A fortnight ago I took a break from the Irish classics to immerse myself in something rather different: contemporary circus, as one of 10 writers on a critical residency at the Montréal Complètement Cirque festival. This two-week-long festival, now in its fifth year, has helped cement Montréal’s reputation as the most vibrant place in the Western world today for the circus arts. This year the festival presented 13 indoor shows (indoor includes tents!), one free large-scale outdoor show, an “off” program of talks and activities, a parade, and professional development activities including our residency, which was run by En Piste, Canada’s national circus arts network.
This residency is modeled on a European programme called Unpack the Arts: the goal is to educate and excite cultural journalists about the burgeoning world of contemporary circus. Given that many mainstream media outlets in Europe and North America are reducing their arts coverage these days, it seems unlikely that dedicated circus criticism jobs will be created anytime soon. The practical response by Unpack the Arts and En Piste is to help critics from other arts disciplines better understand circus, so that we can write about it in an informed way and perhaps advocate for more circus programming and coverage in our home environments. I have been involved in studying and writing about contemporary circus since 2007, largely though the Montréal Working Group on Circus Research, but my ability to see circus shows is limited because very little of the exciting circus work from Québec tours to Ontario or the rest of North America. Thus the opportunity to see six shows in four days along with all the other goodies the residency offered was extremely welcome. Some of my colleagues wrote reviews of individual shows for various online and print publications; and all of us are writing long-form pieces about the festival to be published online by En Piste (mine will be a version of this blog; I’ll post a link to all those essays in due course).
Beyond the knowledge about circus the residency provided, it also offered a great opportunity to think about different ways of approaching the critic’s job. In the traditional model of arts criticism, a review represents a singular, individual point of view; it’s considered suspect if a critic is known to consult with others and take their ideas in board in their assessment. In this residency, we came together as a group to share our thoughts about the shows, and met with artists involved in every production. What I write here is undoubtedly affected by those conversations. So, is what follows enlightened – or contaminated?
That’s a purposely provocative question, and I suspect some would argue that because this is a think piece for my personal blog, I can make my own rules; whereas if I were writing for a mainstream outlet, the expectation would be that I fly solo. While there are practical reasons why writing alone remains the dominant paradigm (hard deadlines being the most obvious one), it is also part of a larger value system based on the notion that the most important creativity and ideas issue from the lone voice of genius (a system that drags a lot of historical, hierarchical, gendered baggage with it). As scholars including Jen Harvie, Alex Mermikides, and Jackie Smart have argued, working collectively has become the dominant mode of theatrical creation in our time; and in the blogosphere, critics too are increasingly working conversationally and collaboratively. I wonder: will the solo critic model continue as long as traditional journalism does, or will it evolve into something else before the last newspaper shuts its doors?
A related, striking thing, which I’ve only really come to appreciate after the fact, is how much the ten of us (eleven, if you count our facilitator, French circus expert Yohann Floch) were on the same page in our assessment of the productions we saw: in no instance was there a strong divide wherein some of us loved a show while others took strongly against it. In particular there seemed to be agreement about which productions seemed complete, and which others seemed not fully cooked. This is particularly interesting because nearly all of the group (as was, of course, the point of the whole enterprise) are not circus experts, and part of what we were there to consider were the differences between the aesthetics and dramaturgy of circus and of other performing arts forms. And yet we came to considerable agreement about what the shows were attempting to do and how well they did it. There were gaps, of course: the several circus aficionados among us had a keener eye and more points of comparison about questions of prowess, risk, and innovation, and having their expertise among us was extremely helpful. But the hybrid and interdisciplinary nature of contemporary circus, which draws on traditions and vocabularies of theatre, performance art, dance, live music, and cabaret, allows points of access for those with competencies in those fields, and all of us chipping in with our different insights and ways into the shows allowed for a rich accumulation of information.
“Enough meta-critical throat-clearing!”, I hear you cry. Right then, the shows.
The outstanding piece of work we saw at the festival – and one of the best productions I’ve seen in a long time – was Acrobates by the French company le Monfort. This 75-minute long show has been touring for a year and a half in Europe; this was its North American premiere. Yohann insisted we go into the productions without having done research about them, and discovering the complex backstory and content of this production while watching it had a profound impact on me and my colleagues. So much so that if you have any notion of seeing Acrobates (and I really, really advise you to try to) I would advise skipping this section and picking up four paragraphs down.
To try to sum it up: Acrobates is a beautiful, philosophical, life-affirming production about a devastating accident, an untimely death, a circus show that never happened, and a documentary that was almost never made. It is a collaboration between director Stéphane Ricordel, acrobats Mathias Pilet and Alexandre Fournier, and filmmaker Olivier Meyrou; and works with the uncanny on-screen presence of Fabrice Champion, a close friend and former colleague of Ricordel from the legendary trapeze company Les Arts Sauts. The show starts with a montage of film clips in which Champion, who was paralyzed from the chest down in 2004 in a fall during a Les Arts Sauts performance, is creating a circus show with the able-bodied Pilet and Fournier. In this, already, Acrobates stakes out daring territory: circus is all about managed risk, and the question of what happens if something goes wrong is a considerable taboo. These film clips are part of Meyrou’s documentary about Pilet, Fournier, and Champion’s show, and more broadly about the conundrum that is a disabled circus performer.
About 20 minutes into Acrobates, spectators’ expectations are confounded by the revelation that Champion died in 2011. Acrobates is the four surviving men’s response to this devastating turn of events; it is not, however, a sentimental tribute. Rather, as Ricordel told us after the show, for him Acrobates is “about friendship.” He and his collaborators turned to creativity – to the art form they shared with Champion and still share together – in response to loss. The live, embodied portion of the show kicks in with Pilet and Fournier working in very dim light on a sharply raked platform, running, tumbling, cartwheeling and handspringing, not really interacting with each other. The platform is purposely pitched at a high angle, making these stunts nearly impossible to accomplish: the evident struggle is part of the aesthetic and meaning-making. At one point one of the acrobats throws himself into a passage of choreography with particular intensity as we hear a voice-over from Champion about all the things his injury meant he could no longer do: walk, run, climb, do acrobatics, have an orgasm. We hear him say over and over “J’en peux plus” – I can’t take it anymore – becoming increasingly intense and despairing. The phrase takes on a broader meaning: it becomes about the struggles with grief of the friends left behind; and, for me, it evoked in a very visceral way the extreme frustration of trying to accomplish or get beyond something, and just not being able to. By this point the show had me by the throat.
A centre panel of the raked platform is then lowered and the two performers work in the rectangular frame it creates, as well as on top of the slope; the lights come up slightly and it becomes easier to see them. Finally, in full light at the front of the stage, the pair execute a wonderfully choreographed series of hand-to-hand and floor acrobatic moves, which they repeat in different variations, becoming more fluid and more in synch with each other each time. The cumulative effect of watching the two men working together, holding each other up, and trusting each other was incredibly moving. This show is demanding for the acrobats to perform, and it’s not easy to watch either. But the crafted-ness of it, the precision, and the increasingly layered signification reward engagement. Small details matter, like the gesture of Pilet pulling down Fournier’s slightly hiked-up t-shirt before undertaking a sequence. When one of my fellow critics asked Ricordet about this, all of us nodded – we’d all clocked this touching little gesture of care. And it turns out it wasn’t random: Ricordet used to pull down Champion’s t-shirt after his accident, because his friend could no longer feel if his clothes were askew, and then Champion started to do it back to him in a sort of nagging, joking vengeance. And so Ricordet put it in the show as a knowing reference, which took on broader meanings – it reminds us of the offhand ways we interact with, care for, and annoy our friends, of the lateral ways we show our love.
I would never have guessed that this beautiful final section with its detailed, layered evocation of trust, love, and creativity is where Acrobates would end up, given how it began. And (as a final kicker) the themes of art and friendship intertwined even further when Ricordet tells us what he feels this show has meant for Pilet and Fournier: “When you get out of circus school you are not an artist. You are a circus technician, maybe. To be an artist is to give and to get. These two guys were not artists when we started. These two guys became artists on stage.”
The two biggest-news Québec premieres in the Festival were 7 Doigts de la Main’s Intersection and Cirque Alfonse’s Barbu: Foire Electro-Trad. Both are impressive shows, the work of well-regarded, successful companies pushing themselves into new areas of form and content. In both we saw innovative circus acts and high-end production values. It was also my feeling, shared by most of my colleagues, that both shows are not yet fully realized; I hope they continue to mature and tighten up as the companies perform them. In the case of Intersection, it’s particularly difficult to assess its level of completion because one of its performers, Danica Gagnon-Plamondon, was injured the night before the opening, leading to some very last-minute work by directors Gipsy Snider and Samuel Tétreault and the seven remaining performers in reworking the piece around Gagnon-Plamondon’s absence.
Intersection was performed in le Tohu, the wonderful circus venue in the north Montréal circus neighbourhood where the National Circus School and Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters are also located. The show introduces us to eight (or, as we saw it, seven) individuals whose life paths cross in the course of the production. This theme is evoked by Cédric Lord’s striking set design – two runways forming an X in the centre of the in-the-round performance space. The performers devised their characters; all are twenty-somethings on personal journeys of self-exploration: an unlucky-in-love American bartender, an aspiring Québécoise weather girl, a South American making a new life in Canada. Romantic longing and the search for love are overriding themes. We find out the characters’ backstories via video clips, with performers speaking in their native language (French, English, Chinese, and Spanish). This combination of theatre and physical theatre practices with circus – performers enacting characters and expressing emotional/ psychological states through circus acts; the use of spoken text – are signature aspects of 7 Doigts’ practice.
For me, the most effective communication of performers’ inner lives was in a Chinese pole duet by William Underwood and Héloïse Bourgeois, which expresses (as I read it) their attempts to develop trust within an erotically charged relationship. The production’s coup de théâtre comes with the arrival of a beat-up BMW onstage: the performers do acrobatic moves on, around, and even through it, parkour-style. This thrillingly evokes urban life as full of excitement, risk, and the unanticipated. Other memorable circus skills demonstrations, whose larger relevance to the theme and storylines are not yet fully clear to me, include a pairs diabolo act by Song Enmeng and Pan Shengnan; and Sabrina Aganier’s aerial hoop number.
The performance is preceded by a 20-minute long promenade section, in which audience members are encouraged to explore environments at the end of the runways: a dressing room, an attic, a café, and a kitchen. While these installations are brilliantly realized, their relationship to the rest of the show is unclear. This prologue section also features snippets of action in which performers interact with audience members: I found myself a bystander to a bunch of youths banging on pots and pans, and was then encouraged by one of them to hold his skillet so he didn’t get busted by the cops. This seeming reference to the Montréal student uprisings of 2012 and its famous casseroles protests was, disappointingly, not followed up on in the rest of the show.
We found out in discussion with Snider and Tétreault that they took inspiration for this production’s theme and formal structure from movies such as Babel, Crash, and Amores Perros, in which seemingly unrelated lives end up intertwined (a format that film theorist David Bordwell calls the network narrative). It is not yet clear to me what the Intersection company is trying to communicate through this criss-crossing motif. That human lives are increasingly interconnected in our globalized era is a commonplace. Are they trying to question our responsibilities to the many strangers whose paths we cross on a daily basis; and if so, what do they feel such responsibilities might be? Are they implying that contingent events and seeming coincidences in fact have deeper meanings, and if so, are they invoking fate, spirituality, or something else? The creation period for this show was rather short – 25 days – and I expect that more time spent working on character and relationship might allow for the themes and representations to grow richer, and the meaning behind the connections theme to become more resonant.
I also was struck by the conservatism of Intersection‘s representation of gender and sexuality: every relationship depicted was heterosexual, and overall, stereotypes of strong, tortured man and vulnerable, (in some cases literally!) flighty woman were reinforced. When I offered this observation to a circus expert friend after the show, he said, for him, that the history of freak shows inevitably haunts any circus performance, so that circus bodies are always-already queer and circus shows always-already alternative. I accept this as his point of view, but it made me realise that, unlike him, I don’t associate 7 Doigts’ work with a subversive, queer politics of difference. In both their shows I’ve seen, attractive, fashionably dressed, and dauntingly toned young people performed amazing, cutting-edge circus skills while communicating feelings and thoughts clearly intended for the audiences to relate to. The freakish body was nowhere present in these experiences, for me. I wonder: is the increasingly popularity of circus necessarily or inevitably going to mean a mainstreaming (a straightening out, perhaps) of its representational politics?
Barbu: Foire Electro-Trad is Cirque Alfonse’s third show and finds them both building on and busting loose from the attention-grabbing image they cultivated in the first two. The men of Alfonse sport thick beards, wear lumberjack shirts, and in past shows have performed circus acts using objects found in the wilderness: they juggle axes and do a Russian bars act on actual lumber. The core of Alfonse is an extended family from the Québec town of Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez, a number of whom attended the National Circus School in Montréal and have experience with major circus companies.
It was clear in talking to founding member Antoine Carabinier Lépine that the family, community-based nature of the company is extremely important to them. They make the shows in a converted barn on the Carabinier family property; Antoine’s mother does the bookkeeping; and his father, who is in his 60s and not a trained performer, appeared the show that made the company famous, Timber!, doing comedic bits and circus stunts. Not to paint Alfonse like total country bumpkins: part of their success, in my view, stems from the overlap of the hipster and lumberjack aesthetics, and Timber! (which I saw a couple of years ago) had something of a deadpan, ironic feel, as if they were both celebrating their culture and letting us know they didn’t take it too seriously.
In contrast to the family-friendly Timber!, Barbu is an adults-only experience: it’s an attempt to combine the format and bawdiness of German-style cabaret with circus acts and with Alfonse’s distinctive identity. It was performed in Théâtre Telus, a nightclub and gig venue, with a runway stage jutting out amongst cabaret tables and drinks served before and during the show. There are some impressive circus skills on display in this show; it is at times, particularly in its increasingly bonkers second act, extremely funny; and the live music – a mix, as the title suggests, of traditional Québec music with electronica – is brilliant. Overall, though, I found it hard to understand where the show, directed by Alain Françoeur, was coming from in terms of tone: all the elements did not sit together comfortably.
In the first act, there is an attempt to deliver a real cabaret show, featuring skilled circus acts adapted to fit the low-ceilinged space, including an extended roller skating number and Matias Salmehano’s amazing juggling. The five male performers are in their rural getups and adopt the knowing/deadpan guise familiar from Timber! In the second act, things shift considerably: the men wear only black Speedo-style briefs and do increasingly ridiculous stunts, like juggling ping-pong balls between them using only their mouths. It all turned, somewhat satisfyingly, into a giddy shared joke about the impracticality and pointlessness of everything they were doing (of circus itself?). All of this was somewhat comprimised, however, by the show’s uncertain representation of women. Mostly the two female circus performers serve as secondary figures to male-led circus activity, including one of them being the assistant in the classic put-the-lady-in-the-box-and-shove-blades-through-her magic trick, which ends with the “big reveal” of her intact female body wearing only pasties and briefs.
The first act ends with the two women, wearing sports bras and briefs, doing a floor acrobatics act that turns into mud wrestling when the female percussionist, dressed like a dominatrix, pours glop on them and cracks a whip.
Their manner in this is deadpan, but this communicates something different than the men’s first act hipster-ironic demeanour. The women performed something usually associated with the exploitation of women for men’s erotic pleasure, and there was nothing about them that indicated that they had agency in the display or were enjoying it. Rather, they too seemed exploited. This act would perhaps work better if it came later in the show and were played for humour – if the women acknowledged the challenge and silliness of trying to do balancing stunts and tricky holds while covered in mud. I was also not sure what Alfonse were getting at by the repeated gesture in the second act of the performers (along with some randomly selected audience members) waving rainbow streamers, rhythmic-gymnastics style. It’s one thing to satirize macho behaviour, which is what I think they’re trying to do in the second half; but more work needs to be done to get the show into a state where such a pro-LGBTQ gesture comes off as more than token.
I’ve gone on so long about these first three shows that I’ll just mention the two other productions I saw as part of the residency, and leave the critique in the able hands of my residency colleagues: the American company Midnight Circus’ charming, somewhat shambolic family tent show Small Tent… Big Shoulders (reviewed in La Presse by Jean Siag)…
and the young French Compagnie Lapsus’ promising Six Pieds sur Terre (reviewed in DFDanse by Marion Gerbier).
I also caught the impressive, 20-minute long free outdoor show Babel Remix.
I hope En Piste, the Canada Council for the Arts, and Montréal Complètement Cirque extend this circus residency programme in future years. There is so much more to say about the burgeoning world of circus arts and more work to do in getting brilliant contemporary circus productions from Québec, Europe and elsewhere circulating around the rest of North America. Getting journalists and bloggers buzzing about it is a great first step.