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Born in a trunk

She grew up in a famous family of traveling performers. Now Aurelia Thierree brings her own circus-inspired show to the ART.

By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / November 28, 2008
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One of Aurélia Thierrée's earliest memories is of her and her brother, James, performing as a pair of suitcases strutting across the stage.

"That was one of our first numbers," she says. "Only our legs would come out. You know, the other day I was in London, and this woman stopped me and said, 'I remember your legs!' That was funny."

A granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and great-granddaughter of Eugene O'Neill, Thierrée was born into show business. But in her case, it was a business of a unique kind.

In France in the 1970s, Victoria Chaplin, daughter of the famed Little Tramp, had fallen in love with Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, a French movie star, and together they started performing a kind of circus that had never been seen before.

Instead of animal acts, flashy clothes, and the traditional three rings, the couple opted for illusion and whimsy - a place where jesters, jongleurs, troubadours, and others performed a sort of vaudeville for dreamers, one in which dogs walked people and people were flown by kites.

The phenomenon was called cirque nouveau, and it became the inspiration for other such stylized circus performances, including the multimillion-dollar powerhouse Cirque du Soleil.

Their daughter brings the style into the next generation in her show "Aurélia's Oratorio," which kicks off at the American Repertory Theatre tonight.

A wordless series of topsy-turvy acts and optical illusions, "Aurélia's Oratorio" spirals into a nightmare scenario of a woman gone mad.

"When you dream and something really absurd happens in that dream, while you are dreaming you take it as the reality without questioning it," Thierrée explains with a slight French accent, speaking by phone from New York, where she lives when she's not in Paris or on the road. "While it's happening, you follow the logic of that particular dream. I worked with that for this show."

In "Oratorio," which is directed, designed, and choreographed by her mother, the slender and lovely Thierrée showcases her illusionist skills. The piece begins with a simple dresser on a bare stage. As gypsy jazz music swells, her limbs appear and reappear through the drawers in stupefying combinations as she smokes a cigarette and drinks a glass of wine, challenging the audience's notions of logic.

In another scene, she walks and spins along a ribbon draped high in the rafters. Yet another act features shadow puppets that become scene partners, dancing and fighting. In one particularly memorable number, Thierrée herself transforms into a puppet, performing inside a tiny toy theater for an audience of actual puppets.

Thierrée, who declines to give her age but is in her 30s according to press reports, seems shy and reserved at first in an interview, but warms as she recalls her life growing up in a family of traveling circus performers, her universe colored by life onstage. Her celebrated grandfather started out as an acrobat in English variety shows, and she says she has always been greatly inspired by him. Moving from city to city with her family for eight- to nine-month stretches, she got home schooled whenever there was a chance.

"I was born on tour," she says laughing. "My mother, she was getting ready to go on stage when her water broke."

One of those early shows made an indelible impression on Gideon Lester, director of the 2008-09 ART season.

"I first saw Aurélia when I was 7 years old. She was 3, I suppose," says Lester. "It was my earliest theatrical memory, and I was completely taken by the theatricality, the whimsical numbers using a lot of illusion and trapeze and magic. I was jealous of her. As a child, I wanted to do that."

Thierrée's parents beguiled audiences with their imagination and comic flair in "Le Cirque Imaginaire," which toured five continents, and went on to develop a second show, "Le Cirque Invisible." Both involved their children and had runs at the ART.

"When you are a child and when you are with your parents, it was normal," Thierrée recalls. "I thought everyone lived that way, performing. We started really young. It was a sense of discipline. And it was really fun and mysterious. And it's still a mystery to me to this day, how we did it."

Thierrée went through a rebellious phase at the age of 14, when she decided that going to an actual school and living in a house was the most adventurous thing she could do, but she soon started missing her vagabond theater life. She started assisting directors, and even as she worked odd jobs in offices and soup kitchens, she was drawn to the stage as a performer.

In 2001, she began a long stint touring with the British cult theatrical band the Tiger Lillies. It was then that she decided to collaborate with her mother, one number at a time. "Aurélia's Oratorio" took a year to develop, but a theme started to emerge.

"At the very beginning she looked at this book of medieval drawings of the world where everything was upside down," Thierrée says. "Like the man was carrying the horse or women were going to war, which at the time was unheard of. She thought they made good visuals."

And how was it to work closely with her mother again?

"It was great," she says, laughing. "Because I know her, it was faster. She'd go directly to what she wanted, and she didn't have to be polite about it."

As for her father, the title of "Aurélia's Oratorio" came from him. "It was the only contribution he made, so we didn't want to upset him," Thierrée says. The show has been running around the world for five years, and she hopes it will last.

"My parents were one of the first years ago to bring circus to a new direction," she says. "Their style is so their own I don't even like to call it cirque. We don't fit in any category, really. It's not a circus, it's not a dance. It's a theatrical experience."

Megan Tench can be reached at mtench@globe.com.

AURÉLIA'S ORATORIO

At: Loeb Drama Center, American Repertory Theatre, tonight through Jan. 3. Tickets: $25-$79. 617-547-8300, www.amrep.org

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