropes to play with the void. We told [of] the fragility of our environment through wildly acrobatic fantasy tales.

From this first encounter with Pierrot, we merged our universes and 15 years of artistic complicity followed, which culminated in 2007 in the incredible creation of Place Des Anges. Pierrot died in 2010, and we created Gratte Ciel in 2013 as a new company following on from Les Studios de Cirque de Marseille. We have toured Place des Anges around the world.

How would you describe Place des Anges to those who haven’t yet experienced it?

Place des Anges is an experience of the unthinkable. It begins very far and very high in the sky – it is above all an acrobatic show at very great heights. It is a surreal universe because of the physical dimension that it embodies. You have probably never imagined that the sky could be a theatre stage, without apparent limits, and without ever showing the danger that the act of expressing oneself at such heights can represent.

The spectator will see characters playing in the sky by sliding on ropes and ziplines ­– slowly, gently or so fast that we no longer understand how this is possible. But what you will see above all are angels. Angels who come to invite the audience to the most fantastic love ball they have ever experienced.

From their evening accessories escape feathers – a lot of feathers, because these feathers come to caress faces and capsize hearts in a mind-blowing finale that represents the famous “feather storm”.

Gratte Ciel’s angels invite the audience into their surreal world. Photo: Grant Hancock / Supplied

It’s amazing to watch the responses of audience members transfixed by the show – why do you think it strikes such a chord with people?

In this show, everything is done to blur our boundaries, our physical landmarks, through the aerial dimension in which the show is performed, but also the dreamlike dimension that goes beyond our acquired references.

Place des Anges gradually brings the viewer to open up to new dimensions, to sensations rarely experienced. The images that are built are both pure beauty and great lightness, and this is done with great joy. The audience finds themselves in the middle of the image.

After a while, they are no longer spectators, but actors themselves of an overflowing joy. It’s something you remember all your life.

Gratte Ciel’s artists are experts in aerial work. Photo: Tony Lewis

The Gratte Ciel website refers to it as a ‘pacifist allegory’ – what do you mean by this?­

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It is, above all, a sharing with the public. There no stars, just magical acrobats who flood the public with sweetness. We have constructed the show as an immense, joyful fresco that the entire audience shares with interest. It is unique, powerful and it does a lot of good. And so if peace begins with love and joy, here is a perfect allegory!

Why does the company use feathers in Place de Anges?

Because the feather is white, because the feather is light, and because the feather is soft and warm. It is like a caress from heaven and, finally, when it is used in great quantity, it invades the sky like a snowstorm, soft and luminous.

How many feathers do you require for each performance and where do you source them from?

We use a ton of feathers. They come from a supplier for the quilting and bedding industry with whom we have been working in France for 15 years.*

Is this year’s performance at WOMADelaide exactly the same as when it was presented here in 2018, or have changes been made since then?

The structure of the show remains the same, however we have added rhythmic variations and enriched certain acrobatic scenes.

How many artists and technicians are involved in presenting the show in Adelaide? What kinds of backgrounds do the performers have and what are some of their unique skills?

The team is made up of 32 artists and technicians. They are outdoor sports artists, climbers, speleologists, paragliders, but they are also dancers and circus performers, acrobats in love with height and the great outdoors.

They are experts in this specific and unique work on ropes and ziplines they have developed over decades. They have a very special skill for this rigging they invented. You have to be able to spend long hours suspended in the air while remaining totally focused and listening to co-team members. Here, there are no soloists. It is a work of the heart where you have to be extremely vigilant; pure technique must be second nature.

You’ve presented Place des Anges all over the world – aside from Adelaide, what are some of the most interesting locations you’ve performed it in?

Buenos Aires, for the crazy South American energy. London, for the madness it was to build and perform over Piccadilly Circus. St Petersburg, for our encounters with the Russian soul. And Adelaide, for the setting of the Botanic Park and the welcome from the WOMAD team.

*Further explanation about the feathers used in Place des Anges can be found here on the WOMADelaide website. Gratte Ciel is presenting the show nightly in Botanic Park throughout the festival, which runs from March 10-13.

Read WOMADelaide associate director Annette Tripodi’s tips for eight lesser-known musical gems to discover in the 2023 line-up here, and  read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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