Look up, look way up, and you won't catch sight of the 217th Canadian Flying Squadron.
The pilots are all grounded because they don't have airplanes since they were axed as part of the latest government budget cuts. That doesn't stop the undaunted airmen to keep practising their aerial manoeuvres on the wild green yonder.
That's the setup for Flock of Flyers, one of the most anticipated offerings at the 32nd annual Winnipeg International Children's Festival, which kicks off tonight. For kids, the appeal of the 30-minute show is getting to watch the ridiculous spectacle of a group of helmeted grown-ups dressed all in black running around a field flapping their arms in formation as if they were the earth-bound version of Canada's famed Snowbirds.
Corpus, a Toronto company that specializes in stagework that combines movement with theatrical imagery, has performed Flock of Flyers in 26 countries -- including Turkey, Japan and the west African nation of Benin -- since its debut in 1997.
"I play the drill sergeant and under my command are four pilots," says David Danzon, the show's co-creator and the company's artistic director. "We do an absurd take on military drills. It's a highly physical comedy act.
"People generally laugh. If we don't get laughter, I'm worried."
Flock of Flyers was the first show Corpus created and had its genesis in a clown class Danzon was taking in the early 1990s. For one of his class assignments he donned a flyer's helmet with a red clown nose and pretended to fly around.
A few years later he pulled the idea out of his memory and it bloomed, with the help of dancer/choreographer Sylvie Bouchard, into a group performance that debuted at Dusk Dances, a Toronto dance festival. The humour, not usually present in dance routines, took the audience by surprise.
"We had fun creating our twist on military choreography but keeping the precision intact," says Danzon, during a telephone interview earlier this week from Saskatoon, where Corpus performed at the Saskatchewan Children's Festival. "We do all our drills very seriously. Of course it's very silly. The comedy comes from the seriousness and commitment to executing the drills."
Although it wasn't conceived as a children's show, Flock of Flyers has found a home at children's festivals. The show's effect on young spectators is apparent immediately after its conclusion.
"We see kids flying around the space after we're gone," Danzon says. "They just extend their arms just like we do and go for a ride."
Under all that Monty Python Flying Circus-influenced whimsy is a serious message that is aimed at the parents in the audience.
"For me, the message is really about the effect of blind obedience," says Danzon. "Be careful who your rulers are. Don't obey without thinking."
As the grumpy drill sergeant, Danzon is the villain, a stickler for ensuring his top guns execute their every turn in tight formation. During the performance he plucks someone, a volunteer or not, from the audience to join his faux flyers.
One of Danzon's past aces was Ray Hogg, Rainbow Stage's artistic director. He earned oodles of frequent-flyer points after participating in two Canadian tours and two international tours. Hogg not only took part, he taught and re-mounted Flock of Flyers for Corpus.
Hogg says the homework assignment for new cast members was to watch the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, in which a group of raw recruits is trained to be U.S. marines.
"It's about uber-committing to a scene," says Hogg, who thinks he could today re-join the cast and perform the show. "The piece doesn't work if you don't have that full commitment like if you were doing Full Metal Jacket. For the pilots, it's dead serious, they are getting ready for whatever war is coming."
Flock of Flyers will be performed in the festival's Venue D: Thursday, at 10:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. & 3:30 p.m.
For more information about Kidsfest, go to www.kidsfest.ca or call 1-800-526-1515.