I am a life-long writer and current performing circus artist from the States. My university education came through Visual Art where I earned my bachelors in painting. Toward the end of that degree, I moved into time-based media and performance/ installation, which I pursued through and beyond my Masters—first working with modern dancers, and then with circus. My physical connection to this work came through 12 years of youth gymnastics, and my last 6 years of piecemeal but committed circus training, mostly in aerial.
I consider myself a practicing artist across a wide variety of media, choosing means for the sake of integrating material and concept. As McLuhan said, the medium is the message—or at least we accept that it forms a part of the language we receive and interpret when analyzing a work of art.
To expose my biases and explain the topic of my piece: I am most interested in contemporary avant-garde approaches. I’m a demanding audience on technical skill—but I value conceptual development even higher, and look for work that speaks beyond spectacular values (though in appropriate context, I support that it is rightly chosen and valuable). Sometimes I play devil’s advocate, and I’m often more critical of shows and companies that have the highest potential, because I want circus so badly to be presented in it’s truest and highest state—which is a constant state of emerging.
I deeply respect the community that has dedicated itself to creation in this field, and this festival in particular. With all that said, please take this account into context with your own first-hand opinion and experience, as well as any other feedback you may hear.
Intersection by Les 7 Doigts de la Main. This was the first show of the festival that I had the honor to see—on its premier night, and knowing full well the company’s incredible work and reputation, as well as their status as home-town heroes. I’d seen Traces and Sequence 8, both technically immaculate and tight in concept according to their artistic goals. The standard was high, and walking into TOHU, the bar was lifted higher yet, as they presented an ambitious set-installation that brought audience members into a scaled-up, interactive domestic space crossed with a set of “roads”, i.e. our point of “Intersection”.
I appreciate the details—from small photographs and tchotchkes, to floating doorways and makeshift rooms, down to the voyeuristic phone recording that exposed a breakup in-progress. You may have missed that last bit if you didn’t pick up the ringing phone—but these sorts of plotted out, unique encounters helped heighten the “specialness” of individual experience, and formed a two-way creative intimacy between audiences and the work, as well as with each other.
Sporadic performance during that ambulatory half-hour seemed to allude to future happenings. The air was fun and exciting, and once the audience was called to be seated, performers broke into a pots-and-pans rebellion — which I must admit as a non-French speaker, had to be translated to me and explained for its historicity. With that knowledge given, I was surprised and pleased to see such a specific political event being pulled on stage, even if I were somewhat confused about its link to the rest of the piece.
**DISCLAIMER** On the night of the premier, post-show, it was revealed that a main performer was injured/ absent that night, and that “Intersection” was therefore re-configured to temporarily remove her—a lot of work, executed on an incredibly short time-frame. I’m sure this task was immensely difficult, and I admire and respect 7 Doigts commitment and ability to do so, while still executing a high-level show. I have found it difficult to accurately critique an incomplete viewing, and have done my best in the following text to give credit according to what I saw and imagine the piece to be in its entirety.
Next comes the major transition of the work—audience turned back into seated spectator, and the intricate set was largely left behind for the “cross-roads” where the rest of the performance took place. The concept of Intersection was clear and simple, yet poised for complexity—fitting the nature of human experience, fleeting interaction and relationship. Mock video interviews with the cast were given throughout, but proved for me less powerful messages—less authentic than the real-life objects we’d literally had our hands on moments earlier.
Such is often the problem with video—it exists at a remove, the screen too familiar, too mediated. When playing with such a variety of elements, it is challenging to weigh and integrate complex pieces fluidly, and for me this video fell short of what it could have provided. From my perspective, this was for lack of depth, not formal reasons, as those felt suited to the assemblage style aesthetic.
In moving forward, there were stunning highlights of technical prowess as is always the case with 7 Doigts. There were some bits that lead me along a narrative path I liked, but in certain cases I questioned the choice of apparatus and its relationship to the content and character of the scene. Perhaps the most exciting and directly referential apparatus chosen was the group-acro + Chinese pole act created around a real car that was pushed onto the crafted street. A spontaneous high-energy piece, this came close to the end, and transitioned to a more delicate antipodism act. While beautiful in parts, and while I intellectually understood its completion of a circular narrative linked with the character’s intro and abstractly echoed in the form of the umbrella—overall I felt it confused the energy and left me looking for an absent punctuation mark at the end of the show.
As an overall impression, due I’m sure in some part to the necessary re-workings, much of the character development felt a bit “fresh”, and I believe this piece will take some time to pass from impressive technical craftwork into the more human-feeling story that I believe each act proposes to invest in. I have yet to see, in that case, whether the ambitious setup further enhances or problematizes that desire for integration—between spectator and performer, audience and environment, acrobatic form and human story. I would here like to emphasize that for 7 Doigts in particular, my demands are high because the company is stunning and capable, and because they are playing with so many interesting elements, I simply want to see them as effective as possible.
In complement and contrast, although it was not shown during the specified residency period, I want to briefly discuss Krin Haglund’s solo show “The Rendez-Vous”, which was also on stage at the festival. Here we have another domestic setting, but this solo show takes up minimal set and props with high usage, clearly accepting and playing off the traditional stage for what it is. Character and audience interact masterfully—in fact I would argue this active presence far outweighs any other element, although there was plenty of real circus skill involved. A much different show of course—Krin is a comedienne extraordinaire, and the piece has entirely different goals and a supportive local audience. I believe her humor and presence is widely supported, by the audience I was part of, and her “accomplices”, i.e. those lucky folks selected for inclusion in bits on stage.
Waiting for a date that never shows, Krin cleverly knits together a bizarre, perhaps surreal, juxtaposition of images and acts, and ordinary yet transformed objects—rendering a character portrait that embodies the frenzy, hope, and disappointment in awaiting a suitor. We are presented with such a creative heroine that one is left to wonder whether she needs a suitor at all. Clearly as a performer she can stand-alone. I admire her mastery over so many skills, the responsiveness she has to her audience, and the vulnerability she takes on in creating such an interactive plot. This kind of on-the-fly humor is obviously a timely and well-crafted skill that requires instantaneous connection and trust with strangers, hard to accomplish on stage or in life. Quite often, one needs only a single look from Haglund to get the point, which is usually accompanied by a good belly laugh.
Toward a much more serious plot, the duo piece Acrobates by le Montfort was—by my assessment and seemingly agreed upon by the whole of those I’ve spoken with—immaculate, cinematic, moving, highly skillful, yet economical in its artistic decisions—its use of film and light, movement, and the architecture of the stage. True, I’m usually a fan for a clean, minimalist aesthetic and existential plotline… but while a large part of circus’s success in communication comes through its affective visceral response—this was true to a much higher degree for me here. I held it in my chest for days, and in fact still carry it with me.
Turning back to the topic of authenticity, it was both felt and later revealed how integrated the film aspects were in this true-life story, this beautiful and tragic set of moments surrounding identity, gain and loss of “ability”, human relationship and support, love and bereavement. At this point I fail to locate an accurate term to classify the piece, or to call it just a “show” since it is clearly part of a continuum that both precedes and extends past the short time that we spent with the performers on stage. This powerful emotional connection is what transmits a real feeling of redemption—certainly for us as viewers, and I imagine for the artists as well.
The sense of story, while moving in itself, goes beyond its specific circumstance and characters into the universalizing aspects of death, enhanced by a strong and clean aesthetic. To begin with, the show is built around a sloping stage, which mirrors challenges in partnership and trust, as well as the Sisyphean struggle of Fabrice in recovering spirit and identity as, or as not, an acrobat—a simple human. Choice use of projection turns the slope into a textured nature scene, playful for its use of scale, another point of “lightness” in this weighty piece. Another thoughtful image is seen in the floating and fragmented screens, which drop down to break up film of the injured acrobat’s conspicuously absent, disunited body.
Somewhere mid-way through the journey, a void forms in the middle of the slope, accompanied by a low-lit, physically stripped and writhing dance-like descent into the low points of coping with trauma. Interestingly this struggle is being communicated through the body of the uninjured, presumably as a mirror response to his friend’s pain, and just prior to the revelation of his death. A sense of foreshadowing is apparent.
I notice I have difficulty pinning down specific acts. The fluidity between media, movement, and narrative are a mark of the show’s success, creating a series of waves on which I rise and fall continuously. Within that expanse, I suppose two sections stand out—firstly an acrobatic solo by Matias Pilet in which he masterfully and repeatedly executes difficult “tricks” with a loose body. Tension arises between form and non-form—embodying the will, drive, and force to execute or hold together, paired with the weakness, affect, and unavoidable human response that disrupt that will. It feels incredibly effective and extremely conflicted, and somehow the full weight of the show seemed to be carried within a single trick of this sequence.
Then there is the final scene—a more straight forward duo-acro piece, which provides our release and redemption, both in recognizing the specific goals of the “act”, and in showing the power and tenderness of partnership that lasts, and in fact builds, through and beyond such a series of difficult times. Past the satisfying tricks (*notably quite a physical challenge designed for the end of a show), we see small gestures, the fixing of a shirt for example, which ground back to common experience. Yet again, the work transcends its specific story, so clearly about acrobats, and so clearly not.
It is hard to move from a conversation about Acrobates to really anything else—but for that reason I’ll present a short assessment of Cirque Alfonse “Barbu Foire Electro Trad” because there is no direct correlation I can draw, aside from the use of filmic landscape applied toward extremely different ends. The show may have its controversial elements (read: not everybody appreciates female mud wrestling in a circus show) but all in all I felt it was a high-energy, bizarre and effective mash-up of tradition and well… anything but. It helps that I like electronic music, and beautiful nature shots which rhythmically dictate my response fairly equally when weighed with the show’s circus content. Those circus bits had their ups and downs, but as a whole it seemed there was genuine ingenuity on stage, plenty of bizarre surprises, and for every bit that didn’t “work” or that I felt wasn’t “for me” (as in my taste)—these pieces had their audience, the energy kept on, the atmosphere encouraged a drink or two, and where I wasn’t enamored with the stage happenings, I had music and video to catch my focus and keep me entertained. A good time was had by all. Or at least most.
I hear the arguments against the mud act—but at the same time make the assumption that the show was fun to be part of, and as a group creation, I also apply some liberty in thinking the women involved would not have done the act if they felt it was personally transgressive. To me, it didn’t seem overly sexualized. That said, the act didn’t appear extremely well-invested in its sense of movement, so perhaps that is a result of some mixed feelings, or perhaps not—but either way, I accepted that the act wasn’t targeting me as an audience member, and in the context of that room, I didn’t think much about it past that.
The show carried on in surprising ways, and on the plus side of the spectrum… Who doesn’t like a disco-ball Cyr act? Barbu had the kind of balance between logic and absurdity that seemed appropriate to its venue and intentions—this show was a rock ‘n roll good time. Different than many of the shows I mentioned earlier, I did not seek a continuous plotline, nor did I need one—gags and imagery gave me threads to follow. Even if they drove off in random directions, these ideas as well as the circus choices showed real inventiveness and I found it refreshing.
On to a show that I mostly didn’t like, and I am sad to say this because I wanted to like it. I thought that Lapsus “Six Pieds sur Terre” was underdeveloped. Dropping bombs like war and emptiness, construction/ de-construction—these are dense topics I will philosophize on for eternity, and I felt they were dropped on stage and never carried forward. I think this happens often in post-modern creation—there is this idea that the viewer is an active contributor to the work, and one wants to leave the concepts “open” so that viewers assign their own narrative meaning. The problem is—if one is not given enough art or concept to push against, then nothing happens. I felt this as a general impression of the show. If we are going to co-create meaning, I need your side of it.
There were certainly glimmers here and there that made me think it was coming. The Rube Goldberg device and the tall tower-fall showed potential towards the beginning. The male acrobat/ flyer in the jumpsuit had a charming presence and some real skill in movement, and he certainly sold me on a few things. Aside from that, I felt there was hardly relationship between acrobatic skill displays and their use in plot or concept. The eggshells lost their sense of fragility at a point, and weren’t terribly visually impactful for me, nor were the blocks, though they ranked significantly higher. I discussed with a few others how we felt the show could’ve benefitted from being housed in a smaller theater, and I think that would have made a difference in my sense of the objects’ impact. All-in-all, I don’t doubt this group will carry on to make more developed work, there is certainly something there—but for this show, I was searching for more commitment to their own ideas.
Coming from the States, and with knowledge of the Chicago area and its likely audience, this piece felt like a perfect family-style show that echoes back to it’s Ringling predecessors and serves well it’s community. “Perfect” in this case doesn’t need to refer to what some might lust after for high-level technical skill—though they certainly provided a number of quality acts, silks in particular standing out above the rest. In this case I am looking for a match in enthusiasm and energy, choice of music (I appreciated the DJ, as well as the live songs), skill in performance (not just technical, but in delivery of character), and audience response—which was loud and spirited.
As an aside, I have a real appreciation for this company’s acceptance at the festival, which validates in some way that the US is stepping up. While this may not seem such a big deal to many here in Montreal, we in the States have a particularly challenging landscape for circus creation, and this is a mile-marker on our mountain climb. Individuals have made it happen, but group work is next to impossible for lack of resources, scattered and costly training, and a cultural void when it comes to valuing live theater. Despite these circumstances, Midnight Circus pulled it off, and did so while generously giving back to their local community, and I applaud them for it.
With all these thoughts, I leave it to you to consider the value of each of these shows, and ask what it is that is worthwhile in circus. I think there are many different ideas of worth, style, and form, and in the end I am just glad its all happening. For every critical comment, there is an overwhelming wealth of masterful techniques, intriguing concepts, and world-saving potential. Circus can save us all, if we let it.
Performance Artist & Writer